The Signal & The Noise
7. In scientific use, a collective term (used without the indef. article) for: fluctuations or disturbances (usu. irregular) which are not part of a wanted signal or which interfere with its intelligibility or usefulness.
Back in analog times, noise was what the neighbors complained about. It was how your parents described all the good music. Few besides engineers and the occasional audiophile knew the technical definition, as summarized above in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Today, photographers are versed in jargon and speak casually of noise in the scientific sense. They do so even in reference to film—“grain” sounds old-fashioned; “signal-to-noise ratio” says you know what’s going on.
If this all sounds like noise to you, here’s a translation: in any discipline concerned with information, the signal is everything you want, the noise is everything else. Which suggests that there’s a subjective component to noise even when we use the word technically. More on this in a minute.
First an example. Say you’re driving across Nebraska, and the country radio station starts to fade—there’s some crackling, then more, then the music starts drowning under static and garbled chatter from nearby stations. As you drive ever farther from the transmitter, the signal weakens but the noise persists. Turning up the volume doesn’t help, because as the song gets louder, so does the noise. You’re witnessing the decline of the signal-to-noise ratio. Eventually, when you can’t even hear the song anymore, we say that the signal has sunk below the noise floor.
This noise floor is the threshold below which even forensics experts can’t decipher what Garth Brooks is prattling on about. But if you’re listening for pleasure, you’ll give up sooner. The signal-to-noise ratio doesn’t have to dip all that low before things sound ugly.
The New Noise
But what if you’re listening to a different station—what if it’s Sonic Youth, or Boris, or EMA—and so now the static, distortion, and amplifier hum are there on purpose? We’re faced with a bit of a conceptual flip, since what was traditionally called noise has now become the signal.
Lately I can’t get enough of these two.
We’ve accepted this possibility at least since 1964, when the Beatles recorded that glorious guitar feedback intro on “I feel fine.” If the result sounds to our jaded ears like just another happy love song, remember that it showed up in an era when grownups were scandalized by long hair, to say nothing of guitar feedback screaming from their kids’ speakers. In it’s own quiet (or loud) way, this use of noise heralded a revolution.
The postmodern implications of noise becoming signal seem kind of obvious in retrospect. I’ll guess that back then, most listeners weren’t thinking this hard. Kids jumped up and down. Parents covered their ears.
Noise in Photography
Photographers in the 1960s elevated the role of noise as well. They shifted from American formal modernism’s emphasis on craftsmanship and polish to a grittier, grainier, looser, cinéma-vérité esthetic. If the old icons had been Weston and Strand and Ansel, the new generation worshipped Robert Frank. Its style encoded an article of faith: rawness and imperfection equal truth.
In more recent years, other kinds of photographic noise have become tropes. People just can’t get enough glittery lens flare, or star-shaped specular highlights. France’s infamous Cokin filter company emerged in the late 1970s, with a portfolio of gizmos promising to turn optical flaws into art. They now sell digital versions of their filters, so you can add your starbursts and rainbows and fog from the comfort of home.
Blur and veiling flare have been intertwined with art photography since the medium’s beginnings.1 The first photographers couldn’t help it; their lenses were simple, uncoated things that rendered the world soft and glowing. Later in the 19th century, lenses got more accurate, but a significant number of photographers felt the need to exploit blur in the interests of claiming esthetic turf. They wished to be seen as Artists, and so like the Barbizon painters, they employed dreamy optical effects along with sometimes-gushing Romantic symbolism. It all helped distinguish their work from the more mechanical recordings of commercial photographers.
This led to an early 20th century war between the painterly Pictorialists and the blur-phobic “straight” photographers of group f/64. The latter believed photography would be taken seriously as art only if it were sharp and otherwise optically true to the world.
War? By most accounts, Ansel Adams was a kind, generous, grandfatherly fellow. You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you knew him only from his correspondence with William Mortensen, spiritual leader of the pictorialists. Some might even argue that Ansel invented the flame war, some 70 years before the dawn of the world wide web. By calling Mortensen “the Antichrist,” and voicing his wish to photograph Mortensen’s corpse—all for reasons of esthetic disagreement—Ansel paved the way for the contemporary film-vs.-digital and Leica-vs.-everyone forum discussion.
