The architecture of musical instruments in the photographs of Charles Brooks

The New Zealand photographer’s project takes the viewer inside instruments, where music is created. A result achieved through a very specific technique. Here he explains it to us.

Musical instruments are made using a hidden architecture that shapes their sound and vibrations. The New Zealand photographer Charles Brooks’ project “Architecture in Music” was born out of this insight. An exploration through the smallest corners and shapes of musical instruments. Charles Brooks, who has a background as a cellist between Asia and South America, asked himself: how is a concert played? 

“I wanted the audience to be able to imagine living in the instrument while it is being played. I wanted the audience to be able to see the source of those amplified sensations. Putting a camera inside the instruments means seeing the signs of time, the beauty and precision of this extraordinary echo chamber that is usually hidden from view” Charles Brooks explains. 

Charles Brooks, Architecture in Music, Steinway Model D Grand Piano
Charles Brooks, “Architecture in Music”, Steinway’s exquisite architecture, part 1. The action of a Steinway Model D grand piano. Photographed by Lewis Eady’s in Auckland. Courtesy Charles Brooks

Looking inside the instruments is like peeking into their soul. “For me, the often so rough inner surfaces show something more about the personality of the instrument than the always shiny outer covering. It is fascinating to look inside the oldest instruments, to discover the space that has vibrated during concerts, perhaps for hundreds of years.”

Once placed in front of the camera, the “Architecture of Music” orchestra’s instruments – their internal shapes – take on an almost abstract appearance. The technique used was exactly the opposite of tilt-shift. That is, the play of lenses and blurring through which life-size elements are perceived as very small and therefore, most of the time, decontextualised. On the other hand, Charles Brooks has succeeded in disorienting, decontextualising – and of course fascinating – the viewer by enlarging elements that are but a few centimetres in size.

“Since an image of something large, if shot with a very shallow depth of field, looked small,” the photographer explains, “I wondered whether an image of something very small, shot in full focus, would look large.”

Charles Brooks, “Architecture in Music” interior of the Burkart Elite 14k gold flute.
Charles Brooks, “Architecture in Music” interior of the Burkart Elite 14k gold flute. Photographed during the restoration at the Neige Music Atelier in New Zealand. Courtesy Charles Brooks

It is a visual effect, of course, but also a mechanism that deals with the psychology related to photography. “Yes, I have always been interested in the psychology of photography. The ability of a single frame to freeze a moment, take it out of context and present it as something new. Of course, despite using very advanced lenses, I had to solve big technical problems. In piano shots, for example, I had less than half a centimetre of sharpness before everything started to blur. I overcame this problem by taking hundreds of photos, slowly moving the focus from the back to the front, and finally combining only the in-focus parts in Photoshop.”

It is a complicated process, which goes into the details of the image, on the border between the limits of technique and the need to create a perception. “For me, the interesting thing,” the photographer concludes, “is that since I was on the scene, I had entered very deeply into the shapes of the instruments, so the visual effect no longer worked for me. It seemed to have broken down because of my over observation. I no longer perceived the spaces as large. I had to show the photos to others to prove that the system had worked.”

Opening image: Charles Brooks, “Architecture in Music”, Steinway’s exquisite architecture, part 2. The action of a Steinway Model D grand piano. Photographed by Lewis Eady’s in Auckland. Courtesy Charles Brooks

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