Ambient Photography

An old post from an old blog, 2014

Ambient music has had a resurgence of late. In many ways, it’s never really gone away. 

The history of ambient music is fascinating and complex. Explorations of it — from Brian Eno’s discography and David Toop’s Ocean of Sound — often avoid making points about style and form, instead discussing philosophies towards sound and ways of listening.

With this resurgence in my mind, I came across two essays on photography that used Muzak — the very music that catalysed Brian Eno’s own ambient music — to negatively describe a certain kind of photography.

The first was a blogpost by Colin Pantall in which he railed against the majority of photography that we see all around us — “visual Musak, that inadvertently lulls us into a state of thoughtless consumption”. For Pantall, the pervasiveness of a photography so bland must surely be (negatively) affecting how we visually experience our society.

The second was a description of a similar phenomenon by David Campany in his take on the increasingly obligatory State of the Union address written to accompany the 2014 Deutsche Bank exhibition, Time Present:

The further photography moves from known objects, the less reliable its description of the world. If, as we are often told, the photograph is a universal form of communication, it is only at the level of the obvious and the already understood. It is clichés and only clichés that bind us in this increasingly fragmentary world, argued Gilles Deleuze. Indeed, what there is of a “global language of photography” is made up of images of commodities, celebrities, sunsets, and other clichés of locality. “Viewzak.”

Both use ‘Muzak’ in a context fitting with our cultural lexicon and they are certainly not the first to make such a comparison. The word ‘Muzak’ lives on (albeit only just) as a synonym for the worst examples of derivative and reductive corporate cultures that dilute the truly artful.

In its first iteration, ‘Muzak’ is a genericised trademark, which, as it happens, took inspiration for its name from the pioneering photographic company Kodak.

The company Muzak Inc., and their most famous musical output, eventually found itself at the heart of a moral panic, facing a backlash and accusations of brainwashing when it was revealed that their musical programming was designed to be played in the workplace, with the intent of maximising worker productivity, and, in shopping malls, to influence the shopping habits and moods of consumers.

Later, it became a cultural irrelevancy, with the birth of the modern teenager and youth culture signalling the rise of “foreground music” and original artist programming.

Nowadays, as a result, we shop to a closed loop of chart hits: Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran. When we’re put on hold, it’s to the sounds of Michael Bublè. With foreground music, the authorship and originality of the song remains, but generally it seems pop music still faces the same derision once reserved for Muzak. It is as if Muzak’s meaning has shifted to encapsulate any music that soundtracks our day-to-day experiences without permission. It is no longer a style, but a context.

In this sense, Pantall’s description of photographic muzak is accurate — it is photography that we see without choosing to. However, Muzak saw its own kind of revival in the late 70s and occasioned a conceptual reconfiguring of the genre.

It continues to inspire new music today.

Brian Eno suggested an alternative view of Muzak Inc., its ideas and legacy in the liner notes of Ambient 1: Music for Airports. He wrote:

The concept of music designed specifically as a background feature in the environment was pioneered by Muzak Inc. in the fifties, and has since come to be known generically by the term Muzak. The connotations that this term carries are those particularly associated with the kind of material that Muzak Inc. produces — familiar tunes arranged and orchestrated in a lightweight and derivative manner. Understandably, this has led most discerning listeners (and most composers) to dismiss entirely the concept of environmental music as an idea worthy of attention.

Over the past three years, I have become interested in the use of music as ambience, and have come to believe that it is possible to produce material that can be used thus without being in any way compromised. To create a distinction between my own experiments in this area and the products of the various purveyors of canned music, I have begun using the term Ambient Music.

The style of Eno’s music in itself did not break new ground, since it bore conceptual similarities to Erik Satie’s musique d’ameublement and John Cage’s minimalist music, but Eno’s music was not situated within the same context as his forebearers. He positioned his ambient music in opposition to but also within the same arena as commercial Muzak, albeit as a remedy for what “background music” had become.

Ambient music was not for the salon or the academy, but for being on the move, out in a modern world. This first release could be seen as a calming antidote to the stressful non-places of airport waiting rooms, or perhaps as a soundtrack suitable for international air travel and all the environments it gives us access to — what David Toop would later refer to as a “world music”, notably different from what is usually meant by that term: a music of the entire world, deterritorialized from specific environments and cultures.

Eno continues:

Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to “brighten” the environment by adding stimulus to it (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and levelling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.

Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.

From this perspective, “photographic muzak” couldn’t be more different.

Visual advertising exists to grab your attention. It doesn’t matter if you like it or you dislike it, if you’re talking about it, it has done its job. What interests me about this kind of imagery is the visual language it uses to fulfil this aim. Looking at these kinds of images, having studied photography formally, there’s not much that I recognise — or, rather, what I do recognise is misshapen.