Ansel had powerful friends in the establishment, including Beaumont and Nancy Newhall at MoMA. With their help, he won major battles against the Pictorialists, including writing Mortensen out of a generation of art history books. Luckily for some, Mortensen’s work was eventually rediscovered. In later decades, the blurry, glowy, Romantic esthetic2 rose and ebbed a number times, influenced by nothing more insidious than the tides of fashion. We’ve seen the aforementioned Cokin filters of the 1970s and 1980s, the plastic camera craze of the 1990s, the old-lens-and-platinum-print revival of the early 2000s, and the wet collodion / tintype revival of the 2010s. And of course, Instagram. Now everyone’s a pictorialist. And a Film Noirist. And a psychedelicist. And a Pokémon character.
Noise plays an even more central role in newer movements, including 21st century glitch art. In this genre, noise completed its transition from occasionally desirable effect to main event.
My Noise Experiments
My recent work might owe its greatest debt to the glitch art tradition3. How did I find myself on this path, plummeting toward the noise floor?
It’s a reasonable question, considering that I was drawn to photography in the first place by a squeaky-clean esthetic: smooth tones, near-microscopic detail. Much of my work, made either with 4×5” black and white film or modern bajillion-pixel digital sensors, is devoid of visible noise—the kind of look that Mortensen would have thought soulless, but that might have kept me off of Ansel’s hit list.4
It was while printing Sub/Culture that I started thinking about the possibility of noise as an end in itself. What happens just before the signal falls below the noise floor? What are the possibilities for pure noise? Is there a particular point between clarity and oblivion where the tension is most compelling?
During this time members of my local photography salon were experimenting with unconventional uses of analog materials. Anne McDonald paints on gelatin silver mural paper with developers, bleaches, household chemicals, and the occasional bodily fluid. Andreas Rentsch paints developer by hand onto large sheets of x-ray film, and in another project allows photographs on unfixed polaroid film to transform and decay over many weeks. Saul Robbins improperly loads color print paper into processing machines, causing incomplete development and random variations. All these artists are in dialog with their materials, encouraging the processes to speak back to them. And they’re discovering unique and unexplored potentials for analog materials. I started thinking that noise might offer a way to explore digital parallels of these analog explorations.
But what to photograph? What subject matter would be best suited to an almost-disappearing act? I experimented with the kinds of iconic subjects I usually avoid, in order to give the eye something familiar to grasp. These included portraits, nudes, vases of flowers, bowls of fruit, and familiar urban landscapes (the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, etc.). Of all of these, only the portraits worked.
It turns out familiarity isn’t enough. We need something that we’re hard-wired to notice. Our visual cortex is a kind of face-finding supercomputer—to such a degree that we see faces even where they aren’t. This is why it’s hardly newsworthy anymore when Jesus rises from your toaster.5
So portraits it was.
The project is still in progress. It will be a while before I know if it merits printing and showing (I’m imagining big prints, so the pixels will have an almost physical presence). Or maybe I’ll end up recategorizing this post as a failed experiment. What I do know: camera noise, magnified and emphasized, is mesmerizing.6 See the full-sized crop at the bottom of the page.
Here’s what I got so far:
It’s not easy to see these on a screen. At small sizes the noise forms interference patterns with the screen pixels; you’ll see aliasing artifacts that aren’t in the prints, and you’ll miss the finest noise detail that’s there. But I’m hoping you’ll get some idea of how these look. Here’s what a crop from a full-size print would look like:
For one thing, esthetic pleasure—I find the patterns and textures hypnotic, even beautiful.
Below the surface, noise feels like a natural metaphor for so much lived experience. In today’s world (which itself might be understood as a metaphor for the internet) only the noisemakers themselves seem satisfied with the signal-to-noise ratio. Consider any number of truths we used to see (or imagine we saw) with clarity. Thanks to increasing complexities in the political and virtual worlds, increasing obscurity in the last half-century’s philosophical inquiries, increasing relentlessness in contemporary marketing, and thanks especially to outright sabotage, we’re witnessing old truths sinking rapidly toward the noise floor. Are they just unable to keep pace with the deluge of noise, or have they truly lost their buoyancy? Are we experiencing a crisis of perception or a crisis of being?
Photography won’t give any easy answers. But possibly it can give us something worthwhile to meditate on, in the face of a thousand social media news channels. The art of noise might offer some respite from mere noise.
1 If you were picking nits, you might say that blur is really a form of pure information loss, rather than true noise—nothing’s being added. Subjectively, though, old uncoated lenses, diffusion filters, and equivalent darkroom effects all seem to impose a fingerprint. Like noise, these effects both degrade the clarity of the image and assert their own presence.
