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Marking Time

Marking Time

Grain/Noise, 1996

Grain is an essential element in Marking Time.

Grain is the subject. Sand is made of tiny grains. It’s always been interesting to me that in a field of dunes the individual grains of sand are so multicolored. I love walking through the sand and watching the sun glint on tiny grains I ordinarily wouldn’t have noticed. Constellations of light shimmer as you move through a plain of sand. With every shift in angle, one pattern disappears and another appears. Move back to the original angle and it reappears. Unlike the stars above, there’s a single source for all of the separate points of light. They are pieces of a much greater whole. This field of light reminds me of another field of light found on the surface—ocean waves. The dune fields are an inland sea, moving at a much slower rate than their watery counterparts, but nonetheless moving. Given time, whole mountains of sand, even oceans of it, move vast distances. On a windy day, you can hear it move. The shifting sighs are not unlike those heard on the ocean. It takes time to see all this. It takes different amounts of time.

Grain is the medium. It takes only a little time to capture all of this. If you take too much time, you move too much, or the subject moves too much, and you lose focus. Grain structure is tied to time: more time, less grain; less time, more grain. You use a slower ISO to reduce grain or noise, so you need more light for a given exposure, and you need more time to collect that light. The ISO of the 35mm color negative film I used for this image was fairly high. As a result the grain structure was fairly pronounced. Granted, I accentuated contrast fairly significantly in this image, using Photoshop, which causes the grain structure to become even more pronounced. Not only does contrast rise, but saturation rises as well. All of these factors led to a dramatic exaggeration of the multicolored quality of the separate grains of sand. I used the technique of blurring the color values only to reduce the saturation shift. In fact it subdued the saturated values of the dye structure in the original, but left the luminosity values untouched, so focus was not compromised. It’s a subtle effect, but it makes a difference.

Though you can take steps to reduce it, there’s no way to eliminate noise. Every device we use for producing images introduces some noise, even our eyes. The noise in this image happens to be compatible with the subject. Though the medium exaggerated the noise in this image, I haven’t taken steps to further exaggerate it. That’s a stylistic device that doesn’t complement the rest of my body of work. On the contrary, I’ve taken steps to reduce noise, bringing the image back closer to what my eyes saw, but not duplicating what they saw. Instead, I worked with what I found both in the medium and the subject and took appropriate steps to serve the image. To one degree or another, I deal with noise in every image I produce. While a consistent working method can establish a routine for dealing with this element, in the end I don’t deal with the element of noise in a routine way. Every image is different.