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  • Pictures of Music: Photographs from the Collection of Sarah Bryan
  • Sarah Bryan (bio)

Music, if not recorded, comes into the world and almost instantaneously leaves, never to be heard again. Even recorded music is a somewhat diminished accounting of the original, a reproduction rather than a repetition of ephemeral sounds. Pictures of music are perhaps the strangest of all musical records. We can sometimes extrapolate information—the style of music might be deduced from the configuration of instruments, the players’ facility by their apparent comfort holding their instruments—but such clues aside, no sound remains. A man photographed with his mouth open might just as easily be Papaw burping as Caruso singing.

The photographs I collect are orphaned images, set adrift from their original contexts. Through the owners’ death or disinterest, they end up for sale in antique and junk shops and in online auctions, mingled with unrelated photographs that belonged to other people. More often than not, the people in the images have become anonymous, no one having thought to write their names on the pictures. Sometimes a name does remain—whoever used to own the snapshot I found of a young woman in a white dress, standing outside with her elaborately decorated guitar, took the time to identify her. Her name was Cora Rakes Ball. And a relative or fan of the honkytonk singer, shown midsong, playing for a small cafe audience, made sure that posterity would know that he was Wayne Johnson. But the vast majority of the photos I collect will be anonymous forever. All we can know about the subjects is what they chose to convey about themselves when the photographs were taken.

People have always liked to be [End Page 74] photographed with their stuff. In the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, a family might assemble in front of their house when an itinerant photographer came through town, having trotted out their most impressive belongings: the nicest chairs for the elders to sit in, a doily-draped sewing table topped by the family Bible, a trusted firearm, a favorite hunting dog, a fiddle or banjo. Or—as in the oldest photograph shown here, a tintype of a fiddler, from around the last quarter of the nineteenth century—a man might pose dressed in his best clothes, holding his most prized possession, a musical instrument. Though he is shown with his bow on the strings of his fiddle, it’s unlikely that he was doing more than striking a pose that mimed his playing. Musical instruments often appear in such formal displays, but the subjects are rarely playing those instruments. These aren’t pictures of music-making, but representations of the subjects’ sense of self, communicated as much by the objects they chose to show off as by how they held their bodies.

As the snapshot era dawned, around the beginning of the twentieth century, photos of musicians actively playing began to appear in greater numbers. In such pictures we can sometimes get an indirect sense of the music, from the look of intense concentration on a pianist’s face, or the glee of a pair of dancers, or—as in the most modern of these images—the mortified squirming of an old lady on her birthday, seeming to wish she were anywhere but in her daughter’s kitchen being serenaded at close range by a guitarist likely hired for the occasion. Posed portraits of musicians also multiplied, and with them, publicity photos, often printed on postcard stock. Bands who already had radio gigs might send the pictures to their fans, and bands who wanted radio or recording engagements could send them to stations and record companies. I suspect that the Blue Sky Rangers, standing amid an inexpert-looking jumble of amps and wires, with their names added in halting handwriting, were among the latter.

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One wonders how a station manager or talent scout would evaluate a band’s music simply by looking at a picture of them—particularly their suitability for radio airtime or a date in a recording studio, to which a visual impression would be wholly irrelevant. A ragged band in a crudely staged...


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