Last night my wife and I went to see A.J. Croce in concert. A.J. is of course the son of 60’s and 70’s legendary singer-songwriter Jim Croce (Look it up kids). Jim Croce had top 100 hits with songs like Operator, Time in a Bottle, Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, I Got a Name, and I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song. Tragically he died in a plane crash in 1973. A.J. was just 2 years old when his father died.
Far from just riding his famous father’s coat tails, A.J. is a talented musician in his own right. By age 16 he was already performing at nightclubs and by 19 he inked his first record deal. Primarily a piano player, he can play multiple instruments and plays music across a wide range of musical genres – blues, jazz, R&B, folk, pop, you name it he’s probably played it. During his career he’s worked with, sat in with, been produced by, and opened for a who’s who list of musical greats – Leon Russell, Dan Penn, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Allen Toussaint, Gary Mallaber, Colin Linden, Steve Cropper, Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin, Dr. John, James Brown, B.B. King, and Ray Charles. Now 47, his career has actually been longer than his father’s.
I have to admit that I didn’t know any of this going in. I hadn’t heard any of A.J.’s work. I didn’t even know Jim had a son. I thought this concert could be really lame or it could be great. It was great.
I could tell immediately that this guy and the other members of his band know what’s what when it comes to music. They aren’t just mindlessly running through a set list of “greatest hits” and they weren’t glamming it up with a ton of high tech gimmickry or 20 costume changes or using auto-tune. As they say, “It was about the music”.
It was about A.J’s music, about Jim’s music, about Fats Waller’s music, about Ray Charles’ music… It was about a lifetime spent in the industry and how the music influenced his life and how his life influenced the music. It was about how the music was influencing the audience and how the audience reaction influenced the music that Croce played. It was a small venue with a close stage that really put the performers and the audience in contact – it was more a conversation than a spectacle.
So why am I telling you all this on a blog about photography?
Because if you are one of the hordes of faithful readers of my various blogs over the years, you know that I believe strongly that photography is an art form (or at least it should be) and that I’m always frustrated by the fact that so many photographers concentrate only on the technical aspects of the medium.
Yesterday I posted an answer to this question on Quora, How can I learn photography basics so I understand what makes a photo great? There were some good answers posted by other people, but they mostly centered around taking classes or reading books or watching YouTube videos on the techniques of framing and exposure and post processing etc. Here is what I wrote:
The other answers here are all good, but just to add a bit of what helped me to improve my images beyond copying what has gone before.
The basics of framing and exposure etc. are essential but to make more than a good photo, to make a great photo, you need to build on that foundation. Great photography transcends the technical.
The number one thing that helped me move forward in my own work is studying other forms of art.
Go to art museums and study painting and sculpture. Study poetry. Study dance. Study music. Pay attention to any art work that is the best in its class. Read what the masters of those art forms say about their work.
To my mind photography is much too inbred. We mimic the same images over and over because we never look up from our viewfinders and see the world outside.
What makes a poem great – a sense of place, a sense of wonder, imagination, a touch of the heart – are all components of a great photograph as well. Let one inform the other.
Watching Croce and his mates play their music I could see that they knew the technical aspects of their art. They could flat out play, but they went beyond playing the notes and singing the words. They understood the history and tradition of the music. Their lives and experiences resonated in it – resonated with the audience.
The great Japanese photographer, Shomei Tomatsu, said that photography is haiku. A truer word was never said.
I love haiku. It is exactly like photography – it’s so simple that a child can do it and yet it’s so difficult that it takes a lifetime to master. Anyone can put together three lines of words in roughly a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. Only a master can make those few words capture the imagination of the reader and transport them into the scene, to surround them with the place and the experience.
an ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the splash of waterMatsuo Basho 1686
Maybe it’s just me, but that famous haiku is a delight. I know places like this. I know the experience of being a child off from school for the summer sneaking up to the edge of a pond hoping to catch the frogs off guard so I can pounce on them and put them in a jar. Then I hear the sound of the wary little devils leaping off the bank and splashing into the water. All I’m left with are silent rings floating on the water and pairs of eyes bobbing and watching me. I feel the warmth of the sun, I see the waving grasses, I smell the mud, I hear the sound. I wish I was back there.
Anyone can take a photograph. A robot can do it. Only a master can make a photograph that captures the true essence of a scene and with it capture the imagination of the viewer.