Covers in music (and photography)

I have often pondered the similarities, differences and connections between music and photography. The former is something I have no talent for, other than the ability to enjoy it. The latter is something that I continually find both challenging and rewarding. I have considered these two media throughout my life, initially, as a toe-tapping teenager and now as a working, creative professional. Some recent reading spurred me to sit down and try to make some sense out of the jumble of ideas that I have about photography and music. Some of what I settled on is more philosophical and some is more practical, resulting in two separate blog entries, of which this is the first.

I recently heard the cover version of the classic Johnny Cash song, Ring Of Fire, performed by a band called Social Distortion. Let me say, normally I hate covers! Partly this is because I am used to how I heard the song the “first time” and like many people, I adapt slowly to change. As a creative professional, I also used to disdain covers because I long assumed the original version was some how more creatively “sacred or authentic” as compared to any subsequent versions.

Social Distortion’s version of Ring Of Fire has a strong punk beat, which works surprisingly well with the lyrics. The newer version made me realize that I have long thought of the “original” version as being a bit slow and lacking energy. This is not something I fully understood in hindsight. But now, hearing what someone else could do with the same material explained why I always found Johnny Cash’s version to be a bit sleepy and slow.

This newest version of the old song prompted me to consider where I would be most likely to succeed (and be happy) in the business of popular music covers. (This presumes I suddenly found the musical talent I have lacked my entire life.) Imagine a spectrum. At one end is doing/reinterpreting an occasional cover of someone else’s work and at the other end is being a tribute band where all you do is to parrot a predecessor’s work. Personally, I would want to be somewhere towards the former and as far away as possible from the latter.

Then, the idea of covers and creative influences got me thinking about photography. (You were waiting for that!) I still have some ambivalence about some covers. Similarly I would never want to be in a tribute band. But, I have to say I admire how music, as a creative pursuit, places a higher and more obvious value on the history of the medium, as compared to photography. Musicians openly highlight their creative influences. Also, an awareness of a musical genre’s roots is a well-understood key to creative success.

In some ways, as a young photographer almost all of what I did before I developed my own style was to make “covers” of existing images. If you think about it that is what we almost all do. We look at other imagery, such as photos, videos, paintings, drawings, movies, etc. Then we use that as a source material for our images. Sometimes we all but “cover” an existing image. Other times we go in the exact opposite direction from an image we have seen. I an all cases we start with the images that we have stored in the mental image database we all have. Whether we access library that consciously or unconsciously hardly matters, but that archive is there, filling up daily with ever growing memories of our latest visual input.

I think photographers, as individuals and as members of a collective creative community should be more cognizant of how we can use, but not abuse, the idea of “covering” the work of other photographers. The idea is not to copy the works of others but to openly appreciate how the work of our predecessors shapes our own work.

I am especially aware of this because I formally studied the history of photography in college. Back then I was openly mimicking (covering) the styles of the various photographers I was learning about. To figure out who I was as a photographer, I needed to first perfect the craft of photography. This is done best by learning from the masters. Then I had to figure out what style of photography was uniquely mine, which I could only do once I understood what others had done before me.

The legendary photographer, Ansel Adams, who was trained as a musician, addressed this music/photography question. He believed that in photography, the negative is the score and the print is the final performance. He regularly reprinted different versions of the same image over the years of his career as the printing papers changed, as his aesthetic changed (and as his eye-sight apparently faded.) He also suggested that others should print from his negatives, in order to see how they might interpret his images. His point was that no one interpretation of any image, even his, could be considered absolutely “right.”

There have been articles recently published about how Adams would have embraced color photography and digital imaging. I suspect he also would have happily acknowledged the role “covering” an image in photography. He would do this I am guessing, by drawing on the practice of music, the creative endeavor that preceded his photography.
One other interesting aspect of the world of musical covers is that in published and broadcast music, performers “covering” existing songs have to pay some type of fees to the author of the music. That person may or may not be the original performer of the work. I am not sure if or how that model might work with photography. But I am sure that such a process would be a visible way to show a healthy respect, particularly financially, for the work of creative professionals. I am very sure Ansel Adams would have liked that! I will explore some thoughts on the differences between the music and photography businesses in my next blog entry.

2 responses to “Covers in music (and photography)”

  1. Hi David,
    Before I discovered photography some five years ago, I worked with music and the music industry for many years. I programmed a rock station, helping new artists get airplay; I’ve managed a band, and also worked with a music channel.

    Working as I did with young audiences and new music, we were always on the lookout for fresh styles and voices. Covers were an easy way to break into the scene, but in my opinion, somehow short-changed the originator of the work. Yet were an artist were to release a cover, I would put it on the air only if the artist added something new to it.

    While I still struggle to find my own voice as a photographer, I try to resist doing outright covers unless I can add something new to it. It has not easy, but covering photographers we admire seems to be a necessary step as we learn the craft and develop our own styles.

    I can’t believe I missed the obvious and very strong connection between music and photography! This was a very enlightening and insightful blog post. I look forward to reading Part 2!

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