Sunday, June 17, 2012

Ubiquity and Vocabulary

In an essay by Glenn Gould (who was a wildly opinionated musician) I ran across a statement of support for muzak. Gould approved of ubiquitous cheesy music, this despite the fact that (to take one example) he pretty much disapproved of Mozart and Beethoven wholesale.

Why this strange dichotomy? Gould makes the point that ubiquitous cheesy versions of classical music gives everyone, or most people at any rate, an instinctive grasp of the vocabulary of music. He's right. These days, most people have a sense of where the harmony ought to go next, at any given moment in a piece of music, whether they know it or not. Even a musically ignorant rube will generally find standard harmonies pleasing, and will take notice when things diverge from the standard.

Does the ubiquity of photography in our lives do something similar? I think it may. Certainly we are steeped in photographic images every moment, on the internet, on billboards, in advertisements on the bus and in magazines. Generally these photographs are cheesy. High quality, produced by seriously skilled workers, but cheesy. We all have a good working understanding of the vocabulary of photography as it exists now. Most people will probably find an image of a model strange if the lighting doesn't check all the catch-light, hair-light, this-light, that-light boxes.

Is this good? I think so. At least within certain limited areas of photography, the photographer can communicate better both by obeying the tropes we see in advertising, and by carefully disobeying them.

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