Aaron Rothman, Signal Noise

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Radius Books (here). Hardcover (roughly 11×14 inches), 124 pages, with 64 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Cassandra Coblentz, an interview with the artist, and a fold-out thumbnail chronology. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the rich history of landscape photography in the American West, the land itself is never quite neutral. Starting with the work of the photographers of the 19th century, the land was seen as a gloriously unspoiled, awe-inspiring, God-given treasure, its mountains, forests, rivers, and deserts filled with a romantic notion of grandeur and magnificence. A century later, the view had largely shifted to the contrarian perspective, the land now tarnished and poisoned by the ugliness of man’s short-sighted encroachment, our highways, suburban sprawls, and environmental mismanagement scarring the once beautiful natural wonders and open spaces.

But for contemporary landscape photographers, these two opposing poles offer a vantage point on the current reality that is much too binary, and in a sense, too easy. The American West of the 21st century is now both pristine and ravaged, astonishing and disheartening, constantly oscillating back and forth between rudely competing and equally valid narratives, its broader definition resolutely unstable. So the photographers who choose to point their cameras at this shifting mirage take on a distinct challenge – how to make pictures that capture this fundamental and nuanced duality.

While digital manipulation has permeated most genres of contemporary photography, its use in pictures of the landscape can mostly be found in the realm of downstream tinting and color enhancement, in effect amplifying, exaggerating, or recalibrating the mood the photographer has chosen. But Aaron Rothman’s embrace of digital techniques in his landscapes, as seen in his recent photobook Signal Noise, doesn’t push the images to extremes, but instead pulls them into the messy middle, where uncertainty reigns, and that’s where things actually get interesting.

Rothman has used half a dozen different approaches in making the images in this book, from essentially straight (unaltered) color photographs of recognizable land forms to all-over abstractions made from the confetti-like color-spotted noise generated by the camera’s image sensor, with multiple intermediate stops where representation and manipulation wrestle for visual dominance. For subject matter, he has largely chosen scrubby desert wastes, where low hills and rocky canyons rise in the distance and dusty soil dotted by tough drought-resistant plants crunches underfoot. And while these minimal vistas might seem almost empty, it is by closely and patiently observing their subtleties that Rothman discovers the uncertainty he is looking for.

Many of the views sit right at the edge of our ability to perceive Rothman’s manipulations. Small changes in perspective, undefined time lapses, and subtle lightenings keep us coming back to these barren lands, trying to see what Rothman is seeing. The experiments get more visually obvious when he explores reversed tonalities and the layering of multiple images on top of each other, the colors tweaking into off register mismatches that feel eerie and almost psychedelic, like our eyes are flaring into brief moments of strangeness. Florian Maier-Aichen has also unpacked this jittered effect (albeit using different filtered techniques), so the idea of pulling visual dissonance out of the land isn’t an entirely new one, but Rothman’s approaches feel less rigidly technical, more atmospheric, and in many ways, more personal than what we have seen before.

The most striking images in Signal Noise are Rothman’s all over images of wildflowers and rocks. Here he has digitally removed everything not in the frontal plane of light (i.e. all the dark areas, shadows, and underneath zones) and replaced those areas in the images with flat pastel colors. The effect is disorienting at first, and then turns toward the patterning of textiles or wallpaper. The photographs alternatively feel lightly decorative, like splatters of paint, and then unfinished, like they are falling away or dissolving into blank color. They make our view of the land beneath our feet simultaneously real and unreal, the representation and abstraction searching for (and not quite finding) amiable coexistence. Apparently some of these images were taken of wildflower gardens and stone foundations, so the idea that nature is actually “natural” or “wild”  may also be deliberately uncertain.

Rothman then pushes this process of breaking down to its logical limit with images of digital sensor noise. Try as we might, when we stare at these all over explosions of scrapped color, they won’t resolve into something we can recognize. And so we must give in, and see these images not as landscapes but as computational residue, and admit that our seeing is mediated. While we have seen plenty of images of pixelization and television static like these before, given the context  of this photobook, the clouds of peppy shattered color here feel like an endpoint, a sandstorm of digital greebles that thoroughly engulfs us, to the point that we can discern no depth or contour. So when we bounce back into the land of crisp focus as the pages turn, it’s hard not to arrive with a sense of digital skepticism – once we’ve seen what’s behind the curtain of technology, it’s hard to be quite as visually trusting ever again.

In terms of design and construction, Signal Noise is luxurious, almost lavish in its hefty presence. The images are shown either with small white borders or full bleed, the size of the book giving ample space for the large, high quality reproductions. Many expand into fold outs that create short sequences, series, and close-up investigations, both changing the pace of the page turns and forcing the viewer into a stepwise process of thinking. The sequencing moves back and forth between Rothman’s various technical approaches, employing a swirling recirculation rather than a strict progression; a handy thumbnail fold out at the end helps put the various projects in order for those that want a clearer map. Overall, this is a refined product, each small decision (page numbering, font size, pacing etc.) made thoughtfully.

What draws me to this photobook is the evidence that digital manipulation in contemporary photography is growing more subtle and sophisticated. While there will always be a place for obviousness, where changes signal juxtaposition, trickery, illusion, or even ironic commentary, as well as for routine image cleanup, Rothman’s manipulations are more conceptually nuanced. The photographs here employ the available digital tools to explore the ambiguities that lie at the heart of his landscape practice. He’s neither showy nor elusive in doing these things – he’s just leveraging what he can to push his pictures where he wants them to go, and he’s fully integrated the post-production part of the image manipulation into the pre-visualization, so it doesn’t feel like an aftereffect.

What’s important is that I haven’t come away distracted by these manipulations, but thinking more deeply about the fundamental observations he is making about the contemporary landscape. He’s asked me to renegotiate my relationship with photographs of the American West (once again), and to acknowledge that a digital moderator now stands between me and the rocks, flowers, and wide vistas I once thought were my own.

Collector’s POV: Aaron Rothman is represented by Rick Wester Fine Art in New York (here). Rothman’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Aaron Rothman, Radius Books

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