“Harmonizing For A Photo”
PART 1- The Photos
Harmony-noun, plural harmonies.
- Agreement; accord; harmonious relations
- A consistent, orderly, or pleasing arrangement of parts; congruity
- In music-any simultaneous combination of tones especially when blended into chords pleasing to the ear.
Harmony is one of those tricky words I think. In the first definition above, we come across it as an ideal worth striving for, yet as a global culture we never seem able to achieve or attain. The second and third definitions we seem to understand and appreciate more and we do better with for whatever reason. Most of us have been moved in some way by music of some sort that utilizes harmony, be it a gospel choir or bands such as the Beach Boys. I have touched on this sort of harmony in a few blogs already. But before I go into the musical portion of this blog, the soundtrack, I wanted to explore that second definition above, that consistent, orderly and pleasing arrangement of parts. That definition is useful in describing almost anything that has a sense of orderliness to it. Everything from rows of books in a library to place settings on a dinner table seem more pleasing when defined by a sense of harmony and balance. The objects complement one another into a unified whole. When one portion of that balance is upset however; a single book laying sideways instead of standing upright, a glass missing from the table setting at a restaurant, the harmony that should exist is broken. It is the individual elements or components that allow that second definition of harmony to exist and when it breaks down it does not feel orderly or pleasing. So jarring is the missing object that usually our eyes go right to it.
In preparing this installment I began thinking about objects in the photography world that did not suffer from that sort of problem. Objects that fit that definition, of consistent, or a pleasing arrangement of parts. My mind thought large scale at first, in part due to living in a large city. What could I use? The skyline of New York City itself perhaps? Spread out wide on the 13 miles of Manhattan with peaks and troughs of tall skyscrapers combined with the smaller apartment buildings such as where I live when viewed as a whole have that sort of pleasing arrangement. If all the buildings were 5 stories high, or 50 stories high it would not achieve that sort of harmony however. But when viewed as a panorama it does because one building compliments the other.
However, showing that here seemed to be very complex to me, so I thought about other areas where objects are repeated and achieve that sort of balance. Rows of lamp posts on a path, or pylons on a pier were thoughts. The crisscross pattern of steel work on bridges and buildings were another. The possibilities seemed many, but also very daunting as a photographer without certain equipment and access to photograph them. So I began thinking instead on a smaller scale, for something that could effectively show the photographic equivalent of ‘harmony’ and yet be something more manageable. As I have gone further along in these posts I have had flashbacks to writing papers in college. I remember stream of consciousness writing was discussed but I have to admit it rarely works for me. I do however seem to have a lot of stream of consciousness thinking, and lately I have taken to carrying notebooks around with me to jot things down as the inspiration hits, and I realized just the other night that the answer was in front of me the whole time, and I knew what to do for this post.
Plants became ingrained in my mind a long time ago because I worked for 14 years at a Garden Center. I was surrounded by plants, flowers and trees all day long and became adept and knowledgeable in time at the multitude of names, growing cycles, blooming times, height and shape and all the things a typical customer wanted to know about them. Gradually though, what few customers seemed to focus on became something I began to think about more- namely the texture and composition of plants. When you had to deal with, care for and handle as many plants as I did, you began to appreciate the structures of them, sometimes in a tactile way, sometimes in a visual way. Some plants have unique colors, others have a distinctive leaf or foliage. Some grow to great heights, others max out at only a few inches. There are an infinite number of variables.
Even though I left that job a long time ago, when you have an association or a job dealing with something for a long time you never really forget. So it is that as a photographer I often look to plants and trees and much of that appreciation remained intact from my days at the Garden Center. It is only fairly recently however that I have taken to photographing close-ups of plants and trees individually rather than as large scale groupings. Once I began focusing on those textures and shapes I realized there exists a harmony and balance to flowers. Clusters of daylillies or cone flower for example have varying heights, they have buds yet to bloom next to ones in full bloom and ones that have already bloomed. In that particular moment there is a balance as such.
As I began experimenting with photographing plants and flowers I had another thought, aided by zooming in with the camera lens. When looked at closely, each single flower has comprised within its own unique harmony. A hydrangea looks beautiful when seen in full bloom with those big balls of unmistakable flowers exploding on the plant. But take a look closer at one single bloom and you will find that the plant as a whole would not work if the individual petals did not also achieve their own unique harmony. In other words, there are layers at work when you look at the flowers on a plant.
