Episode 16

16. What music can teach us about sequencing images

Have you ever considered what makes a particular album great? What can our favorite albums teach us about the art of sequencing images?

Show Notes

Music mentioned in this episode:


Have you ever considered why a particular album, or musical playlist is your favorite? What makes an album great? Today, we talk about the importance of sequencing images, and what our favorite music can teach us about that process.

Hello and welcome to Photo 365. My name is Andrew Haworth.

I hope you don’t mind if I cross artistic disciplines a bit in this episode, but I’d like to briefly mention a few of my favorite music albums as they relate to the art of sequencing images. Alternatively, we could examine scenes from a movie, or take note of sequencing in photo books and so on, but I really feel like records are the ultimate form of sequenced art.

Sequencing images isn’t talked about as much as shooting and editing images, so sometimes we forget the importance of how we present our images to the world. For this, there’s quite a bit we can learn, by studying the ebb and flow of songs on an album.

Take the album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. This has been one of my favorite records for nearly a quarter of a century, and it’s objectively, one of the greatest jazz albums of all time -- possibly one of the greatest albums in the history of recorded music. But why?

Because of its enduring popularity jazz fanatics will likely roll their eyes at a mention of Kind of Blue, but when the album was released in 1959, it was a groundbreaking effort that shaped the future of jazz to come. It’s a popular recommendation for folks who are just starting to learn about jazz music. It’s an easy album to enjoy: The production is clean and modern, tempos stay fairly mid-rangy and the vibe is upbeat. It’s hard not to feel sophisticated while listening to this record.

Conceived by jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, Kind of Blue contains only five tracks. Yet those tracks represent Davis and his musicians at the height of their creative power. Every song is an essential part of the overall story of the album. Each track takes the listener to a unique sonic space, yet the tracks sound cohesive.

Each song can stand alone; but when the album is experienced from beginning to end, the sequence reveals a smoky, abstracted world of late-night ambience. Hypnotic, elegant and cool, it still sounds as modern now as it did in 1959. Not bad for a record that was almost entirely improvised.

If jazz isn’t your thing, think about your favorite albums and consider why you like them. What makes them compelling to listen to, from the first track to the last? Do they tell a story?

When I was an angry, insolent teen-ager, the first album I realized had a narrative arc was The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails. Again, cue the eye rolls, I don’t care; I still love this record, even if I don’t really identify with the album’s protagonist anymore.

Anyway, it made me realize many albums tell a story. Sometimes these are labeled as concept albums. The Downward Spiral certainly was such an album, but I don’t think anyone considers Trent Reznor’s earlier effort, Pretty Hate Machine, a concept album, although it certainly has a unified theme and narrative arc.

Albums like 2112 by Rush,and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, are highly conceptual and narrative. You could also throw in Alice Cooper’s School’s Out, The Red-Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson and, and it would be a crime if I didn’t mention the album *Black Ribbons *by my friend Shooter Jennings. There are many, many more.

How about something more mainstream? Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories takes the listener on a journey that references the history of the earliest electronic music (The song “Giorgio by Moroder” is literally a word-of-mouth account of the origin of the electronically sequenced four-on-the-floor beat) and by the end of the record, the listener is adrift in space, as a sample of astronaut Gene Cernan gravely informs ground control “there’s something out there.”

So what does this have to do with photography? Well, the musical album, like almost all forms of art, depends on arrangement and sequencing. By exploring our favorite albums, we can learn how to edit and present our photography.

Whether you’re making a portfolio website, preparing for an exhibition, making a photo book, or just turning in an assignment for class, there is always room for editing — this isn’t about toning and cropping images — this is editing in the sense of how you determine which photographs to include in a presentation.

Too often we obsess over techniques related to shooting and editing images. The sequence in which we present images is equally important, because this is our opportunity to control the viewpoint, to direct the gaze of those who view our images, and to tell a story.

Sequencing images is often my favorite part of the photographic process. Like an editor cutting a movie, image selection and arranging is the stage when you begin to see the actual fruits of your efforts. This is when the hard work of planning, shooting, development, scanning, and toning finally pays off.

When you begin organizing images for a presentation, go big. Pull all the images you think you might need. The goal here is to collect the raw materials you can build from. If you’re doing a gallery show, you may have a limited amount of space to present your images, so shot selection becomes more critical. If you’re posting your images online, perhaps on your website, you potentially have infinite space to play with.

This doesn’t mean you should grab every image you’ve shot for a particular project. Hopefully you have gone through your image library and isolated your favorites. But don’t be afraid to go back later and look for some deeper cuts. Sometimes you can revisit work weeks, months or even years later and find usable images that you may have overlooked in the first pass.

For instance, on Kind of Blue, the musicians recorded several takes of each song, some very different from what ended up on the album version. But only the very best takes were allowed to end up on the record. The same applies to image-making.

Go through your selections and start cutting. In particular, remove images that look similar or feature the same subject matter. For instance, maybe you photographed a still life scene several different ways. Select one and toss the others. They may all be excellent images, but you don’t need all of them. Only include images that contribute to the narrative effect or thesis of your work.

