I’ve been listening to a lot of Icelandic bands this past year and one thing that has struck me is how open many of them are to messing around with the sound quality of certain instruments in the production of their songs.
Some parts of the music are deliberately distorted, or are messed around with so much, that they have become almost shadow facsimile’s of themselves. Instead of hearing the actual instrument, I feel I hear an imprint, some kind of aural residue. It’s a really effective way to take the listener on a journey, one where you engage more with the music.
Here’s one example, by an Icelandic duo (twin sisters), called Pascal Pinon. The song is very beautiful, but also, so too is the lo-fi quality of the piece.
The song was produced and mixed by Alex Sommers (he is the partner of Jónsi (pronounced Yonsi for those who are not familiar with Icelandic) of incredibly famous band – Sigur Rós fame). Alex is a genius at production.
So this has got me thinking about image quality, and how we often strive for the best resolution we can. And I believe many of us think that by having utmost image quality, the image will be more enjoyable to view. That is certainly true some of the time. I think there is a valid place for utmost resolution in imaging, but so too, is there validity in all forms of image quality, be it soft, blurry, fuzzy, noisy, underexposed or overexposed.
Seeking perfection in image quality is not a symptom of the digital imaging age. It has always been a preoccupation for photographers through the ages, regardless of whatever medium they were using. In the instance of film users, there has always been a portion of the photographic community who strive for finer grained films, or larger negatives in the pursuit of high-fidelity imaging. This is of course a nobel quest and one I would not disparage. It’s just that I think that going the other way – reducing image quality, intentionally, is just as valid and nobel a pursuit as any.
With music, we can create depth to a piece by using different frequencies – we can also add a sense of 3D by mixing high-fidelity sounds with low fidelity ones, as well as bright and dull sounds. Complex interplays of varying audio quality lends a sense of space to the music.
Similarly, messing around with the tonal range of an image is just as valid. Not everything has to be ‘punchy’, or have high contrast. Mixing in low-contrast areas with high-contrast areas opens up an additional dimension to an image. But this does not stop with tonal range.
We can add additional ways to interpret an image. Most of us think about tones and contrast, but varying the level of detail within an image can bring an extra dimension to the work. It is just as valid to have areas of the frame where there is lack of detail as it is to have areas where there is a lot. Softness tends to make the eye pass over an area of the picture, whereas sharpness attracts the eye. So in my view, I believe that images where there is a deliberate degradation in resolution is welcome, and can be beautiful if the treatment is appropriate.
I think there’s beauty in softness. Softness lends ambiguity to an image or a part of an image. There’s something fascinating about the unknown, about wondering what something meant, when we only have a fragment, a clue to work with. When areas of the frame are soft, we have to fill in the gaps.
Similarly, any flaws can be beautiful. Flaws introduce a sense of randomness, which often lend a certain uniqueness or ‘character’ to the images we create.
Low-fi images have a way of engaging our emotions and dreams, in a different way than hi-fidelity images do, simply because there are things left unsaid, or half-revealed.
We should embrace low-fi quality as an additional tool to our imagery, and not attempt to banish it. After all – all images are wonderful if they capture the spirit of a mood or emotion or feeling, since seldom do we throw something out if it possesses such beauty, even if it is flawed in some way.