Beyond Photography: Bill Bruford, Meet Sebastião Salgado

If you’ve never heard of Bill Bruford — who, at one time or another, drummed for Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Gong, UK, David Torn, and Kazumi Watanabe, not to mention his own projects with Bruford, Earthworks, Patrick Moraz, and Michael Borstlap* — you’re missing out on quite a bit. As if it weren’t enough that Bruford’s tastefully polyrhythmic, delightfully off-kilter drumming practically defined Progressive Rock, the drummer went back to his jazz roots in 1987, and proceeded to expand the boundaries of what was possible behind the kit there as well.

I followed Bruford’s career through myriad twists and turns from my teenage years up to his retirement in 2009. His music was challenging, but always accessible. The man clearly didn’t like to stay in one place for too long. But for as much as I enjoyed the music, one thing he’s said has always stuck with me: “You exist to serve the music. The music does not exist to serve you.” He expanded on this in a recent interview, saying that musicians too often approach music thinking only of what they can take from, rather than contribute to, it… an attitude that’s hardly limited to musicians, unfortunately.

Sebastião Salgado: Fireball, Greater Burhan Oil Field, Kuwait, 1991
Sebastião Salgado: Fireball, Greater Burhan Oil Field, Kuwait, 1991

Listening to that interview, I got to thinking about someone else who successfully reinvented himself and his work, and who’s likewise prospered because he’s consistently as willing to contribute to photography as to take from it. Sebastião Salgado started out as an economist, but by 1973 he would turn his attention to photography.

The nearly four decades since have seen Salgado documenting people on or near the margins of society. Concerned more with what he terms the “archeology” of the changes wrought in the physical and psychological landscape by the forces of modernization, globalization and capitalism than with art, his work has nonetheless earned the label and reputation of serious art. In his books An Uncertain Grace, Workers, Terra, Migrations, Sahel and Africa, Salgado has turned an unflinching but sympathetic eye on humanity in all its forms. His work succeeds precisely because he approaches his subjects on their own terms:  “The picture is not made by the photographer, the picture is more good or less good in function of the relationship that you have with the people you photograph.” One could argue that as a documentary photographer, he could do nothing else; however, a good many current photographers who claim to work in a Street or documentary style don’t take nearly as much care with their subjects as Salgado does.

On one level, Salgado and Bruford probably couldn’t be more different. They’re separated by geography, experience, their respective media, and quite a lot else. On the other hand, I think that if the two were ever to meet face to face, they’d find that they’ve operated, each in his own way, in and from a very similar place. It’s an outlook and approach to craft that relies heavily on a response to what’s going on (whether it’s a copper miner or a Tony Levin bassline), based on an active act of collaboration rather than a strong-willed insistance that there’s only one right approach. As Salgado himself put it, “It’s not the photographer who makes the picture, but the person being photographed.”

As I mentioned earlier this week (Rule 22: The Art is to Conceal the Art), your ego is not your art. I do think that creativity and a healthy dose of ego necessarily go together; none of us who create, who put the love and the sweat equity into perfecting our craft, do it for the sake of being ignored, and on some level I think we do what we do because we feel that it can make a difference, even if only to one other person besides ourselves. However, if we allow our ego to be a motive rather than just another ingredient, and decide that really, what we do or make is there only for the sake of attracting wealth and followers, then we’ve immediately got it ass-backwards.

That ego can manifest itself in any number of ways. If we’re going to continue the musical analogy, let’s imagine for a minute that you belong to a band that relies heavily on improvisation. You’ve got this bass figure that sounds like Jaco channelling Hendrix. Never mind that the rest of the band is playing something that sounds like it came from “Flamenco Sketches,” you’re getting your Jaco on regardless, dammit. Well, guess what? It’s not only musicians who do it. The rest of us have done it, too, from self-proclaimed street photographers** practicing ambush tactics on their subjects, to photographers who have a favorite Photoshop preset that gets used on everything from wedding portraits to landscapes, or portrait photographers who’ll try to whack their square peg subjects into whatever round hole they’ve relied on for years. If you approach your subject — whether it’s a living subject or an inanimate one, the end result’s still much the same — with the assumption that you know what’s best for it, trying to bend it to your will, it doesn’t matter if your subject’s a bird in flight or variations on “Birdland.” You will have stifled any room that your subject had to breathe, and will have closed your work off to what your subject had to say.

Let me repeat: I don’t think that there’s any work that’s totally devoid of self, of ego. But, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in these “pages,” your craft is about engagement. It’s about finding a space in which creator and creation can coexist, communicate, and be present to one another; in essence, our work is about collaboration with and within our medium. That collaboration works best when it’s not about us alone.

*This is just a partial list, mind you; an exhaustive one, with discography, would be one very long document.

**I can name names, but I’d rather not. Not out of any sense of professional decorum, mind you; just that I hate drawing attention to people whose only aim seems to be whoring for attention in the first place.

Bill Bruford:

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Sebastião Salgado

Website: Amazonas Images
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