Synesthesia & Photography: The First Synesthetic Camera and the New Art of Synesthography

What is Synesthesia?

Synesthesia affects about one person in twenty-five. Technically, it could be considered a mental 'disorder', however most synesthetic people consider their condition an enrichment of life and have no interest in being 'cured'. In simplest terms, synesthesia is a confusing of, or more accurately, a crosstalk between, the senses. What does this mean in practice?

Most people, hearing a few bars of music, notice only the sound, with varying degrees of pleasure or even of interest. But for some, the same music manifests itself as colour and pattern as well as sound. Somehow, the auditory stimulus affects also that part of the brain responsible for decoding visual stimuli, resulting in a personal 'multimedia' experience. The phenomenon is well recognised but as yet still not well understood.

Ray Davies & Olivier Messiaen

ray davies - in a dark brown voice, she said 'lola'
ray davies - in a dark brown voice, she said 'lola'
olivier messiaen - he saw birdsong
olivier messiaen - he saw birdsong

The Synesthetic Artist

Ray Davies of the Kinks might or might not be synesthetic. Many poets and musicians are and, even if they don't realise it themselves, it may well be an ingredient of their success. Ray's most celebrated synesthetic allusion is from Lola - She walked up to me and she asked me to dance. I asked her her name and in a dark brown voice she said Lola. More subtle are the music and lyrics to Autumn Almanack, where it is impossible to doubt that Ray is literally smelling and tasting the verbal images through the vehicle of song.

Far more self-consciously synesthetic was the French composer Olivier Messiaen. His music was highly experimental and designed to convey colors, moods, even aspects of his faith, through the medium of sound. He even transcribed and incorporated birdsong into many of his works - complex birdsong, not the cuckoo! - believing that birds were the better composers. Though he achieved a considerable academic following, Messiaen was never widely popular. It is quite possible that 95% of the populace (including some of the World's finest musicians) are simply not equipped, synesthetically, to 'hear' what he was seeing. Synesthesia is a mixed blessing.

Forms of Synesthesia

Synesthesia exists in many forms. The most familiar is when sound translates into colour, but in some people the reverse occurs; certain scenes or colour combinations manifest themselves as a form of music, perhaps not melodic or rhythmic, but more as a harmony or perhaps a dissonance awaiting resolution. Then, for others, textures can translate into colour - when the lights go down, velvets all are red, and satins cream. Poetic imagery owes much to the possibility of synesthesia, approached not directly but through metaphor.

Synesthography - The First Synesthetic Camera

Synesthography is a new art form with very humble origins. The essence of true photography is to focus light, and light alone, onto the film or, more often nowadays, the sensor. In pursuit of quality, ultraviolet and infrared are filtered out, and the lens mounting and camera body are designed to resist vibration, fast temperature and humidity changes, and the ingress of dust or other airborne agents to the vicinity of the light path or sensor. One could say that the camera is very single-minded.

The synesthetic camera (synecam?), on the other hand, has no such pretensions to quality. Dust and scratches on the lens ensure that wanted and unwanted light have an equal chance, while the flimsy lens mount and less than rigid camera body conspire to couple high and low audio frequencies, respectively, to the image. (The phenomenon is akin to microphony, a notorious cause of feedback in valve amplifiers). Where can such a marvel be found? On every cheap mobile phone on the market, but none in quite the same league as the Motorola L6.

The Synesthographer's technique is wholly different from the photographer's. Care, precision and planning are anathematised. Spontaneity is everything. In particular, it is important not to think visually. Your synesthographs should be influenced as much by smell, taste, sound and touch as by sight. You hear a lark singing? Point the synecam any old place, and click. Remember, it doesn't have to see the lark - it can hear it, just like you, so it will feature in the final image. It only needs faith.

The results

It is important to remember that the camera, not the synesthographer, is synesthetic. It does all the hard work for you. But when you first look at your images, you may be disappointed. You were expecting to see the Trooping of the Colours, while at the same time hearing the horses hooves, tasting your Cadbury's 99 and feeling the sun on your shoulders. Have faith. It is all there. To the synesthete, it is a thing of beauty; to the uninitiated, a mere jumble. Now let's talk about the Emperor's new clothes.

Ringing the Changes

what do you mean, you can't hear the bells?
what do you mean, you can't hear the bells? | Source

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Comments 31 comments

eonsaway profile image

eonsaway 7 years ago from New Mexico, USA

Synesthestically speaking I think so, maybe.


