What is Phonography? - Yitzchak Dumiel (Isaac Sterling)

The simple answer is that phonography (literally “sound-writing’) refers to field-recording. This entails the capture of any event that can be reproduced and represented as sound. Auditory events are selected, framed by duration and method of capture, and presented in a particular format and context, all of which distinguishes a recording from the original event during which it was captured. In this respect, phonography is analogous to any other form of recording. It is distinct from recording in general only to the extent that the capture of sound is privileged over its production. This bias reflects an attempt to discover rather than invent.

Some useful analogies can be made between phonography and photography. The majority of early photographs were intended to be documentary or forensic, and many field-recordings serve these same purposes. Photographs made for enjoyment often emulated the aesthetics of more established forms of visual representation: painting and illustration. Many field-recordings also emulate aesthetics established by other media: e.g. a recording of a meadow or a souk in Cairo can be thought of as auditory equivalents of paintings or photographs; recordings are also used to present narratives similar to those typically conveyed by writing or film. Photography quickly developed beyond the cultural conventions prevalent at the time of its inception to become an endeavor preoccupied with more abstract and formal considerations (this transition can be viewed clearly in the work of photographers such as Edward Steichen and Edward Weston, or by contrasting photographs from 1900-20 with the work of Frederick Sommer and Minor White 3 decades later). A similar transition can be heard in phonography. Whereas the vast majority of field-recordings are manipulated as raw material for soundtracks and other auditory projects, and untreated field-recordings are used primarily for forensic and academic purposes, a new generation of recordists has emerged, preoccupied with the abstract and formal dimensions of captured environmental sound.