The Photography of Carl Root

Strung Back
Final Tribute

Sometimes you get lucky.

While driving down a country road one fall morning in search of a photogenic subject, I noticed a large 4’ X 4’ object lying in a ditch. I recognized it immediately as a vertical piano, or what remained after someone had removed the case parts, key bed, and action, hoping to reduce the size and weight to make the task of moving a carcass somewhat easier. The strung back was still quite heavy and must have required assistance to lift it into a pickup where it could be taken to an inconspicuous place for roadside disposal. I make these assumptions of its recent history based on my own thirty-two years experience servicing pianos, although I’ve let others move and dispose of old, unserviceable instruments whenever possible.

Discarded Piano
I made a quick U-turn, pulled over, and grabbed my Nikon F5. Strung Back was hand held using a wide angle zoom lens and a warming filter. As it was not possible to place the camera directly above such a large subject, I shot it at a slight angle and used Photoshop to restore the original proportions of the instrument.

I wanted one shot that would include as much of the subject as possible while still conforming to the 3:2 aspect ratio of 35mm film. In Discarded Piano, I omitted the bass side, which contained a large bright area that would have attracted the viewer’s attention even though it was the least interesting part of the instrument. It was still not possible to place a tripod directly over the instrument, so I straddled the strung back, taking great care to keep the plane of the film parallel with the surface of the piano plate so its’ edges would line up precisely with the edge of the viewfinder - no small feat with a 20mm focal length.

Columbian Exposition
The "World’s Columbian Exposition" Award in the upper right corner draws the eye because it’s bright and includes text which we’re all compelled to try to read, for some reason. I have printed this full frame as shown, but a version that gives the strings and plate relatively more importance by cropping the award and the tuning pins off the top has been published on the cover of the Piano Technicians Journal, selected as ‘Photo of the Week’ on, and used on the cover of a solo piano CD.

I switched to a 90mm lens and could now place one of the three tripod legs directly on the plate. This made more precise compositions easier and allowed for slower shutter speeds and greater depth of field.

Columbian Exposition features both the award and the treble end of the piano which compresses the essential elements of the resonant structure into the smallest space. We can see tuning pins, strings, pressure bar, bridge, soundboard, understring felt, and hitch pins, with the gold colored cast iron plate serving as a background.

Kimball #161538
The upper left side of the instrument features the Kimball name and most importantly, the serial number, which determines the age of the piano. Kimball #161538 includes the overstrung section of the scale where the single and double wound bass strings overlap the steel strings. The wavy line at the top, the cutout of the plate, and the heavy plate struts at the left and far right also add to the interplay of lines which are the featured elements of the composition.

1908 Kimball

1908 Kimball 2
Shooting the subject head-on helps to orient the viewer properly toward subject, but I’ve found that using a normally oblique element as a horizontal or vertical anchor allows the viewer to focus on the elements of the composition. The identity of the subject in 1908 Kimball is less obvious than 1908 Kimball 2 which restores the proper orientation, although some of the more recognizable parts of the piano are no longer included in the frame. The plate strut on the right is used to anchor the shot and balances the prominent triangle formed by the bass strings on the left.

Bass 1
Bass 1 emphasizes the pair of curves that lead the eye through the frame while the two lines and three plate screws along the bottom provide a base for the composition. In this shot and the previous one, the placement of the leaves becomes an issue. For the most part, I chose not to disturb the leaves. In this image especially, it might have been tempting to place a leaf in either the upper or lower right area of the composition, but deliberate placement often looks obvious and draws attention to the photographer’s setup rather than to the found aspect of the subject.

Plate Nut
Plate Nut uses the lines of hitch pins, strings, under string felt, and bridge as supporting players in the composition. I chose to emphasize color, so clearing away all the leaves in this area allowed for a simpler composition. The focus on the deterioration of the under string felt especially would also have suffered if it had had to compete with the leaves.

Three Plate Screws
Grouping elements in threes allows for a balanced visual movement around the picture space. Three Plate Screws balances three tuning pins on one side of the subject, and treble strings, grouped in threes, on the other.

Bridge Pins
Compare that composition to Bridge Pins which is arranged in four groups of two. However, the proportional placement of the prominent vertical element playing off the dark red windings on the bass strings reduces the tension of the competing pairs of bridge pins. Note how the downward pressure of the strings has increased the surface contact with the top of the bridge and allowed the rust to leech into the wood. Also note the color and texture of the wood surface of the top of the bridge compared to the notched areas to the left - subtle areas of interest that might be overlooked in a more complicated composition.

Bass Bridge
Most close ups were shot in full shade which eliminates shadows and bright highlights, reduces the contrast range of the compositions, and emphasizes the colors in the subject. Bass Bridge, shot in full sun takes advantage of the extreme contrast when taken in full sun and emphasizes the symmetry of the dark areas on either side of the bridge.

Strung Back 2
Fortunately, a tree canopy helped to avoid the problems of harsh lighting for many of the other wider compositions. Sometimes, it was just a matter of waiting a moment for the sun to hide behind the leaves. Although I was pleased with the results of the session, I came back two weeks later to see if different weather and lighting conditions at a different time of day would suggest another approach to the subject. The overcast conditions, which I had expected to pass, persisted, leaving me with this record shot - Strung Back 2. Note the added rust in the bass strings and, especially, the pressure bar. I shot a roll, but found the results uninspiring. I came back again several weeks later to find that the piano had been removed.

I am pleased with the images I got from the first session, but realized sometime later that my approach to the subject could have been expanded to produce another series of compositions. Consistent with my status as a professional piano technician, I dutifully recorded all the components of the piano, showing the effects of weathering on all the parts that I see every day in my work. In retrospect, individual leaves could have been used as subjects rather than so much detritus. The surrounding woods could have been featured, using the piano as a foreground element.

I chose to orient the piano in the broader views from the standpoint of the integrity of the instrument, as if you could imagine finding the discarded parts, reassembling the instrument, and tuning it up. In a sense, I ignored the forces of nature which would have compelled me to shoot the piano upside down so that the leaves could settle naturally into the crevices, consistent with the forces of wind and gravity. Once this inconsistency is brought to your attention in a few of the wider views, the images look strangely out of balance. Given the piano’s odd surroundings, perhaps that’s as it should be.

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