Tucker Hollingsworth's Camera Noise: A Primer by Stephen Tapscott
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Tucker Hollingsworth's Camera Noise: A Primer by Stephen Tapscott

Tucker Hollingsworth, “Noise Print #58”. Flush on Aluminum. Images to 70 x 57 inches. 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

What exactly are the Camera Noise pieces?

A series of large photo-prints by the Tuckaghrie (”Tucker”) Hollingsworth, based on the phenomenon of “camera noise”—or rather, on the unique occurrence-patterns of visual noise on a number of separate (and probably unrepeatable) occasions. The results are playful photos of “invisible” realities, which resemble interwoven textiles.

What is “camera noise” anyway?

Part of the process of looking through the camera, a pattern of information that doesn’t quite fit the pattern we think we want to see. When we tell the camera to be our “eye,” it takes in lots of information, most of which fits our expectations, some of which doesn’t.  “Noise” is data, information, that’s part of the perceptual misapprehension, or imagination, or overcompensation, that happens in or through the camera—usually through its lens or through its sensor(s).  In practical terms: we tend to “see” evidence of camera noise, in amateur photos, in those weird pixels of color that seem out of place, unique, or patterned in some new strange way—a fog, a plaid, a texture, a grid—that probably isn’t part of the realistic object we thought we’d shot. They’re accurate to the camera’s perception but a little surreal to ours—or sub-real, to be precise.

Tucker Hollingsworth, “Noise Print #78”. Flush on Aluminum. Images to 70 x 57 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

How did the “noise” get there?  Is it even really “there”?   

It’s a residual (or preliminary) part of the process of the camera’s process of  looking-transmuting-and-storing — a process that leaves (nearly undetectable) traces. Some of that patterning is subtly “out there” in the world, in surprising little

pools of light under a shady tree, for instance.  Other patterns left on the image come from the    way the camera perceives light, transforms it into electrical pulses, and stores it. Digital photography, in general, is a process of turning light into electrical signals and thence into digital code: the camera lens captures packets of light, the camera sensor sorts it by light waves, and the waves are turned into electrical impulses which are stored in a mathematical binary code. Later, another machine reads the digital language back: for each signal it generates back a blip of color on a screen or in a print. Assemble enough blips in recognizable patterns, and you have an image.

The interesting part is when pixels resist the system, or intrude just by being. Anomalies sneak in along the way. Too much information may enter; actual flashes of brightness might occur in the light outside the camera, so that the “noise” is anomalous but accurate. Maybe there’s grit on the lens; too much heat makes the sensor register more blue blips; the camera sensor could be weak, or maybe showing signs of age; or the camera may have –and impose– its own peculiarities. Other conditions can cause noise, as well.


And so all this information enters the record somehow, both there and not there, a part of the process of perception but a part we often try to ignore, to wipe away. It is part of mediated seeing, but it’s literally an under-level–a substrate—which we try to repress. When we take a “realist” picture, we often use a program to overlay this “noise,” to overwrite it or otherwise pretend it’s not there. (But it is, Blanche, it is.) Hollingsworth’s images are bold for looking at those patterns of what we, in the main, have agreed to try not to see.

Tucker Hollingsworth, “Noise Print #42”. Flush on Aluminum. Images to 70 x 57 inches. 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Do all cameras make this “noise”? Is it  a universal pattern of randomness?

All digital cameras do, from big professional models to cameras on cell-phones.

Is the randomness of camera noise a pattern?

It is if it is repeatable.

Say what?

Well, in his images Hollingsworth sometimes “frames” a unique section of random spotting and repeats the patch of random distribution, allowing the colors to change and the “new” distribution—which is now a visual pattern because it is repeated—to be rendered visible. It’s a pattern insofar as it’s repeated (this is art, not chaos repeating itself), but it’s still random at a local level of production. AND it has the repeatability of form, the result of aesthetic choice. It’s true that the camera might have repeated the pattern, but that possibility is statistically rare. The spots of noise are dependent on certain conditions; those states are unlikely to repeat again, in ordinary time and space.

