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 opposing—almost mutually exclusive—worlds 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 today—any computer—and 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 flowers—portraits 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.