The visual language of photography does not change in Pantall’s derided contexts, but it is as if it has been “spoken” with a different accent, mistranslated even. The accepted ways that compositional signifiers are used have been mutated. There are visual motifs that exist nowhere else. I find this fascinating, and I would prefer to spend my time looking at this diverse range of imagery than I would looking at the Received Pronunciation that passes for so much “serious” photography today.

Pantall declares, with strange echoes of the superficial pretensions of Angela Hayes in American Beauty, that there is nothing worse than being normal and, to him, these pictures we see every day are as normal as they come.

I disagree wholeheartedly. They are alien images, beamed to us in abundance from a cultural Outside.

“Ordinariness” was not why Muzak fell out of cultural favour. Muzak was not a controversy because it was dull. In fact, the success of the style itself and groups like 101 Strings shows that, at one time, it was exactly what people wanted to hear. The common misconception is that popular music has not progressed from this point, despite continuing to diversify exponentially. To some, popular music is always offensively bland and derivative, or indeed that the “mainstream” of anything is a homogeneous glob compared to the inherent progressiveness of specific movements and genres — like an aural gentrification. There may be some truth in this, but not enough to qualify such a blanket statement.

Contrary to such a belief, particularly in current times, the relationship between pop and the “avant garde”, in many mediums, is more symbiotic than derivative. In both music and photography, the appropriations can be seen to flow both ways.

Mark Fisher often spoke about this relationship, which he referred to as “popular modernism”, although he did not see it as a relationship that perservered.

I think we’re into a blank period now where; this is unprecedented in my lifetime, where you could say that in my lifetime the right has held all the cards. In retrospect, even in periods that we would now think of as great cultural efflorescences like punk and post-punk, in a way the cultural mood was dominated by the dying curve of popular modernism and the rise of neoliberalism and capitalist realism. [via]

Why didn’t it persevere exactly? With photography alone, I believe it has persevered. If it ever ceases to, the blame lies with those like Pantall who would rather fence off the problematic practices they see as holding the monopoly on aesthetic value.

Photographer and writer Jason Evans expressed similar frustrations in STOP! LOOK! LISTEN!, an essay written for Photoworks in 2013.

The article discusses the influence of aural cultures on visual cultures and how the visual aspects of the former — to him so much richer than those of the latter — have been maligned by an academic and documentary photographic establishment for too long.

He ends the article with a provocation: “Why malign any form of culture when the process of embracing it all, joining the dots and finding your own versions of events is still an option?”

Pantall’s post also ends with a provocation: “Counteract this constant dreck we are constantly submitted to. Have an opinion, tell some truth, show some emotion.” 

Both seem progressive but one sentiment negates the other. Pantall expressed an opinion, sure, but I see no truth in his words and his apparent anger feels misdirected.

The photography we see all around us, trying to sell us things, can be irritating and ignorant, and yes, even bad by some standards, but so can all genres of photography. This does not mean that ignoring it or dismissing it as trash is some measure of progressiveness, intelligence or good taste. In fact, increasingly, “normal” photography is where the medium’s pioneers come from.

The photography world’s conservatism is rooted in its reliance on an imagined pyramid of cultural hegemony, where “serious photographers” sit on top, criticising the dreck below them. In fact, the reality is that the pyramid is being frequently levelled flat with “serious” photographers engaging with commercial photography directly. Another example of a symbiotic relationship that Pantall is particularly cynical towards, considering it’s where the money is…

Just as aural muzak became a joke to be enjoyed and appropriated, visual muzak isn’t far behind. In many cases, it’s already here. In the Spring 2013 issue of the Photo Book Review, there is a segment dedicated to a conversation between Jason Evans and Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet).

At one point, Hebden mentions his love of library records and how their context — stock sounds created for private and non-commercial usage — allowed for an unrestricted radicalism and freedom of expression, both in terms of the sounds on the records and art on their covers.

They were the musical equivalent of stock imagery and, in a way, a cousin to muzak. Many library records are now collectors items that have come to be greatly appreciated — they’ve been championed by other DJs and samplers for years.

From this point, their conversation continues:

Jason Evans: The kind of photography I like was never intended as art. The kind of music and artwork you’re describing were never intended as art.

Kieran Hebden: But maybe in four hundred years someone will look at a Cornflakes box and think, “Oh my God, these people were mad!” [laughs] “This crazy, crazy thing. How beautiful is that?”

Of course, it often doesn’t take 400 years. Some commercial sectors are using technologies and aesthetics that are simply not recognisable or understood to a current cultural elite, or perhaps they are combining older styles in ways previously unimagined or unintended. They are not “wrong”; they are simply free of the shackles of dominant arts discourses.

To push this photography out of the conversation because of this is to do us all a great cultural and aesthetic disservice.

Leave a Reply