Annette LeMay Burke: Fauxliage

Published on 03/24/ 2021

Disguised Cell Phone Towers of the American West

Ever since I started seeing disguised cell phone towers in the early 2000s, I thought they looked out of place. For me, instead of providing camouflage, their disguises drew extra attention. At first I was amused by the masquerades, then I was amazed and impressed at the variety of disguises. Trees are the most common; imitation evergreens, palms, eucalyptus, and even saguaros have all been created. The concealment companies have designed more creative facades as demand has increased, including towers that provide additional functionality such as flagpoles or iconographic church crosses. But generally the towers are just simulacra. They are water towers that hold no water, windmills that provide no power, and trees that provide no oxygen. Yet they all provide five bars of service.

We all want great cell service, but are we comfortable with the manufactured nature and ersatz landscape that technology has created? My photos show the diversity of disguises and how they are integrated into everyday life. Because the towers have such conspicuous costumes, they are an obvious visual example of how the built world is encroaching into nature.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area—in the heart of Silicon Valley. I grew up in this area and have seen the effects that technology has had on the landscape and infrastructure. (Not to mention the housing prices and techno-jargon overheard at Starbucks.) As a child, I lived in a hillside house with expansive views of the bay. We always had a pair of binoculars to observe how the San Francisco skyline was changing or how the suburban sprawl was advancing into new territory. We also did a lot of family road trips. I attended UC Berkeley and earned a degree in geology; I learned that observing the landscape was essential for my success. Fast forward a few years later, and traveling throughout the western US to find disguised cell phone towers seemed like a natural fit for me.

I traveled to nine states on multiple road trips to capture the cell tower images. I always researched a region before hitting the road. The internet, and especially Google Maps and Street View, were an indispensable resource for finding the towers. In a few meta moments on the road, I was exchanging location data between my phone’s map app with from the very tower I was trying to find and photograph. Sometimes I would scout locations from the passenger seat and use the GPS on my phone camera as a marker of where to return with my “big” camera. Palm in Winter is an example where this strategy proved fruitful.

Some towers I found serendipitously, including the cover photo for the book. I was driving near the Palm Springs airport at dusk and noticed the lights on top of the palm trees. I pulled over immediately, set-up my tripod and made the photo. Finding ridiculously disguised towers and getting great photos of them often feels like a massive treasure hunt throughout the southwest, and part of the reason this project appeals to me. I felt like I found the treasure chest that day.

As the project progressed, I realized that the towers were collecting all of the data transmitted from our phones—some necessary, some more personal. All of our social media interactions, advertising clicks, location pings, Siri searches, and phone calls are stored, commoditized and sold by Big Tech and the government. The equipment on all cell phone towers gather this data, but the disguised towers, with their costumes cloaking this overlooked functionality, seem more nefarious to me. Surveillance capitalism is big business in the twenty-first century.

I worked on this project for six years and photographed hundreds of towers. After researching and observing the cellular service terrain, I now wonder how much longer these overtly veiled towers will be around. The evergreen tree disguises add $100,000 to the cost of the tower (branches plus the cost of reinforcement for the extra weight). As the trees age and lose their needles, the service provider must invest more money to refurbish the trees with new branches. The other alternative, since we’re now all used to the once novel “visual pollution” of cell towers, is to leave the tower undisguised. I’ve seen both scenarios occur, usually after I’ve made a special trip to capture a tower only to find that its decorative veneer has been removed.

The concealment companies that make the disguises now routinely hide the cell equipment within a building’s infrastructure. They’re located inside of church steeples, behind fake facades of office rooflines, and in strip mall clock towers. You really can’t tell where they are hiding. Another factor that will affect the towers is the rollout of the fifth generation (5G) of cellular technology. 5G cellular equipment will be smaller and more inconspicuous—think small antennas integrated into the tops of streetlight poles.

Perhaps all these factors will cause the elaborately disguised “fauxliage” towers to start disappearing and be considered an anachronism of the early 21st century. The decorated towers could join drive-up photo kiosks, phone booths, newsstands, and drive-in movie theaters as architectural relics of the past. Coincidentally, those functionalities are all standard capabilities of our cell phones, now held in the palms of our hands.