If you’re a Beatles fan, then two documentaries currently airing on Disney + will certainly satisfy your thirst. Take a close look, and there are important lessons we can learn from these talented musicians that apply to creative photography.
The Beatles’ Amazing Restoration Work: Get Back
The first striking thing about the documentary “Get Back” was the definition of the archival footage. Compare it with an excerpt from the original recording that aired on the McCartney program. Originally shot for television in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 documentary “Let it Be”, images were grainy and lacked saturation and contrast.
Fortunately, Peter Jackson had already developed a restoration process for his 2018 film, “They Won’t Get Old.” In this film, he and his team restored footage shot at different speeds by hand-cranked cameras; it was everything from 10 fps to 17 or even, occasionally, 18 fps. Images were converted to 24 fps, cleaned up and colorized.
The Beatles images were shot on 16mm full frame film (1.33: 1 aspect ratio), which is about a third the size of an MFT sensor. Unlike war films, it was recorded at 24 fps, and the degradation of the 50-year-old film would have been less than that of centuries-old footage from WWI. In addition, it was in color. Therefore, the resulting documentary is stunning, giving a high definition glimpse into the professional lives of musicians and a stunning insight into the songwriting process.
The Beatles’ creative process and the fight against fanaticism
It’s a long but fascinating watch: eight hours of film chosen from 60 hours of filmed footage and over 150 hours of audio. What he reveals is the incredible creative process, and it’s something any photographer or artist can learn from.
Paul McCartney jams on his guitar because John Lennon is late for the session. This jam gradually evolves over the hours and then days into a satirical protest song against the far right attitudes of those who want to repatriate immigrants. (Like many Western countries, the UK had huge problems with racism in the 1960s, problems that have not gone away.) The Beatles have once opposed bigotry, having previously refused to perform in front of an audience of racial segregation in America, which resulted in the being mixed up.
The song eventually became the rocking classic “Get Back”, but its protest song roots are part of Beatles legend.
From a photographic point of view, we can adapt the same evolutionary approach to creating images. For example, landscape photographers often revisit the same location and make numerous attempts to create the best possible picture, changing the settings and positioning of the camera. The best wildlife photographers will spend hours, days, even weeks in one place to get the perfect shot of an elusive creature. Each move is hopefully an improvement over the last.
We can also, of course, use our photography to highlight and fight against social injustice and bigotry.
There seem to be a lot of novice photographers out there who expect great images to be handed to them on a plate. But it doesn’t work like that. It took from 1954 when Paul McCartney first met George Harrison, and 1957 when they joined John Lennon in The Quarrymen, until 1964 before Love Me Do became a success. Overnight success takes years of hard work and practice. This applies to photography as well as to music.
McCartney’s style of filming 3, 2, 1
In “McCartney 3, 2, 1” Paul McCartney talks with music producer Rick Rubin about his career. There is a lot of discussion throughout the creation process.
The interview takes place in Rubin’s studio, next to a recording stand and piano. Shot in monochrome, the background is entirely black, although sometimes interrupted by a sweep of light or the shaded presence of a camera. This discrete configuration works. This not only allows the viewer to focus on the subject, but it also looks great; it is like a series of well-composed, perfectly lit and well-developed images. Many of the frames in the interview would present themselves as stunning photographic portraits.
When the scene switches to archival footage, it mainly switches to color; it’s like The Wizard of Oz backwards. Combined with these older films being brilliantly lit, the result is a huge contrast between the two styles. This juxtaposition makes each scene stand out even more.
Using contrasts in music and photography
A contrast in musical styles is discussed between Rubin and McCartney. Rubin plays “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by George Harrison, then turns it down on everything except Paul McCartney’s bass. This bass is rough and grungy, totally at odds with the dismal tones of the other instruments and the lyrics of the melancholy song.
Bringing together disparate sounds on a record is something the Beatles excelled at. For example, McCartney also talks about the piccolo trumpet used on “Penny Lane”. an instrument he saw while watching one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos on television.
This creative mix of different styles was not limited to individual songs. Listen to any Beatles album and each track contrasts hugely with the others. The eponymous ballad of the album, “Let It Be”, is very far from the rock style “Get Back”. Then, the acoustics “Two of Us”, with its harmonies inspired by Every Brothers, is in contradiction with the “I’ve Got a Feeling”. Again, this is stylistically quite far from the spiritually esoteric “across the universe”.
Likewise, successful creative photography, as with any other art, relies on combining two or more elements in new and inventive ways and finding opposites that work well together. It is not only in an image, but also in collections of photographs.
A difference between music and photographic collections
Although the songs on the “Let It Be” album are all very different, they remain consistent. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The same can be said of previous Beatles LPs. Their approach revolutionized popular and rock music. By comparison, if you listen to the records of the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, and many other musicians that came before them, they stick to a limited number of musical styles. Then there were groundbreaking artists like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, who changed their style, but not as often as the Beatles, or to the same extent.
However, unlike music, having a wide range of photographic styles in a set of photos is generally frowned upon. A photographer’s images are often expected to be of a similar style. This is a requirement of many higher photographic awards. Is this a standard that we should think about challenging? Should photographers start embracing diversity in their work, instead of striving for continuity?
I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this. Have you seen these two series before? Are there other similarities between music and photography that inspire you?
If you haven’t seen them yet, the two documentaries are available in streaming on Disney +.