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Can You Hear A Photo? See A Sound? Artist Adam Brown Thinks So

Adam Brown's turntable
Courtesy of Adam Brown
Adam Brown's turntable

Think of your favorite album. Odds are, the music conjures up some sort of mental image, right? Dark Side of the Moon: a prism; Abbey Road: a crosswalk.

Artist Adam Brown is interested in that connection — "the strange space between image and sound," he says.

Which is why he's gone out of his way to take a digital photo, turn it into audio waves, etch them onto a vinyl record, and "play" it back using a USB turntable and a projector.

It sounds complicated — and the technology behind it is. But Brown says his project (which he calls "Concentrism") is at its core "noisy, glitchy and fun."

He's using this complicated process to play around with boundaries between media, to ask, "How does a photo translate into a sound?" or "light waves into audio waves?"

How does he choose which images are worthy? He says it's a mix. Some of the photos are his, usually landscapes, which allow him to see how different tones play out on vinyl. His friends also contributed photos. He asked them: "What would you send into space?"

One of his friends, a photography theorist, sent him pictures of a cat.

Adam Brown and a cat
/ Courtesy of Adam Brown
Courtesy of Adam Brown
Adam Brown and a cat

For most of us, the point of taking a picture or recording sound is to hold on to something fleeting. And fleeting moments, Brown points out, aren't relivable without a "carrier" — whether that's a piece of silver gelatin paper, a vinyl record or a hard drive. There is no lasting message without the medium. So what happens to the message when the medium changes?

Brown doesn't just want people to think about the transformation process — he wants them to see and hear it. He plays the records, which project the image as they spin, for an audience. Sometimes in galleries, sometimes in lecture halls, the projected images take a few minutes to "play," slowly appearing line by line as the audio waves are turned back into a photo.

This process creates an experience, Brown says, "build[ing] anticipation as you watch the image download."

One of the most unique elements in the performance is the sound that accompanies the image as it plays. Observers are literally "listening to data." The noise emitted is actually the noise that the image is making as it translates, pixel by pixel, from sound to light.

"It's really a low bass rumble," Brown says. Apparently, photos sound like white noise.

Brown says he isn't trying to solve problems; he's exploring questions: Why do we store music and images the way we do? What's the purpose of our photographs? Can you see a sound? Can you hear a photo?

If you want to store your photos effectively, vinyl probably isn't the answer. But if you want to hear what they have to say, Adam Brown just might be on to something.

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Becky Harlan is a visual and engagement editor for NPR's Life Kit.