Recently, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday with a house full of friends, some of whom came from as far away as Philadelphia and New Jersey to be there. I’ve never really had a birthday party before — at least not that I can remember. My parents threw me parties for my first and second birthdays and my mother loved to tell the story of how, on my second birthday, I did a full face plant into the cake. Sadly, no photos of the event exist.
My wife’s gift to me on this rather auspicious occasion was a turntable and five records — one for each decade of my life. I had no idea what lay inside the intentionally oversized box on the sunroom table. When I saw the treasures inside, I was instantly taken back to my childhood. I remember having a turntable as a boy — it was inside one of those big consoles that also held a television. It may have been passed down to us from my grandparents. Either that, or it was a wedding gift. Regardless, my mother was a huge fan of Motown and more often than not, the house was filled with the music of artists like Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Jackson Five, and of course Miss Diana Ross. I don’t remember records being special then. They certainly weren’t treated with the near reverence that many collectors treat them with today. In the late 60s and early 70s, that was simply how you listened to music if you weren’t listening to the radio. They had value in that they had to be purchased and you physically had to go to the record store to purchase them, but their value was not intrisically different than that of a toaster or a pair of trousers. They were simply a commodity, not a collectible.
One of the things that I’ve rediscovered since getting a turntable is that listening to vinyl is in some ways like shooting film. For one thing, it demands your attention — listening to a record is active rather than passive. While you can fire up Spotify and have days of uninterrupted music, with vinyl you’ve got about twenty-two minutes before you have to make a choice: get up and start it again, get up and flip it over, or get up, put it back in the sleeve, and choose another. There’s also the destructive nature of listening to vinyl. Just as developer eats away at the film emulsion to reveal the photograph, the needle carves away at the grooves to produce the music. Every time you enjoy a record, you kill it just a little. As to the debate of whether or not vinyl sounds better or “warmer” than digital, I’m sure it does under the right circumstances and with the right equipment, but that doesn’t really interest me — it’s like comparing 4×5 film to micro 4/3. One might be subjectively better than the other, but so what? What does interest me is the process around listening and coming up with tasks that work within the time limitations of the medium. I can throw on side one of Transatlanticism or side two of Ascensour Pour L’Echafaud and just read a book or write in my journal for twenty minutes. Or, I can just get lost in the physical nature of the objects themselves: cover art, gatefold sleeves, lyrics, and liner notes — elements that were downsized for CDs and have are all but extinct in the world of downloads and streaming.
As much as I’m enjoying it, my turntable is really just another tool — whether it inspires me to slow down and spend some time just listening to a great piece of music, or as a melodic timer to accomplish a task that would otherwise get lost in the cacophony of emails, code tweaks, photo edits, or random busy work. Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to stream nearly any movie or piece of music to my phone, tablet or computer, but across the board, I am at my most inspired, my most reflective, and hopefully my most creative and insightful in an analog world.
What are some of your favorite tools, creative or otherwise?
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If you’re a fan of typography and sci-fi movies like Blade Runner, Alien, or 2001, block out some time and head over to Typeset in the Future, a fantastic website curated by Dave Addey that is “dedicated to typography and iconography as it appears in sci-fi and fantasy movies and TV shows.” Thanks to Ben McCarthy (who created Obscura, one of my favorite iPhone camera apps) for the link.
William Gibson has been my favorite science fiction author since I first read the opening sentence of Neuromancer during my senior year in high school. His sharp, stream of consciousness style, coupled with a vocabulary that often warrants having a thesaurus close by hits me right where I live. In a recent interview on Vulture, Mr. Gibson talks about “our cultural obsession with dystopias” and how hope is measured one day at a time.
The Makomanai Cemetery just outside of Sapporo, Japan features a 1,500-ton stone statue of Buddha that sits partially buried under a massive field of lavender. Only the head of the statue can be seen from a distance before visitors pass through a 131-ft long approach tunnel. “The journey is a constant reminder of the weather, the breeze and the light, and is works in tandem to heighten anticipation of the statue, which is only visible once you reach the end of the tunnel.”
My new book, Photography by the Letter, is a field guide for photographers and photo enthusiasts that contains more than 170 terms defined and explained with the help of more than 100 original photos, 50 drawings and diagrams, tips, answers to common questions, and exercises to help build a greater understanding of the concepts. Learn more at https://photographybytheletter.com.