From the Late Summer / Fall 2001 Issue of Aspen Magazine
Software pioneer Bill Atkinson made a name for himself as a computer genius,
but a love of nature drew him in another direction. Lito Tejada-Flores examines
the way Atkinson uses his digital know-how to create photographs that truly reflect
the natural world.
Where Worlds Collide
Bill Atkinson has come a long way
from Silicon Valley to exquisite photographs
of fall among the aspen.
By Lito Tejada-Flores
Bill Atkinson likes to hang out where worlds collide. His passions include the art
and science of unspoiled natural beauty and numbing lines of computer code, the warm
emotional poetry of color and the cold and rational rigor of cyberspace. These are
opposingalmost mutually exclusiveworlds for most people, but not for
Bill Atkinson, a rare and creative spirit whose exquisite and dramatic photographs
can be seen this summer and fall at Aspen's Museum Works Gallery (312 E. Hyman).
Atkinson is, in many different senses, a visionary. He first made his mark as a member
of the small team that invented the Macintosh computer (and since the Mac begot Windows,
if you use a computer todayany computerand enjoy the intuitive graphics
interface of today's machines, you owe him a big thank-you). After a meteoric cybercareer,
punctuated by a long string of groundbreaking innovations, Atkinson stepped back from the
intensity of Silicon Valley to pursue a parallel and highly personal passion, a more
contemplative although perhaps equally intense path: nature photography. A gifted amateur
photographer since he was 10, Atkinson easily crossed the technical and aesthetic boundary
into the world of professional image-making, where he has become a major figure.
Digital Sage: Atkinson uses technology not to trick but to render
his intimate images in the finest detail. (Photo caption)
His images are, for the most part, intimate studies, close-up portraits, stolen moments of
quiet but vivid perfection. But there is an additional dimension to his photographs.
Atkinson works in color and applies his computer background to the creation of images
that are simply the finest color prints possible.
Color photography has long been the neglected stepchild of the art world, either ignored or
arrogantly put down by critics and art mavens for a number of different, and seldom well-thought-out,
reasons. While black-and-white photographic printing developed into a polished near-science early
in the 20th century, the printing of color photographs has remained inaccurate, often garish,
and hard to control. Color is subject ot a seemingly endless series of highly unsatisfactory
darkroom compromises; papers, sharpness, color adjustments, and even longevity have all turned
most fine-art photographers away from a serious involvement with the creation and exhibition of
color images. Not Atkinson.
Crossing the Color Line: Though color photography has long been dismissed by the art-world
elite, Atkinson's work commands a second look, even from collectors. (Photo caption)
Some years ago, Atkinson began his quest for the perfect print. Applying a depth of computer expertise
that no other contemporary photographer possesses, Atkinson tested one approach after another in his
search for the perfect reproduction of what the camera records on film. He was pursuing digital
images, meaning images where the original film transparencies were first scanned and then adjusted to
the parameters of different printing technologies and finally output on paper. This is not at all the
sort of digital trickery that any art director can accomplish nowadays; putting a smiling model and a
shiny SUV into the middle of photo of a wilderness photo for one more unrealistic advertisement.
In fact, this is the exact opposite of digital trickery: a purist's digital quest. And Atkinson
succeeded in redefining the limits of color photographic printing. It's no exaggeration to call
Atkinson the Ansel Adams of color printing. His digital color prints have a richer gamut of colors
and a far subtler sense of sharpness and detail than even collectors are used to seeing.
Familiar and New: This image brings back memories for anyone who's
spent time in the mountains. (Photo caption)
As evidenced by his work, Atkinson is not very attracted by the grand or epic landscape. His relationship
with nature is close, subtle, delicate. His photographs are the visual transcripts of an intimate
conversation with nature. From his home in Northern California, Bill has taken his Hasseblad to the
Pacific Northwest, the high Southwestern desert, and deep Southern forests, but he's spent some of his
most productive days in our own Colorado mountains. Many of the photos on display at Museum Works are of
aspen groves, at once familiar and new.
His images tug at your memory: Didn't you walk by a grove of aspens just like that recently? Only you
didn't notice the subtle rhythm of trunks, the hidden composition, the image waiting for a more aware eye
to spot and capture. There is also a large sampling of flowersportraits so close up that you enter
into another scale. The microstructure of a flower wrestling with the macrostructure of an oversized, yet
refined and powerful print. These are photos to be savored as much as seen.