Jumping back to an article I just wrote on how to speed up your career by 10 years, We Eat Together suggested “finding your passion and photographing the hell out of it.” That is what exactly New Zealand-based photographer Charles Brooks did in his recent photo series, Architecture in Music.
With the rise of AI and Generative Fill, it feels like the art of photography is under attack. It may be in some cases, but there is still plenty to photograph out there, and sometimes, looking at your passions will put the opportunity right in from of you.
The year was 2014 and the World Cup was in Brazil at the time. I worked for a major airline, and at the beginning of that week, I decided to take the rest of the week off. That’s the beauty of the airline business, the world at your fingertips. I punched in airline codes and took off to Brazil the next morning. I chose São Paulo because it had the most direct and open flight available.
I quickly partook in World Cup events and checked some of the finest attractions Sao Paulo had to offer. All the while, I would watch matches (football) all night and get woken up by vuvuzela. The second night there, I met this Australian who went by the nickname “Mr. International.” We decided to go to a bar to meet his friend who was a cellist, Charles Brooks, in the São Paulo orchestra. Sitting at the bar, he noticed my camera and we started talking shop. Since that night, a photography friendship blossomed, which has spanned three continents.
Brooks got himself into photography while following his cello across the world. He committed to playing an orchestra in his early teens. He quickly learned to be successful, he needed to commit himself to a profession and chose the cello. As Brooks said, “Unless you are 100% cello, you are not likely to be successful.” Soon, he was talented enough that he got a job playing in a Touring Chinese Orchestra in Shenzhen and then moved on to the Guiyang Symphony. Due to the geographic location of Guiyang near the Karst mountains, this is where he started his photography journey.
Soon, he got a job at another orchestra, this time in Chile, near Patagonia. This is where photography really started to interest him, because everywhere he went made his photos look like they could be National Geographic-worthy. In some cases, a few photos made the rounds on Nat Geo’s Instagram. Soon, he relocated again to São Paulo. While in Brazil, this is when Brooks felt like he was in the movie Misery. The fear of becoming unemployed or cut wore Brooks down, and he soon left for New Zealand a few years later.
One thing he brought back with him from Brazil was genius yet simple knowledge. As Brooks put it: “People (musicians) pay more than trees,” referring to the landscape shots versus shooting musicians. Having some success, with a few of his photos ending up around the world, Brooks still wanted something bigger. So, he organized astrophotography tours in New Zealand in addition to shooting musicians.
Speed up to 2020 and the pandemic, this is when New Zealand went into lockdown and Brooks was looking for anything to fill the time. This is when he stumbled across the Laowa Probe Lens. Since many musicians were out of work, Brooks had access to a majority of instruments in need of repair. He grabbed a Violin and started experimenting with this new lens and quickly wanted to see what it looked like on the inside. Using his knowledge of how instruments are put together, Brooks carefully inserted the lens into each instrument through pre-existing holes and lit them with constant light using 600D lights, taking into account the importance of not damaging the varnish from the heat of the lights.
Brooks then uses a technique on his Lumix S1R called high-res mode and painstakingly adjusts the focus millimeter by millimeter to work his way through the instruments. He then places his photos into a program called Helicon Focus, which is used for photo stacking, to produce this wide-angle masterpiece. Each photo is a stack of hundreds or thousands of photos. When looking at one of his photos, it makes it look like you are looking into a mansion. In reality, you are looking at the inside of instruments no more than two hands wide in some cases.
One of the greatest challenges Brooks faces is simply not damaging the instruments. The instruments Brooks photographs cost hundreds of thousands, or in some cases, millions of dollars. The most expensive piece Brooks has photographed was a grand piano. Made of 11,000 parts, they were some of the most complicated pieces of machinery on earth before the industrial revolution.
Brooks prides himself on telling the story of each instrument. He has photographed the famous cello by Locky Hill from the 1780s, who was later executed for horse theft, and a cello that was hit by a train. Even though on the outside, an instrument may look like any other instrument, the inside is where its history is kept. It’s a natural guestbook. Many repairmen will leave dates and signatures inside of instruments and historical records of every time it needed service, which are rarely ever seen.
Documenting the inside of these instruments not only shows the stories but helps foil any fakes hitting the market. Many of the old violins, such as Stradivarius models, can go for millions of dollars. Photographing and documenting them help keep the instrument lines pure.
Many of the instruments Brooks tries to photograph are tricky due to 90-degree turns. Sometimes, the camera is bigger than the hole. Brooks shared a time when it had to modify a Laowa probe.
To make the camera fit into a violin, I took a heat gun to his Laowa probe and melted the outer casing off and destroyed the LED. I made it, fit but it likely voided the warranty!
Brook wishes Laowa could make a skinnier camera for him. He continued his quest to photograph new and unique instruments while pushing the tech forward. He wishes it so much that he has partnered with the University of Auckland to see if they can retrofit endoscopes and laparoscopes onto a camera to get into tighter spaces and help conquer 90-degree corners. If successful, not only will more instruments be shown to the world, but there is the possibility to help the medical community as well.
Toward the end of the interview, I had to ask, “Why photograph the inside of instruments?”
They are a fine art. The instruments sound better with age. For something which can be played for 300 years, the inside is where you can see really what was has gone on through its history. Performers couldn't do what they're doing without some really good instruments. They (the instruments) let them express themselves. I'd like people to have an appreciation of the extraordinary craftsmanship and precision that go into creating these things.”
Next up, Brooks hopes to be able to photograph more string instruments with unique histories, such as the Duport Stradivarius cello with Napoleon Bonaparte boot marks or the Catherine the Great Stradivarius cello, which was chewed on by wolves.
If you are interested in seeing these works of art in person, Charles Brooks's “Architecture in Music” will be on display at the Napa Valley Museum in July 2024. They will be life-sized images, and you will be able to see the musical architecture before you.
Images used with permission of Charles Brooks.