There aren’t really any hard and fast rules. Some art projects are based on repetitive elements — for example, maybe you photographed that still life the exact same way every day over a period of a year. Perhaps your goal is to show change over time. In this case, repetition plays a role in the art itself. Whatever you do, should be deliberate.

Take your remaining images and organize them to work together: This means you may need to identify narrative threads within the images and determine how images work together in context to one another. Do some images appear too early in the sequence? Too late? Is the transition from one image smooth or jarring as you approach the next?

Try to keep the viewer engaged between images. Again, let’s consider music. Even the most repetitive electronic dance music continuously evolves over the course of several minutes, adding and removing elements after every eight bars or so to keep the listener interested. The song “Strobe” by Deadmau5 is a textbook example of this concept. Over nearly 10 minutes, layers of new sounds are introduced regularly, until a track that began as a simple arpeggio has developed into what some consider the “most epic” track in the Deadmau5 catalogue.

Now that you have your images arranged in a pleasing way, it’s important to know how they will ultimately be displayed. On the web? On a gallery wall, or maybe in a book. Nowadays, assume you will need to present work that looks good on the web, because even if you have a gallery show, you’re going to need an online presence to promote and market your exhibition.

You have other considerations to make for gallery installations, including print size, how the work will be displayed, framing, and even the flow of traffic through a gallery. Hopefully you have some say in how and where your work is hung. A more unpredictable factor is how viewers will interact with your work. Will they stand back and observe from afar, or will they get up and close and personal seeking details?

A professor of mine once described to me a show in which she’d only been allocated a small area in the corner of a gallery. She was forced to print her work at a reduced size, and pack as many images as she could into the area. This meant the work was installed above and below eye level, forcing viewers to kneel down to see some of the work, and get up close and crane their necks to see the upper row of images. While this sounds like a less-than-ideal scenario, it had the advantage of forcing viewers to interact with the images in a deeper way, thus becoming an active participant in the voyeuristic narrative conveyed in the images themselves.

On the other hand, a photo book or website can be really linear, as you have ultimate control of the viewing space.

Another tip is to use work prints. Some people like to have physical prints to hang up, or rearrange to experiment with sequencing. These don’t have to be well-made, nice prints on expensive paper. They are simply to give you a persistent physical representation that can be pinned up or laid out for comparison and consideration.

Personally, I don’t own a printer, but getting prints made online is cheap and fast, and there is certainly value in hanging up prints and passively observing them for a few days to see if they still feel meaningful after many glances.

Here’s an important tip: Start and end with really strong photographs, or “bookends.” The first image your viewer sees should draw them in. Your final image should be a memorable one that will make a lasting impression on them.

Again, think about your favorite musical albums here. The best ones will grab the listener immediately, maybe with something bold, or upbeat. In the case of Kind of Blue, the record begins with the uptempo track “So What” — eventually closing with the minimalist but sultry, “Flamenco Sketches,” which leaves the listener with some ambiguity, and a hint of what’s to come later.

When sequencing images, your goal is to create movement between your bookends, to get from the first image to the end in a logical progression, perhaps with narrative effect or elements within the images that relate.

On Random Access Memories, Daft Punk creates effective bookends sonically, opening with the track “Give Life Back to Music,” which has an attention-grabbing fanfare at the beginning that sets the tone for the rest of the record. The closing song, “Contact,” builds from a slow synthesized motif and gradually increases in intensity, like a ship achieving warp speed. It ends with electrical noises that sound like the Daft Punk robots themselves short-circuiting and powering down, providing resolution and finality.

Once you have your images sequenced, take another pass over them. Sometimes, you may need to “kill your darlings” — or get rid of an image you’re attached to — in the interest of creating a stronger, more cohesive work.

Of course, your images should be properly toned, cropped and edited. Once you make your final selections, be sure these images are as finely tuned as possible, working from the highest possible source files. In other words, don’t grab a downsized jpeg for your final edit, go back to your original RAW files to maintain a lossless workflow. If you need to make further edits in a program like Photoshop, you should export a TIFF file or PSD.

TIFFs are excellent for making fine art prints. If the destination is the web, create high quality full-sized jpegs. Your web site host should be able to dynamically resize your images to account for size differences in screens and browsers.

And keep in mind, when it comes to choosing and sequencing images, there are no rules, just guidelines. A well-written artist statement can often help bring clarity and understanding to your work. Also, it can be very helpful to ask for second opinions from your peers, teachers, and other artists.

So the next time you listen to an album, take note of the opening and closing songs, the “bookends.” Does the journey from beginning to end feel cohesive? Are there standout tracks throughout to keep the journey interesting? Do all the parts contribute to the overall vibe of the album? Are there songs that could have been omitted?

If you have an ear for sequencing music, I suspect you have an eye for sequencing images too.

Folks that’s going to do it for this episode of Photo 365. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a friend. Be sure to check out the show website, photo365podcast.com, from time to time. I post full transcripts of each episode, along with photos or anything else discussed on each episode.

Photo 365 is my hobby, but if you’d like to support the show, consider sliding some virtual coffees my way at buymeacoffee.com/photo365.

Keep looking out for great images, keep shooting, and we’ll see you next time.

Top image: Cuban Guitar Player, Havana, November 2017 (Andrew Haworth)