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Imagining Music: The Work of Mabel Odessey

Music, like photography, is as much a science as art. When combined, magical things can happen. Without Lenses is pleased to share with you, the work of Mabel Odessey, a photographer whose work is inspired by and created through collaborations with musicians. The Piano Paille PInhole project is just the most recent. Mabel shares with us how she works with the musicians collaboratively, and where she is going next.

See the Piano Paille PInhole project
Listen to the music

Without Lenses: How long have you been making pinhole images?
Mabel Odessey: I’ve been making pinhole images since the early eighties, I started before I went to Art School.

WL: Do you make your own cameras?
MO: Yes, I always make my own cameras. Very often I make a camera for a particular series of work. They have been all shapes and sizes from a giant crawl in camera that was fixed on a pick up truck, to handbags and boxes.

Part of what I like about using pinhole cameras is the homemade and recycled aspect.

WL: If you are making cameras for specific series of work, how many cameras have you ended up with?

no images were found

Do you re-use them or cannibalize them for new projects or save them and show them with the work?
MO: There are a couple of cameras that I reuse quite often, others get thrown away or dismantled and I guess I have saved about maybe 15 just in case.

With the exception of the giant mobile pinhole camera for the Bradford Festival, they are more working objects than art objects. I never really think about showing them as I see the process as really secondary to the ideas.

WL: What type of work (or artists) inspire you?
MO: I look at lots of different art, as far as photography goes I return time and time again to Helen Chadwick‘s work, which I love for its lyrical sensuality and invention.

WL: What prompted you to collaborate with musicians in making photographic images?
MO: I started working with musicians when I was commissioned to do an CD cover for an Occitan group. It was during these first sessions that I realized the vast potential to explore how to visualize sound. One aspect of working with pinhole photography that has always captivated me is the way the unseen is often the most important part of the image. In order to tap into the invisible energy and rhythms of music I found myself naturally responding to music with the studio flash. I asked the musicians to play and rather than try to compose a picture I let the music layer itself on the film. Responding with bursts of multiple flashes and imposing silences on the music, images were built up. After working with 20 odd different musicians of different styles, I could see that the images reflected the kind of music I was hearing.

Then I met Stéphane Sassi (the pianist) who was involved with his own research using straws to modify the sounds of the piano. Like John Cage who invented the term ‘prepared piano’, Sassi was transforming his Yamaha into a whole new instrument.

WL: Tell me about the Piano Paille PInhole project? How did it start? What was the spark that enticed you to do a whole series of work?

MO: I was seduced both by the music and the visual potential in the collaboration. Stéphane’s background is in jazz improvisation, so for him it was obvious that our work together would be an improvisation.

During the long exposures I would stop him, impose silences, and when he would start to play again the music often took a very different direction. We both enjoyed the flow in which the light and sounds guided each other, concentrated on the present moment, we communicated and created a musical composition and image together. The boundaries between photographer and model musician and audience, camera and piano disappeared.

When we looked at the images, we both felt they captured the music. Stéphane was also instrumental in encouraging me to use colour. I had always shied away from colour, wanting to really put some distance between what I was photographing and the photograph as an object. Since the Piano Paille PInhole pictures are, for the most part abstract, they really do document the improvisation and recording sessions.

I am thinking about calling this work “action photography”—as in Jackson Pollock, not sports photography—to give people a sense that they are both responses to music and active in the music’s creation. There are marks reminiscent of Pollock’s splashes that also express energy.

WL: So you make the images with long exposures and use of flash – do you move the camera at all – like a dance? Or is the motion seen in the images the musician as they are playing.
MO: Yes I do move the camera around. With Stéphane it was necessary, as he moves around the piano from the keyboard to the strings. It’s funny you mention dance. Other people who have seen the images have expressed the same idea, a kind of ballet that goes on between us—the camera and the piano.

WL: Can someone not listening to the music feel the same thing about the images that they can with the music? How intertwined are the two?
MO: Certainly, seeing the images separately from the hearing the music is quite different. To really enter into the experience, the two are inseparable, like two sides of a coin. For this reason we are very keen to do performances alongside exhibiting the photographs. We did one live performance at the opening of my exhibition at the Musée Arthur Batut here in France. We had a grand piano set up in the gallery and the public were mesmerized. They circulated around the piano and camera and the distinctions between public and performer disappeared. I have also made a projection so that the photos and music can be seen together.

WL: What is your next musical collaboration?
MO: I have just started to do work with an oriental belly dancer.

WL: Very interesting—with music and the dancer or just the dancer? I have been fascinated by the potential of pinhole with dancers and moving people so this seems like a very exciting project.
MO: I think dance is very rich, the first trials are exciting but the exposures are much trickier than with the musicians. Yes they dance with music otherwise it would really be too artificial.

See the Piano Paille PInhole project
Listen to the music
See a video of the images with music