2To be fair, Mortensen usually went easy on blur, and he often criticized his compatriots for overdoing it. His personal brand of pictorialism was marked more by staging, symbols, dream and nightmare imagery, and extensive hand work. Nevertheless, the genre he championed continues to be most easily recognized through its liberal use of blur and glow. I’d also suggest that other “painterly” elements of pictorialist prints (Mortensen’s included), such as the coarse texture of the papers used for their platinum and gum bichromate prints, count as a type of deliberate noise (see the Steichen example above).
3Sort of. This work is conceptually similar to glitch art in that it foregrounds elements that have traditionally been seen as flaws. But there are significant differences. The flaws in pure glitch art are digital and logical; the equivalent of a switch being in the wrong position, causing an algorithm to break and produce unexpected results. Noise is actually an analog phenomenon. It occurs in a camera sensor before the analog-to-digital conversion. At a molecular and quantum level, it’s practically identical to film grain and radio static. It’s perhaps ironic that the digital realm has brought the technical vocabulary of this analog phenomenon into the mainstream, and also made noise experiments like mine easier to perform and control.
4The Sub/Culture project is an exception. I used a modern digital camera, but the demands of the subway’s low light and constant motion meant pushing the camera’s ISO sensitivity to borderline-unreasonable levels. The result is noise that looks almost like pointillist painting. I didn’t seek this effect, but it was inevitable, so I had to find a way to make it work esthetically. Any attempt to diminish it with noise reduction technology would have softened the images to a faux-pastel blur.
5Psychologists call it pareidolia when we find patterns in a random signal (Jesus on the toast). They call it apophenia when we attribute meaning to those patterns (the toast is a divine message, etc.).
6A note on the colors: for reasons unknown to me, I’m getting noise with a magenta bias. Maybe it’s related to qualities of my camera’s sensor, or my default raw-processing settings, or maybe all digital camera noise veers in this direction. For the sake of interest I’ve shifted the white balance of some images. But my goal is to do as little manipulation as possible.
Very interesting blog teeming with potential for rethinking the links between arts and science. I particularly liked the way music, painting and photography turned the engineering term of “noise” on its head, and subverted and reverted its meaning. This just shows how what we think our “universal”, “objective” explanations or concepts are in fact permeated with subjectivity most of the time, driven by consensus, science and perception. I found it captivating to read, and although I am an amateur photographer, I would strongly encouragey ou to pursue this further. From a social scientist perspective (my day-to-day job), I would say that arts needs to be given more attention and room in influencing science, as it contributes to increasing creativity, redefining our esthetics and ethics, and ultimately reshaping our economies and the world we choose to live in.
Thank you so much, Serban. Happily I have some funding and plan to continue with this project. I’m not convinced that it’s a critique of scientific ideas or objective truths. I’m wary of the postmodern project of reducing science to a social construct (Kuhn, Derrida, etc.), especially in the current political climate, where anti-vaxers and climate change deniers are getting elected to office. I’m more interested in what happens at the borderlands between the arts and sciences. I like the dialog. You might be interested in the work of Jonathon Keats (the conceptual artist, not the dead poet) and Christian Bök (an Oulipian poet working in molecular biology). My scientist friends, I’m happy to say, are huge art nerds. Some of them could maybe use more formal education in philosophy. But who couldn’t.
Hi Paul, thanks for your response. Indeed, what happens at the boderlands between the arts and science is most interesting, and I guess more likely to produce novelty, innovation and transformational change. I completely agree that postmodern projects reducing science to a social construct is a double-edge sword, as all sorts of science-deniers can plant their roots in them. It is though also helpful sometimes to take a step back, and not deny science, but simply reflect upon the ontological and epistemological foundations of certain theories and models. From a scientific perspective, as scientists, I think it is refreshing to be self-critical and asking ourselves; from time to time, how do we know what we know, which may actually lead to new thinking, further discoveries and ultimately help advance science. Many thanks for the further references you mention, I shall definitely look into them. Cheers to more enlightening science-art dialogues!
Thanks again for writing, Serban. I remember Alan Sokal (back when he famously made a mockery of the editors at Social Text) said that he didn’t object to science being examined by the humanities. He objected to terrible scholarship.
I think that’s the difference between, say, Foucault and Derrida. The former made honest inquiries into the foundations of science. The latter was just a charlatan.
It’s interesting to me that Sokal’s hoax was funny, while the responses of all the po mo thinkers and scholars was totally humorless. I’m trying to figure out why these philosophers are, individually, so profoundly unfunny, while collectively and with some distance they’re hilarious. I started thinking about this after reading Laurent Binet’s Seventh Function of Language, which I promise you will absolutely love, or hate.