John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Visual Riffs

The riff in music

Music is an auditory art while photography is visual. It would seem that one would have little to offer the other. Yet some photographers find musical concepts very valuable in their work.

Let’s take the idea of the “riff” in music. It’s often defined as a brief, catchy phrase that is repeated, sometimes with a dash of improvisation, at strategic points in a piece. In classical music it is called “ostinato,” from the Latin meaning “stubborn” (obstinate). As a persistent and clever musical remark, the effective riff hooks the listener’s attention. An often cited example is the undeniably memorable guitar riff in “Smoke on the Water” by the British rock band Deep Purple.

The riff in photography

The concept of the riff comes in handy for photographers, especially in this age of online photosharing when we can upload an almost endless stream of images. In another article here in Photographic Psychology, I discuss how any ongoing sequence of images involves recurring themes, subjects, and patterns – sometimes without the photographer consciously realizing it.

The visual riff, as I’m defining it here, would be an easily identifiable sequence of images within the larger ongoing stream, where the photographer is making a very conscious, deliberate attempt to repeat some obvious visual idea, with a dash of improvised variation. Hopefully eye-catching and clever, the riff has a clear beginning and ending. Its purpose is to catch the viewer’s attention as a specific visual phrase that stands out from the rest of the photostream. In the sequence of images above, we see a riff on the visual idea of the bicyclist, with each image involving a different scene, person, and post-processing. A riff might entail such possibilities as:

- several images of the same scene, shot from different perspectives or using different shooting techniques

- an obvious visual element appearing in different shots (photos of different bridges, a quirky coffee cup in different settings, various images each containing a bright red object as the subject, etc.)

- the same exact photo post-processed in different ways

- the same unusual post-processing technique applied to different photos

Progression, temporality, rhythm

The visual riff is similar in some respects to what photographers might intend when they create a collage or organize their images into sets, as they often do in online photosharing communities. A difference, I’m suggesting, is that the riff is a sequence of images, one after the other, which implies a progression, temporality, and rhythm, as in the notes of a riff in music. Because a collage is a presentation of images as a Gestalt whole, it automatically suggests a sense of intended unity. So too a set, because it was created as a collection organized according to some shared similarity, has a built-in sense of unison. The integrity and cohesiveness of the riff, on the other hand, comes from the persistently or “stubbornly” repeated visual element across a series of photos.

Why bother with visual riffs? First of all, we humans often derive some pleasure from the familiarity of reiteration. As Prince said, there is joy in repetition. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that creativity often thrives when certain restrictions are placed on it. If you are forced to shoot the same exact scene from different perspectives, or to experiment with different ways of post-processing the same photo, or to find another clever place to put that coffee cup, you will be exercising your creative muscles and visual sensitivities. When you present the best of these images as a riff within your online photostream, you are encouraging other people to share your realization that, “here’s a persistent visual idea, but there’s more than one way to see, think, and feel about it.”

If you enjoyed this article in Photographic Psychology, you might also like these:

Image Sequence

Image Shaping (post-processing)

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche