July 12, 2016  •  Leave a Comment


In-a-gadda-da-vida honey doncha know that I love you.
Three hundred sixty five degrees burning down the house.
I am an American aquarium drinker I assassin down the avenue.
Say what?
All three of these hit song lyrics started out as MUMBLE TRACKS (bonus points if you know all three artists).
MUMBLE TRACKS are a musician's way of creating sonic space against an instrumental background for lyrics that haven't been written or finalized yet. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco describes it thus: "One of the primary ways I write lyrics is to sing and record vocal sounds without words, vowel and consonants that sound like language but don’t actually mean anything." [*A link to the full interview - fascinating reading - is posted at the end.] Later, he works those oral shapes to form the final lyrics. If you've listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, you'll hear it immediately and think he's either a mad genius or completely off his nut. Whether you're a Wilco fan or not, it's not hard to appreciate Tweedy's approach to creativity.
Because music and photography share much of the same language, MUMBLE TRACKS have equivalence in photography - the "sketch images" we fire off in pursuit of a theme, series, technique, or idea. We might be working on bettering ourselves at leading lines, for example. We go out with leading lines in mind and start framing them this way and that. After an hour or two, or a week or a year, we're seeing a little more deeply; leading lines show up where we hadn't previously noticed, in the cracks between cracks. Some are bright, others broken, a few inferred but informing the scene as if they were in plain view. They don't really make sense in terms of a finished photograph to hang in a gallery or over the couch in the living room, but each one subconsciously builds on others until bang - there it is - the image we'd been hunting for all along. We can thank our MUMBLE TRACKS for getting us to a lyrical image.
Another way to state this is "do the work"; we say that all the time around here. "Mumble tracks" sounds a little sexier though, so let's roll with it for the next couple weeks.
For some reason, many photographers treat MUMBLE TRACKS as mistakes, images to be deleted because they're not good enough. But not only are they important for development, they are the hidden, rich body that lifts the visible iceberg above the surface. Ask any working professional what his "hit rate" is, and if he's in an honest mood, he'll say the same as a beginner - about 10%, the same as the iceberg tip. It took eons of snow piling into compressed ice, inching down the glacial field over decades, and calving into the sea with a mighty roar. That's a lot of work for one iceberg to endure so that Bob and Molly on their cruise ship can snap a phone photo which they post immediately to Facebook before they head off to the buffet table, drink too much, and stumble off to be sick starboard gunwale.
This assignment is in support of our support images, the mumble tracks, the underwater portion of the iceberg. It's a place to do the work and get credit for that alone, not just the finished print. Art isn't a contest and creativity isn't a gift; it's all work and the work makes us worth something. Sometimes the work can be fun, and MUMBLE TRACKS are a way to make it so. As you collect them, post your progress and describe your changes from first to next. Maybe one will end up a masterpiece, but that's not the point. What matters is to re-translate 'mistakes' into 'my stakes' and to understand the evolution of icebergs.
  • Pick something and shoot it from every angle you can manage (left, right, above, below, in front, behind, inside, outside.
  • Shoot a series using the same subject. Take it with you into different environments.
  • Improve on a design element - leading lines, shapes, balance... pursue until something 'happens.'
  • Take a look at Edward Weston's 'Pepper No. 30." Why do you suppose it was called No. 30? What was he after? Pick up a few peppers from the market and try it yourself.
  • Shoot out of focus on purpose. And again with "wrong" shutter speeds. These tend to create "textures" that carry a mood or feeling. Can they be incorporated into another image?
  • Ignore standard exposure rules. Shoot high or low key - does it alter the mood?
  • Listen to music while shooting (in your home, or on a walk with earbuds). How does it change your perception? Does it focus you or is it distracting? Try a variety of music.
  • Put on some instrumental music (better yet, play it yourself) and make up your own lyrics. Use those words to inspire a photograph.
  • Shoot an action scene in burst mode. Study the differences between frames. Which ones mumble and which one emerges into a lyric?
  • Don't delete "bad" photos. Let them stick around long enough to review them. You took them for a reason which seemed good at the time - what was it?
  • If you're too serious about your work, lighten up once in awhile. Shoot careless and sloppy; allow room for surprise.
  • If you're too careless and sloppy about your work, tighten up. Dig in until you fix what's wrong.
  • Look up some musical terms - how do they apply to photography?
i smashed a camera
i wanna know why
to my eye, deciding
which lies have i been hiding
which echoes belong
-Jeff Tweedy, "Kamera", from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Sidenote: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot almost never saw the light of day. Their studio execs didn't like (or understand) it and asked them to revamp the album. Wilco held to their guns and eventually found support in another label (it took 2 years). The album went on to be their towering success, arguably one of the best albums released in the past 15 years (#1 on my list). It still tears me up every time I hear it. Moral: Duh.
MUMBLE TRACKS will run from July 13 through July 26.  

*Read the full Jeff Tweedy interview here.


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