Tuning in: Looking for a signal in the noise

Recently I started working on a new project, and I’m beginning to get to the point where I have some initial results to show. The project is an attempt to produce interesting and aesthetically appealing images from what might essentially be described as noise.


The noise that I’m working with in the project include the ever changing appearance of the reflective surface of moving water in Barton Creek and my own influence on the impressions that my camera creates of the surface. My influence includes things like moving to varying degrees when I take the pictures to create blur, and over- or underexposing the images to feature details in shadows or highlights.



To me, the world seems full of noise these days. We live with a wealth of distractions and attempts to pull our attention, sway our opinions, and influence our decisions. Fake news we’re told is real and real news we’re told is fake. This side is right, that side is wrong. This is the right way, that’s the wrong way. Truth, lies, half truths that confuse. Click bait. Yellow journalism. Sticky content. Trolling. Spam. Robocalls. Noise!



Just in my own little head I too often tend to deal with a stunning array of noise. I interrupt myself with thoughts about things about things I ‘probably should’ be doing instead of what I have chosen to do in any given moment. Insecurities lead me to worry that I simply don’t have what it takes to succeed and to scold myself for taking on a given challenge. A lack of ‘sufficient’ experience with things like marketing, search engine optimization, an art sales leads me to think I need to be doing a million things I’m not, leaving me feeling scattered and overwhelmed.


I wonder if I’m doing enough to help others I care about get through the challenges they face. I wonder if I’m doing enough to achieve on my own so that I won’t be in need of outside assistance at some point down the road. I wonder if I’m missing out on any opportunities that I just can’t see and will regret it later. All noise.



There is so much noise filling our lives all the time that it is increasingly difficult to tune in to a signal. When I was a kid, some of the radios in cars, like my grandfathers 65 Chevy pickup, lacked ‘seek’ and memory buttons. To change to another radio station, you had to turn a dial. And as you turned the dial to the left or the right, leaving the station you were on, you’d first hear the white noise of static. Then after another turn or two, you’d stumble upon the ‘signal’ from another station. And sometimes that signal wasn’t very strong, so in addition to hearing music on that other station, you’d hear intermittent static, or noise. In those cases, it wasn’t easy to tune in to the signal; the noise just kept creeping in.



When I worked as a statistician, part of my job was to make sense of large amounts of data; to transform raw data from noise into information. Now, in my work with photography, I am trying to transform some of the noise that I see in the world into something that is appealing and meaningful. That's especially challenging with abstract images like these.


At this point, I’m not sure about any meaning the resulting images in this project might carry, but I am discovering that I do like the way that some of them look. I like the incredible organic shapes created by the reflections of tree branches warped by the undulating shape of the water’s surface. I like the color of the early morning sun and the deep blue sky that are reflected in the surface. I like the intricate and ever changing patterns created by the movement of the water.



I started work on this project in February. The first thing I had to do was find a place along the creek that provided the raw material I wanted to work with. A place where the water moved in just the right way and reflected just the right things to make the photos interesting and appealing to me.


Once I found that place, at the bottom of a small waterfall, I started taking photos where the surface was most interesting. Sometimes that surface was in shadow, sometimes it was in the light, and sometimes it was a mixture of the two. At times it reflected branches and others just the sky. Even the shapes and patterns of the waves change from one place to the next.


And, because the water is always moving and its appearance always shifting as a result, I can’t have complete control over my compositions. The water moves too fast for my eyes to keep up so I can’t really see exactly what shapes will be in the resulting pictures. As a result, I have to take a large number of photos, one right after another.


I do my best to find a composition that might work and then I hold the shutter button down, letting the camera take 5 to 10 pictures at a time. The end result of this is that when I get home I have hundreds of photos to sift through, trying to find compositions that I think I can work with. Sometimes, despite my best efforts when I’m on the creek, I find that none of the photos work for me.



The first couple of times that I went to the creek to create a set of photos to sift through, I went home to discover that few, if any, of them worked for me. Regardless, I worked with the photos in Lightroom and Luminar, my photo editing tools of choice, to see if I could isolate what was interesting to me and if I could separate those interesting characteristics from what I thought was just noise.


Over time, I began to learn exactly what interested and appealed to me, so that when I went back out to take more photos, I was better able to capture images that worked for me. And, I was better able to control my own influence to create more abstract results that were interesting to me.



The same is true for the ways in which I edited the photos. I began to learn what worked for me and what didn’t. Typically I try to avoid going overboard with digital manipulation of my photos, but with these I warped and twisted and tweaked with reckless abandon. I warped the shapes in some of the images, highlighted or reduce the colors in others, and increased or decreased the contrast in many.


I changed some of the colors slightly or to a large degree, flipped some images on their side, and cropped to exclude uninteresting parts. Maybe I’m just adding noise, but I’d like to think that I’m tuning in to some signal by creating images that appeal to me. And I’m hopeful that they can appeal to others as well and as a result, be more signal than noise themselves.



I don’t know if I’ll add any of these images to my portfolio in the end, and I don't know that I won't edit them any further, but I do like some of the initial results and plan to continue working on it.


If you like any of the images and feel comfortable sending me a note, I’d love to have your input. I’m always very interested to hear what appeals to others and I love to hear what others see in my work that I might have missed.


Thank you for reading!


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