The plant as a whole is the main focus, especially as part of an overall landscape. Step in a little closer and look at the clusters of leaves and flowers and you see the components of that individual plant in a clearer way, and see the way that one plant has its own sense of balance. New and tender growth on the outside, older and stronger growth lower down all working together to present a pleasing result once a year. Look even closer at just one bloom, or one leaf and you will find yet another layer as the petals are usually clustered together in patterns, or overlap one another to make a larger bloom. Again, there are infinite variations and possibilities and until I started really taking close ups of flowers did I realize I had encountered this before, years earlier at the Garden Center when I began admiring them in a more in depth way. Looking again at that second definition of harmony, it is safe to say that plants and flowers generally meet that criteria, so I began seeing a form of harmony in some of the photos I have taken here.
The other thing I thought of as I assembled these thoughts together is that those layers, comprising many different components to create an end result of harmony can be applied to music as well. In the third definition above- a combination of tones blending together to make an enjoyable sound can certainly be applied to a variety of musical styles. The most difficult to achieve however comes from having a group of voices singing with no music whatsoever. It is not easy but with skilled voices I believe it to be the greatest manifestation of that tricky little word, harmony. Years ago I came across a group who stood out for me in particular in that regard and their music has stayed with me since.
Part 2-The Music
“Your love keeps lifting me”
Way back sometime in 1990 on PBS there was a program aired one random night called ‘Spike & Co. Do It A Cappella’ hosted by Spike Lee, along with Debbie Allen. It was an assortment of music video style clips combined with a concert from Brooklyn by a variety of groups who all sang a cappella. The two most well-known groups (at least ones I knew of at the time) were Ladysmith Black Mambazo, bringing an international touch to the evening, and the fantastic Persuasions, representing that classic NY doo-wop sound. The rest of the bill was balanced by the Gospel sounds of Take 6, as well as up and comers True Image and Rockapella. But there was one other group that night, almost 25 years ago that I was completely enthralled and amazed with -The Mint Juleps. Sisters Debbie, Sandra, Lizzie and Marcia Charles, together with friends Debbie Longworth and Julie Isaac from London made up the group. Below is the song that made me a fan from the moment I heard it, so go on and give it a listen yourself.
“Stand up and shout for joy”
Like with all the other groups that performed that night, a cappella music was something I took for granted. I wrongly associated it (in my young and naive years ) exclusively with doo-wop, which I knew from my dad and years of listening to 101.1 WCBS FM, the classic oldies station here in NY. The point of the show was to demonstrate that there was so much more you could do with a cappella music than just doo wop. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s sound had only fairly recently become known to Americans by way of Paul Simon’s Graceland album and their performances that night were certainly memorable. Take 6 sounded great with their jazzy gospel style while Rockapella brought back a sort of retro 50’s rock and roll along with a healthy sense of humor to the evening. The Persuasions provided the link to the roots of doo-wop, of groups standing around and harmonizing in subway stations, or street corners. That left The Mint Juleps and True Image, the most contemporary sounding groups on the show. True Image were great, and years later I hear how unique they were, incorporating hip-hop elements into the mix, along with a trio of lead singers that could have fit in with anyone from The Drifters to The Supremes.
What made the Mint Juleps so special to me though was I had a sense of them being able to do all of the above, and more. Who else would you choose to sing Wimoweh/The Lion Sleeps Tonight along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo than the Mint Juleps, as was shown on the program. They could do Gospel, they could do a lighthearted song, throw in a couple of 50’s or 60’s standards like Drip Drop or Da Doo Ron Ron followed by a Toots and the Maytall’s number in for good measure and then follow with songs they wrote themselves. I could tell by watching them and picking up whatever I could find by them in those days before streaming and downloads that they had a sort of fearlessness about them. They sang what they wanted and nothing was sacred. Each member sang lead on different songs and if they could make it work as an a cappella song they did, and often times, the results were as good if not better than if there was music to accompany it.
Finding a definitive biography for The Mint Juleps has not been easy and it has been very much a search done by digging through YouTube but here is as much as I was able to find. The four sisters along with their friends began singing in a theater in the early 1980’s and apparently had no aspirations beyond that. It was just for fun. That is until others began realizing they were quite good and it started from there. Members of the 50’s revival group Darts took on management duties, and from there it seems things progressed pretty quickly. You can find a clip of them singing backup to Darts along with Lenny Henry on Saturday Live from sometime in the 80’s.