Whitstable Views profile image

Whitstable Views 7 years ago from Whitstable, UK

You had me going there Paraglider. I was trying to work out what a synesthetic work of art might be like. I was at a Messiaen organ recital in Canterbury cathedral last week, and that was definitely synesthetic.


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Eonsaway - hedging our bets, are we? Thanks for the read :)


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Whitstable Views - I like Messiaen in the concert hall or cathedral settings. He's not someone I often want to hear on CD or radio. Too big a presence.

BTW - just checked your profile. I thought it had to be you behind the new name!


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor

Yeah. My cell phone takes crappy photos, too.


maven101 profile image

maven101 7 years ago from Northern Arizona

A new descriptor for my favorite poet, Walter Benton...

Very interesting Hub...Thanks


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 7 years ago

Interesting! I'd never heard of synesthesia let alone synesthography.


VioletSun profile image

VioletSun 7 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

I am wondering if those who experience synesthesia are experiencing their brain more fully, and we who do not see colors while listening to music are missing out. Enjoyed reading this hub!


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Teresa - where there's muck there's brass...

Maven - I'll check out Walter Benton. He's not someone I've come across. Thanks.

Ralph - Synesthesia's very real, but I wouldn't hold your breath for synesthography. If anyone ever pioneers it, remember you first heard about it here!

VioletSun - I think that's possible, in some cases at least. Thanks for the read :)


ray898 profile image

ray898 7 years ago

Very interesting Hub.Thanks


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Thanks ray :)


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States

As one of those 1 in 25, I grew up knowing that mentally I am different, maybe even crazy at times. I couldn't begin to explain what it's like, but will mention that for me it goes hand-in-hand with being both sound and light sensitive. Another great hub, I enjoyed the photography angle.


Camping Dan profile image

Camping Dan 7 years ago

I actually would love to be able to see music! I would not call it a disability at all.


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Jerilee - that doesn't surprise me, from what I've read in your hubs. I am mildly synesthetic (colours in harmony) but only enough to get a feel for it. In the hub, everything above the red line is for real. Below is just playing!

Camping Dan - I'm inclined to agree :)


Whitstable Views profile image

Whitstable Views 7 years ago from Whitstable, UK

My only experience of synesthesia was on LSD. I was with some friends who hadn't taken it. I kept saying, "can you smell the green?" It turned out to be a gas leak, and an emergency call-out was required. Needless to say it was my straight friends who called the gas board. I was too busy seeing devils by then and watching time going in and out like a concertina.


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

CJ - I remember these times too. We were going to change the world as well!


lxxy profile image

lxxy 7 years ago from Beneath, Between, Beyond

I have to go play Rez now. Thanks Paraglider. ;)


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Ixxy - thanks for the visit - always welcome :)


XTASIS profile image

XTASIS 7 years ago from The Beginning

Interesting! Always learning something new. Thanks!


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

XTASIS - THANKS :) But don't take the camera idea too seriously!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 7 years ago from South Africa

Recently read Oliver Sacks's interesting book Musicophilia which has a great chapter on synesthesia which he called, in his wonderful way with words, "The Key of Clear Green."

Thanks for your interesting Hub, as always!

Love and peace

Tony


sbeakr 7 years ago

I have a general fondness for lomography, infrared, polaroid transfer and liquid light for the same encompassing reasons you have expressed of synesthography here. A photographer by desire and fine art degree but not by trade, I shied away from commercial application...in school was more interested in the unpredictable aspects of the craft than in learning to control it. That said, I have nothing but genuine appreciation for this beautifully informative hub and its reference to poetic synesthetic metaphor.


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Tony - thanks for the Oliver Sacks reference. I'll look out for that next time I'm in UK. (no point in looking in Doha)

Sbeakr - tell me more about liquid light? Sounds fascinating. Thanks for the visit and comment.


prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 6 years ago from US

the camera LOL, hi Dave, Happy weekend first of 2010, best and best of new decade, Maita


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 6 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi Maita - who knows, it might catch on...


Brandon 6 years ago

This whole thing screams blue at me


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 6 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Blue, blue, electric blue...


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Well, who knew? When I googled Synesthography, I got your hub on the second line! Sweet. I can see you clapping now.

Thanks :-)


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 4 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi Austinstar - we can always rate high on Google when we invent a new word or phrase. The downside is - nobody ever searches for it! (I also do a good line in Reticulated Moleskin Wipes ;)


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Reticulated Moleskin Wipes! Wow, I'll bet those are hot sellers. You've cornered the market, LOL!


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 4 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Way to go ;)

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