Photo Journal

The audience, Chicago

Improvisation

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In 1705, according to legend, the 20 year-old Johann Sebastian Bach walked 250 miles to the town of Lübeck to hear the famed organist Dieterich Buxtehude. Buxtehude was well known as a composer, but he was a superstar of organ improvisation—the art of just sitting down and coming up with music off the top of your head. Apparently, he was worth walking 250 miles to see. Organ improvisation is still alive and well, but outside of the world of organists, improvisation in mainstream music is confined mostly to jazz and is generally ignored in the classical curriculum of conservatories and music schools today. This is a shame because improvisation is an excellent pedagogical tool, it tests how internalized and complete one's technique is, and it opens up an artist's sensibilities in unexpected directions. It's great for getting out of a rut. Above all, it teaches artists to interact intensely with the moment. Along with music, many other art forms, especially drama and dance, have long histories of using improvisation to great creative ends. These genres have a special relationship with time as the work unfolds over time in the way a painting, sculpture, or photograph do not. Mastering this relationship with time is a fundamental skill for performing artists made easier by practicing improvisation.

Photography has a connection with time that in some ways is the opposite of a performer. Although photographers rarely speak of improvisation, street photography and photojournalism are essentially improvisational. Rather than improvising as a performer, the photojournalist is an improvisational audience. Rather than creating a work over time, they develop the art of seeing and capturing the moment as it happens. The skills required to do this well are similar to those of the performing improviser. The photographer needs to have enough mastery of technique that it is automatic and below the level of consciousness and, just as improvisation can help performers make creative connections in non-improvisational situations, cultivating the skills generally relegated to street photography will help even the most contemplative of photographic specialties like landscape or still-life photography.

The above image is from an improvisational practice session walking around the city of Chicago. The photographer in the image spent a lot of effort trying to manage the crowd forming around his bikini-clad model, while I was fortunate enough to see a different perspective and use the unruly beach environment to the photograph's advantage. I doubt anyone would walk 250 miles to see it, but I was happy with the results, and I'm convinced this sort of practice helps even with the the most stationary, unchanging subjects.

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