Though they were an a cappella group, eventually Trevor Horn and Stiff Records came knocking, and the Mint Juleps had a few minor hits with Docklands, Every Kind Of People, Girl To The Power Of 6 and a beautiful cover of Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart, all of which were not sung a cappella but were more pop oriented. But the harmony that they achieved worked well on anything so they soon became in demand as backing singers and support acts to a variety of singers, from Billy Bragg, Dr Feelgood, Bob Geldof, Mickey Hart and dozens more. Another good clip to watch on YouTube is of them singing My Girl with Fine Young Cannibals on their 1989 tour. One more album of their own material ( a mix of live and studio recordings) called ‘Round Our Way was released in 1994, but after a few more years it seemed they had stopped working and I figured I would never hear their name again.
“Keep on lifting me, higher and higher”
That is until we entered the YouTube era, and a year or two ago I looked Spike & Co up to see if anyone had posted it (my own VHS recording of the show having long since been destroyed). It was there thankfully, and I went right to Higher and Higher, followed by the other songs by Mint Juleps that had been on the show. I had long thought I was the only person to have seen that show. Any time I mentioned it I got blank stares, but reading through the comments I was amazed by not just how many people remembered and loved the show, but everybody else seemed to think that The Mint Juleps were also THE highlight of the entire program. Comment after comment was made about how their harmonies were perfect, the performances exciting, and their choices for songs impeccable.
It was so wonderful seeing the clips again but it was not long before I wondered what had happened to them again. Especially because if you type their name in a search box you will find scores of other a cappella groups singing Mint Juleps songs or arrangements all these years later. Thankfully though they are all properly credited to the Mint Juleps I find it difficult to listen to them. Not because there is anything wrong with them, the singers all have beautiful voices and harmonize well, but because well….it’s not the Mint Juleps frankly. Seeing a college chorus with 25 members copying what these 6 women did originally seems disappointing to me. After all, The Mint Juleps apparently used to tell their audiences they could dance to a cappella music, which was true actually. It just goes to show how fantastic the Juleps really were, and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then every one of those chorus groups that sings Don’t Let Your Heart, I Want To Live Easy, or Higher and Higher owes The Mint Juleps a huge thank you. About a year ago though, as part of a celebration of Stiff Records anniversary, this short interview was posted with Debbie Charles and Debbie Longworth and a lot of those questions about the group and what happened to them were answered.
My favorite part is how they revealed they were singers who never wanted to learn how to sing, they just wanted to sing, and I think that revelation is why they were so fearless about what they did. Kind of a just get up and do it attitude, which I appreciate. I also found, in digging around some more that all 6 women still perform on occasion, with those harmonies still sounding as good as they did years ago and I was especially happy to know that.
Part 3-The Soundtrack
So you may be wondering now, how these two elements fit together now. Photographs of flowers and an 80’s-90’s a cappella group, what is the connection? For me the correlation happened when I thought about the components of a flower or plant. What I said earlier about those components, about the plant itself being the main focus is much like an a cappella group actually. The overall sound comes from the entire group, just like the entire plant is what we see initially. Move in a little closer to that plant and you see the layers starting to come into play-the structure of the leaves, the shape of the flower. Listen a little closer to The Mint Juleps and you begin hearing the layers. the tone, the melody carried by the singers along with the lead vocal driving it forward. Move in a little closer and you begin seeing variations of colors to the flowers, you see the textures not revealed from far away. Listen a little closer to The Mint Juleps and you hear the individual voices of each woman, you hear the unique variation to each singers voice, most especially the bass counterpoint holding the entire thing together. Both flower and voice have a structure reliant on the surrounding components and they match all the requirements of that definition from the start- consistent, orderly, pleasing, harmonious. No matter what definition you use, the one thing I know for certain is that The Mint Juleps version of (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher is a fitting Soundtrack To A Photograph to these photographs of flowers and a reminder that the best things require a little exploration sometimes, no matter what it is.
UPDATE- In the months since I wrote this blog I decided to start my own Facebook tribute page for the group, which can be found here- https://www.facebook.com/mintjulepstributepage). Now how about a bonus video of the Mint Juleps from Spike & Co?
(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher-Written by Gary Jackson, Carl Smith and Raynard Miner
Don’t Let Your Heart-Written by Debbie Longworth
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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle