Photographer Harold Shapiro’s “Luminous Instruments” series pushes the boundaries of the still-life genre. This genre of photography depicts inanimate subjects, but by creatively using light and long exposures, Shapiro’s musical instruments appear to animate and move in midair.

Photographs from Shapiro’s series are currently on view in the Collection of Musical Instruments’ “Resounding Brass: Conch Shells to Silver Trumpets” exhibit, which opened on Feb. 20. A larger selection of Shapiro’s work will be featured in an exhibition at the Creative Arts Workshop from March 9 to April 9.

“This is a still-life and yet something is still moving,” Shapiro said. “We try to get the feeling that the instruments are speaking.”

“Luminous Instruments” is the result of Shapiro’s many passions and experiences. He is a musician who plays flute, clarinet, saxophone and bassoon. This is what first sparked his interest in photographing instruments.

“In 1980, I was sitting in a pit orchestra and between songs I was looking at my keys on my instruments, saying wow, they’re so beautiful,” Shapiro said.

After this experience, Shapiro began taking close-up still-life film photographs of instruments. But, after seeing an early photography exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art, he wanted to add movement to his photographs in order to visually represent the music coming out of the instruments.

The mesmerizing effects seen in “Luminous Instruments” result from a demanding process. Shapiro points many small spotlights at the instruments and uses long exposure. This technique uses a long-duration shutter speed to capture stationary objects while blurring the moving elements. Shapiro said that oftentimes it takes 30 to 40 tries to get a photograph exactly right.

The Collection of Musical Instruments’ “Resounding Brass” exhibit showcases the evolution of brass instruments. Photographs of brass from Shapiro’s series are positioned adjacent to brass instruments from the collection. Placed together, the different art forms create a feeling of modernity in a historical space.

“The objects themselves are beautiful,” Shapiro said. “I love how musical instruments are built, but having the pictures also brings contemporary art into this space that generally doesn’t have that.”

“I personally think that the photos have a very modern look,” said Tim Feil, who works at the Collection. “Many of the instruments on display are from the 19th century, so I think the photos are a nice contrast from the more historic instruments.”

Shapiro’s photographs will also be used in a print catalogue the Collection is publishing. Feil added that the photos will make the catalogue more varied and visually interesting.

Shapiro’s work can also be found off of Yale’s campus. In a week, “Luminous Instruments” will be displayed at the Creative Arts Workshop, which is located at 80 Audubon St. Last December, Shapiro received a grant from the Bitsie Clark Fund for Artists, which gives grants to artists in the Greater New Haven Area. This grant gave him the opportunity to showcase his work at the Workshop.

Shapiro is the head of the Photography Department at the Workshop and has been teaching there for 35 years. Maryann Ott, who first took a class with Shapiro in 1990, said that his unique perspective on composition and lighting allows viewers to see what is there but not visible to the unaided eye.

“His show ‘Luminous Instruments’ is the culmination of two of his passions: music and photography,” Ott added. “This project is personal. It’s coming straight from the most creative and inspired parts of his imagination.”

Shapiro has been a full-time photographer since 1981.

Marisol Carty |


Marisol Carty was Arts Editor from 2021-2022 and previously covered Music. She double majors in Economics and Philosophy.