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Musings on the Power of Interpretation

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Throughout your measure of time learning photography and shooting, have you ever reached a point of realization that there is hardly a place left on the planet that you can shoot where someone else hasn’t already? Especially the most remarkable places, we find they have been packaged up, guard rails erected, and signs posted that welcome us while at the same time restrain our ability to capture a unique perspective.

I’ve shot at some locations that are truly spectacular for the eye to behold – to my right and left are dozens of people wielding everything from cellphones to professional camera rigs. We’re 30 abreast and 5 deep, all pointing our lenses at the same scene, each of us with the hope of capturing something that we can hang on our walls or post online.

That’s when it hits me the most: What am I doing here with my camera?

Why did I bother to lug this equipment up 4 miles of treacherous trail just so I could shoot something that has been already been shot perhaps a million times or more? What am I truly expecting to achieve from this effort? How does that make you feel with regard to your own uniqueness?

Personally, these thoughts made me feel like selling all of my photography gear and find something else to do with my life. After all, what’s the point of shooting what’s already been shot? Then, one day, it hit me. Music held the answer to my self-destructive pondering!

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I grew up in a household of professional musicians. My dad and mom are jazz musicians and my sister is a classical flute player who later delved into the fun world of celtic music. Naturally, I grew up hearing a lot of different music. From Miles Davis to James Galway, I’ve listened to countless musicians perform their interpretations of well-known music.

Right there! “Interpretations”! Many of the great musicians I appreciate are not playing an original song. Often, they’re playing an old Standard but in their own unique way. Each musician – the artist – has their own signature sound and emphasis that enables them to make a song that may have been performed a million times before sound like something new and deeply personal.

The way they play a particular song is as important as the notes of the song itself.

I’ve had the honor of witnessing musicians play an old standard in a way so personal to them that they can barely finish a note for the welling-up of emotion in their throat. At that moment, a “tired old song” was brought back to life and we, the audience, were blessed by the whole experience. The musician’s years of practice and expenses have paved the road before them so that they may finally deliver to us the beauty of their interpretation.

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We photographers are no different than a musician in this regard; thousands of hours committed to learning our craft, and more money spent than we care to tally so that we may produce images that bear our own interpretation of often well-known “standards”. Like music, there are so many variables that can alter the final presentation.

In photography – subject aside – we have time of day, weather, focal length, physical position, exposure, color, and the darkroom, to name a few. How we choose to harness these things, and in what measure, is how we’re able to make personal – for ourselves and our viewers – what we decide to share. I believe that it can’t be helped to reveal a little bit about our inner-selves when we create something.

Be it a painting, a photograph, or musical performance – the artist is seen in the art. If we allow our awareness of this to grow we might better ourselves, and what we create might benefit someone else, if even just for a moment’s settled pause in an otherwise busy life.


About the author: Tom Leonard is a photographer who travels the world 30 days at a time. He shares photographs from his journeys over on his website Out for 30. This article was also published here.

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