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Sound Thinking Photo Prose

By Gary Rabenko

As a photographer of 40 professional years, I am all about light. Except now I am thinking about sound. For 15 years I did not know to wear earplugs or hearing protectors at events. Then for a while I wore the unsightly ear protectors one uses in a gun range. Maybe they were not so ugly, but they were big.

What did clients think at the time? Most assumed I was monitoring sound. You know, back then video was not such a nice compact and neat sport as it seems to be today with small cameras, smartphones, and iPads.

Back then, video involved a sound person whose responsibility was monitoring and maintaining proper recording levels. This meant lugging around the second major piece of the video puzzle, the video recording deck, and making sure that the long, thick, bulky cable tethering that hefty deck to the equally valuable camera not only remained tethered but did not get kinked, caught, yanked, or tripped on.

So with others wearing headphones to hear sound, my using them to not hear the same sound seemed acceptable. For some projects, I used real aviation headphones to block out environmental sound and communicate to my crew. I even harnessed a video receiver to my electronic flash’s power pack along with a miniature—but those days too bulky—video monitor. This allowed me to see the videographer’s picture—the same one he himself was viewing in his eyepiece—so I could direct him as he was shooting and get the exact shots I wanted.

Today some guests press palms to their ears and try to use rolled-up paper fragments as earplugs. Men and women shout urgently to persons not a foot away. I use earplugs—high-density ones rated at 33 decibels of attenuation—and always carry extra earplugs to help others. Often it is the grandparents, but sometimes it’s a quiet child who looks uncomfortable, or it can be anyone who begs me for a set of plugs while complimenting me on my thinking to use them.

Sometimes even a musician will lean over from his bandstand then gesture to his ears to convey that maybe I might have some extra earplugs for him!

Yes, loud energizing music lifts the crowd. But when is loud too loud? The music, the melody, the tempo, the friends, the simcha, the bandleader, the action—it is just so exciting to be in the moment. Would it not be better just a little lower? Because sometimes it’s just too loud. Doesn’t good music sound better when it’s not ear-shattering, bone-shaking, mind-numbingly LOUD? Does seeing others in pain not detract from all the fun we want to have?

Recently the sound was so strong it shook me and my ladder and led me to question the sound engineer’s very own hearing. We could feel the music in our bones. And while photographing the event, I noted key family members at times wincing and grimacing the way you might when a sudden explosion shocks you. I am always watching expressions to get the joy and celebration in the faces. Here they were gesturing to each other about how loud the band was. Great expressions were punctuated by awkwardness. Amidst all this was the sound engineer. No earplugs or headphones for him. He was wireless, moving within and around the dancing crowd as well as those standing back at the tables. Repeatedly he navigated through the guests, all the while deeply concentrating on fine-tuning the sound. Stoic and serious, as if in another world he drifted amongst us. At times pointing his nose high in the air with head raised, he would stop like an animal following prey to check the scent . . . the sound . . . the wind. Then, after remotely adjusting sound levels with a thin stylus on his iPad—the latest hi-tech approach to remote sound-mixing boards—he would start moving again.

I was not there to photograph this technician. I was there to photograph the bar mitzvah boy, his family, and their guests. But watching my subjects, some hunkering down as in a blizzard, elbows on table, heads between hands, people’s backs arched to brace against the attack, I knew it was LOUD even with plugs deep in my ears. And it remained that way—LOUD! Even after all of his painstaking tweaks, the technician remained oblivious to those in discomfort, or perhaps being of a younger generation, it was more a contemptuousness for those too old to appreciate music (too old meaning they were in their early forties). Then again, maybe he is having trouble hearing the music! Maybe he keeps tweaking it to try to hear the subtle sounds that are all drowned in the splash of the exploding blasts. Maybe he has become too deaf to know it is already too loud. Maybe he would not need to turn it up past 80 decibels, and well beyond, if he could hear it.

Yes, sound is energy and energy moves the crowd, but sometimes the best crowds having the best time seem to be those that can relate to each other, play off each other, hear each other, and feel their energy too. And sometimes the sound-mixing board and the speakers seem to be crushing all that good human stuff. Does it really need to be so loud? Maybe it would be healthier for people who still have their hearing not to rely on sound levels from those who already have lost some of theirs!

The more we have to celebrate, the less we need acoustic bombast, and that is why we keep dancing even if the music stops. v

Gary Rabenko may be reached at gary@rabenko.com. Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.

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Posted by on February 28, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.