Are they dots like Damien Hirst’s spots?


Dots like Lichtenstein’s Pop-Art spots?

Maybe, but they’re formed from a different source, print vs. digital modes. Lichtenstein’s dots were based on graphic-art textual media; they’re about sharp edges and ironic versions of iconic forms. Pop Art spots were painted versions of the Ben-Day spots of the graphic printing-process (think of comic books): uniform in size, crisply delineated, primary colors, representational. Hollingsworth’s spots have more to do with the textile effect of the digital mode, how we weave the world together by our senses and our technology. Hollingsworth’s dotted plaids are more subtly colored than those Ben-Day dots, recalling electric impulses instead of graphic ink-spots, more flowing and interrelational, and not figurative.

Think of how your eye follows the patterns in a Pollock “drip” painting; those motions resemble how the eye reads these Hollingsworth images: there are arcs and rhythms and patterns of random splooges and splashes by which you can see how the painter’s arm moved in the process of dripping the paint. You can track that pattern of motion—but if you tried to repeat exactly the same movements with exactly the same paint, chances are you’d make different drips — same pattern, random distribution.  Pollock packs on paint, Hollingsworth pixels. As in Pollock, the pattern lives in its cloud of instances: Again, what’s at stake in the Hollingsworth model is the digital interwoven interrelations of the mind and the world and the technologies we use to comprehend and order it.

Tucker Hollingsworth, “Noise Print #48”. Flush on Aluminum. Images to 70 x 57 inches. 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Is “noise” all an interesting mistake? Is this chaos-art?

The “noise” in Hollingsworth images is neither true nor false, neither “there” nor “not there,” neither an error nor a choice, fluke nor necessary—or rather, it’s both sides of all those dualities. Hollingsworth’s images are both/and constructions that elegantly bridge some of those dualistic gaps that art-speak sometimes constructs: they are both formal and random, both nonconcrete and hauntedly figurative, both abstract (in their geometries) and representational (they present something that is actually “there”), both high-art and popular, conceptual and realist, wicked smart and sensual. Because the images are what the camera sees without telling us it is interposing the grids, these forms are both true and false at the same time — like photographs of Schrödinger’s cat.

Oh-oh. Cat pictures?

No: in fact they’re large, painting-style grids of color dots and plaids, oddly futuristic– like overhearing a new mode of music: like an elegant and whimsical trance music. An oddly sensual combination, they make the eye feel these intensely pleasurable sensations even while you’re thinking “what is this pattern of things we see without seeing we see them?” A happy dotted or plaid formalism that’s thoughtful and kind of ecstatic at the same time. Their effect is mixed, in the same moment a kind of hushed holiness and a kind of gently rippling sexiness.

It all sound kind of cerebral.

Huge, semi-musical swaths of ravishingly-colored funky plaids with occasional dots, making plausible aesthetic claims to be true and not-true at the same time. What’s not to like?


Related links and information:

 “What Do you See When You Turn Out the Lights?”– Read Stephen Tapscott’s related essay on Hollingsworth’s series of Camera Noise photo-prints on mnartists.org

Tucker Hollingsworth: Inside the Camera/Noise is on view through November 30 at Chowgirls Parlor 1224 2nd St. NE, Minneapolis, MN, 55413. The exhibition is open by appointment (651-955-6031); there is a reception Thursday, November 15 from 6 to 10 pm.

Find more information about the artist on his website: www.tuckerhollingsworth.com.

About the author: Stephen Tapscott is s a professor in the humanities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, teaching, poetry, aesthetics and photography. He is author of eight collections of poems and essays and has a new book coming out soon, about the photographer Eadweard Muybridge and his trial for murder. He is also a translator from Spanish and Polish, most popularly of Pablo Neruda’s Cien sonetos de amor [One Hundred Love Sonnets]. He splits his time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and St-Denis, France.

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