Signal Noise

Seeing nature through acts of erasure, obliteration, amplification, and reversal.


When I began making landscape photographs on family road trips through the Sierra Nevada, I had a teenager’s simple intentions: to make beautiful images of beautiful places. Only years later, after I grew to see the complexity and uncertainty in those landscapes, did I understand my challenge as representing what cannot be directly observed.

I still take family road trips through the Sierra, and I often pull over at Monitor Pass, near Topaz Lake, to take a picture of the spectacular view. Photographers have developed certain conventions about how to indicate the passage of time. I could place those images side by side to show a changing landscape, or I could stitch together a composite of a timeless view; but neither approach would tell you much about this place as I have known it, imperfectly. I’m interested in the distancing effects of memory — the gap between an experience and the way our minds give it back to us. Here I’ve digitally layered the images and modified how the visual data from each source image interacts with the others, to create areas of visual interference or amplification. There is nostalgia, but also an ominous artificiality.

I’m interested in the distancing effects of memory — the gap between an experience and the way our minds give it back to us.

Like those views from Monitor Pass, all of the photographs in this gallery are digitally altered yet grounded in specific experiences of place. In Arizona, where I live, the summer light is more obliterating than illuminating. It strips away contours and detail, flattening the surfaces it touches. To render the sensation of this light, I began digitally removing shadows from my photographs and filling in those voided areas with unnaturally bright colors – an artificial intensity to counter the sun’s brilliance.

For my Wildflower images, I photographed sites where native plants are cultivated to be more perfect than plants growing in the wild. I replaced the shadows with pretty, decorative colors, creating scenes that look a bit like wallpaper, except they don’t resolve into pattern. The organic disorder of the real undermines the uniformity of the digital intervention. In Rocks, I similarly removed the shadows from photographs of stone formations in nature preserves. There is a more elemental physicality here, but the images still have a decorative quality. They remind me of the rock walls at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home in Scottsdale, which inspired a trend seen in the facades of many mid-century buildings.

Lightness (MP), 2015

For my series Lightness, I layered multiple views of a site, but gave precedence to the lightest part of each layer in the stack. At first these triptychs seem to be straightforward photos of barren landscapes, but if you look closer you can see shifts in the horizon and unnatural patterns of defoliation and dematerialization. Here, too, I’m interested in the vagaries of perceptual experience. Smashing together multiple views is my way of obliterating the camera’s unitary perspective, which we have internalized as a true window onto the world.

People often regard the digital alteration of photographs as a highly controlled process, and associate it with fashion magazine touch-ups and montages that build imaginary worlds. I certainly use the technology that way in my other life, as an architectural photographer working on commission. In my art practice, though, I want to create a loss of control. I set some parameters but leave other operations to chance. The resulting works are visually ambiguous and conceptually open-ended; they involve acts of erasure and obliteration, but also amplification, reversal, and accumulation. I want to represent a relationship with the natural world that is messier and more uncertain than ever.

Editors’ Note

The images in this gallery are drawn from Aaron Rothman’s monograph, Signal Noise, forthcoming this fall from Radius Books.

Aaron Rothman, “Signal Noise,” Places Journal, August 2018. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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