In one snapshot, power lines run against the background of an empty desert. In another, a tree stands in the middle of the frame. Superimposing the two on a double exposure film depicts Joshua Tree, California, in a dreamlike state. 

Photo courtesy of Sunny Rolfs.

This image is displayed alongside 12 others on the Sesnon Underground Gallery website, a space for UC Santa Cruz students to display their artwork. Sesnon Underground’s latest exhibition is from student photographer Sunny Rolfs. Titled “Untouched,” it is a film-photography dreamscape that centers on the desert landscape of Joshua Tree and has created an interactive Instagram challenge for the gallery’s followers.

When Rolfs got her first film camera during fall quarter, she found she could create an alternate reality by layering the images into double exposure photographs shot on black and white film. Throughout the pandemic, Rolfs spent much of her time taking walks in the desert. “Untouched” is a photography collection that weaves the relationship between humans and nature together in a time of social isolation. 

“As I observe my environment in Joshua Tree, I search for shapes and shadows to capture,” Rolf states in the exhibition. “Wistful gray tones imbue the photographs with my emotional and spiritual connection to the land. There is a focus on texture and detail. Serendipitous moments in the film emphasize light and shadow, which reflects the strong duality present in our experience of the human/nature relationship.” 

Rolfs described her process of taking these pictures as more organic, with a focus on the aesthetics of the photography. Little post-production work went into the photographs, as Rolfs solely depended on the double exposure on the analog. This played into the central theme of “Untouched” itself — how much of nature do humans leave untouched? 

Edie Trautwein, the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Intern at Sesnon Gallery, worked closely with Rolf in arranging the exhibition. 

“Sunny works in analog/film photography which is a very underutilized medium in this digital-centric era, taking risks within the medium by playing with exposures and light in cool ways,” Trautwein said in an email. “Often when I see film photographs by students I don’t see much playfulness in the work, so when Sunny was explaining how she went about taking the photographs — looking for texture, observing her environment — it struck me as different from photos I’d seen by other students.”

Photo courtesy of Sunny Rolfs.

Inspired by “Untouched,” Trautwein created an Instagram challenge.

On the Instagram post announcing the challenge, participants were encouraged to submit pictures inspired by Rolfs’ photography. The requirements were kept vague, except for guidelines on finding texture in their environment, so participants could explore the technicalities of photography.

“Putting the idea out there has the potential to shift the ways we interact with our surroundings, a tree or a wall can take on all types of new meaning when you’re looking at it through the lens of texture, and that’s a big part of how I interpret Sunny’s work,” Trautwein said. “Personally, I had a fun time going around my neighborhood and looking for texture, and I like that other people were able to get something out of it too.”

Choosing to use a black and white film camera was Rolfs’ way of showing authorship over the photos and finding her trademark. She expressed an organic connection to the environment while shooting on film, which allowed her to manipulate the images into hazy, dreamscapes of Joshua Tree. Overtly avoiding what she feels are often clichéd takes of the landscape at Joshua Tree, this authorship licensed a creative focus on human interference in the environment. 

Born out of isolation and her feelings of agitation, Rolfs’ “Untouched” is an exploration and commentary on human intrusion of nature. 

“I was talking about myself, really. I wanted to feel untouched by the chaos and the destruction around me, and in a way I felt like I wasn’t. I felt somewhat violated. I realized that was what I also see in the environment,” Rolfs said. “The environment wants to be left on its own. It doesn’t want human interference, or as we say, the human touch. In a way, it’s not a conclusive concept of stewardship or personality flaws that we try to feel. It’s about this metaphorical relationship with the environment and ourselves.”