Amongst the thousands of photographers on show at Paris Photo recently, there were two very dark highlights: a set of shadowy photogravures by American photographer Roy DeCarava, made in 1991 from mid-20th century negatives; and a new but equally black photobook by young Japanese photographer Daisuke Yokota.
Aside from being dark and monochrome, these two sets of pictures initially seemed to have little in common. The former is classic and figurative, the latter more experimental and abstract. But closer inspection revealed a shared inspiration between these unlike series: music.
Roy DeCarava (1919-2009) is a significant figure in the history of photography, best remembered for the tiny but beautiful 1950s book The Sweet Flypaper of Life. But perhaps his greatest book, which contains these images, was his 2004 volume The Sound I Saw, a love poem to 1950s and '60s Harlem.
There's a lot of photography that screams for your attention (especially from New York—William Klein, Bruce Gilden to name just a few), but it’s the quiet ones you need to watch. DeCarava’s pictures, although ostensibly on the subject of jazz, seem to whisper about the quiet moments in between the noise. Famous musicians almost play second fiddle to ordinary men, women and children. Music and life are so intimately woven together that they become indistinguishable. The photographs convey great feeling and often transcend the lives and the music they depict. These rich photogravures, with their dominant deep blacks, heighten their emotional power.
Daisuke Yokota (b. 1983) has already produced several photobooks. He uses both digital and analogue techniques, including repeated re-imaging, to degrade and distort his photographs. Typically, he creates layers within each individual image, in an attempt to recreate the reverberation, distortion and feedback he hears in music by the likes of Aphex Twin. The free jazz of DeCarava's vision gives way to the ordered chaos of a contemporary techno DJ in Yokota's world.
While DeCarava and Yokota both begin with music as their inspiration, Yokota delves further into the mysteries of his own medium. His latest book, Vertigo, consists of (literally) dirty little pictures: the images themselves seem covered in dust and dirt. Darkroom 'mistakes' become part of the work. Dirty curtains, dirty bodies, dirty things we can’t identify, a dirty landscape (or is it a dirty sea?). A human back, seemingly riddled with some terrible disease; but the disease is on the bed and in the shadows too. It calls to mind all those invisible germs, all that’s wrong with things beneath the surface...but here, they are presented on the surface. Dirt, bacteria, worms—everything is infested, but made visible at the same time.
A photograph normally hides itself behind its subject: in presenting an image of a thing, it usually tricks us into considering that thing and into ignoring the photograph itself. By including the photographic process so obviously in his work, Yokota reminds us that a photograph is a ruse where a whole host of choices and manipulations result in a fabrication. His distorted, feedback-ridden facsimiles of the world remind us that all photographs are distorted facsimiles. In other words, Yokota's obvious layering makes plain photography’s dark secret: although every photograph speaks some kind of truth, it also tells many lies. In making this clear, his photographs are more truthful than most.
That two such different but successful bodies of work can share a common source of inspiration—music—is testament to the imagination of photographers. It reminds us that there are infinite ways in which photography can represent music, life, or anything else we can imagine.
Simon Bowcock writes about photography for various magazines and media in Austria, France, America, the Middle East and the UK (where he lives). His own music photographs have appeared in titles ranging from The Guardian to The British Journal of Photography, and will soon be in Time Out. You can find samples of his various works on his website. He can be found on Twitter as well.