Theme, Variations, and Sequencing

      As much as photography has influenced me, so too has literature, and music.

     I was introduced to Brahms at the age of 18 during a Music 101 class.  His Variations on a Theme by Haydn took me somewhere I had never gone musically, emotionally, intellectually.  Musical structure appealed to me.  A Theme and Variations is a medium length piece consisting of several sections.  At the beginning, the composer introduces the Theme, what follows are numerous re-iterations of this theme (usually a recognizable melody) in various soundscapes and development.

      A contrast to Theme and Variations might be Maurice Ravel’s Bolero which consists of a theme without development, only a gradual increase in pitch over the work’s average 16 minute running time.

     The nomenclature surrounding these compositions lasting for thirty minutes or more seemed to create a cartography of sound.   Symphonies in particular followed the idea of exposition, development, repetition, cadenza, coda and a myriad of other diminutive structural elements.  I was attracted to the names of these sections, as they clarified the function of the musical elements within the larger work.

     What followed Brahms were revolutions in sound by such composers as Mahler, who shunned the traditional four movement Symphony and added sections as he saw fit.

     Now begs the question, can these structural ideas of music be adapted to photography?

 Over a half century ago Minor White wrote of sequence:

 “With single images I am basically an observer, passive to what is before me, no matter how perceptive or how fast my emotions boil. In putting images together I become active, and the excitement is of another order—synthesis overshadows analysis.”

Minor White

     A sequence of pictures is no more canonized than in Robert Frank’s The American’s.   His street views from across the United States during the 1950s served to be a portrait of the country at its most crucial crossroad since the end of the Civil War.  Frank’s views of vibrant city life and small town America included such subtexts as segregation, politics, and life on the road.  As I said in an earlier post about O. Winston Link, America’s social landscape changed in the 1950s as small towns dwindled and suburbs overshadowed the city center as a hub of activity.

      If we look at the musical terms mentioned previous, such as repetition and recapitulation, we can draw comparisons with work such as Frank’s.  Much like a reoccurring a melody, in The Americans we see certain themes recur often — such as flags, roadways, and signage.  Flags seem most prominent as they often unfold new sections within the book.

     Delving into contrasting art forms and discovering their functions may help us learn to reinforce meaning in our own work.


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