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The Polymath Photographer

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A polymath (Greek polymathēs, “having learned much”) is a person whose expertise fills a significant number of subject areas. We more often call them Renaissance men, for the days when it was common for someone to be an artist, scientist, writer, etc.

During the last several years, I’ve had the pleasure to work with thousands of photographers, and I’ve become quite impressed by how many are also exceptionally talented people in other areas of life. In getting to know them, I’ll often ask why they aren’t exhibiting or photographing full-time and find the answer is usually something low key: I’ve got other things to do right now. The other things often are quite impressive: being a research scientist, a judge, a CEO, or a full-time mom.

Many of these photographers fit the definition of Polymath—even in this day of specialization, their talents allow them to be experts in several different areas. Not long ago it happened again—I found myself admiring the work of a photographer and quickly came to realize not only was he another Polymath, but in this case his “other work” directly influences every single one of us who capture digital images. In fact, without him (although we’ve never met) I probably would never have started in photography.

Photoshop and Me

In 1993 I made one of my numerous career changes and was exceedingly lucky to find an opening teaching in the Biology department at a fine liberal arts college. The Chairman had the revolutionary idea of changing all the microscope cameras from film to digital. As the newest faculty member, I had few responsibilities, so I got the “task” of setting up a computerized digital imaging lab. This was my backwards entry into photography—starting with post-processing and manipulating images, not taking them.

Even in 1993, we had pretty decent software tools, such as NIH Image and Photoshop 1.0, to manipulate images on computers. Working with them hooked me on imaging almost immediately. The hardware was incredibly weak by today’s standards: I would have a cup of coffee while waiting for an Unsharp Mask to perform on a 2 Megapixel image. But if you looked at my 1993 computer screen, you would have felt at home: the windows, icons, commands, and files looked very similar to the ones you see today when you open Photoshop.

If you went back to use a computer from 1983, however, you would probably be lost unless you are a programmer. There were no windows, icons, menus—or images for that matter (for those of you who aren’t old enough to remember, the monitor in those days was simply a monochrome screen that displayed text, including a command line where you typed in, well, commands). You did serious work on a computer: word processing, spreadsheets, or scientific calculations. Nothing as frivolous as working with pictures.

The Start of Digital Imaging

That changed dramatically in the mid 1980s when Apple released the Macintosh computer. The Mac (and its shorter lived cohort, Lisa) was an entirely new concept (based on work begun through ARPA and continued, for a while, at Xerox): it had a mouse in addition to the keyboard and was graphically oriented. Instead of entering a memorized command from the keyboard, one simply moved the mouse over an icon and clicked to open a program or perform an action. Love Macs or hate them, they are what started “graphic personal computing” for the masses. Even if you live and breathe Windows, remember that Microsoft had to develop Windows as a reaction to the Macintosh; they were perfectly content with command-line computing until then.

You could actually draw things on that first Macintosh. Black and white bitmapped things, it’s true, but you could draw well enough that the computer users of the day, most of them anyway, called it a “toy”—because who would want to use an expensive computer to do something as childish as making pictures? Within a couple of years you could not only draw black and white images, you could work in actual gray-scale images, and soon after that even color ones.


“Shelly” by Roy Baker, 1984

These days I have 3 or 4 different image processors on my dual-monitor computer, with 2 terabytes of images stored on my various hard drives. I can manipulate my photographs in 16 bit depth and full color, to the point that many of them approach adequacy. To a large extent, the reason I can do that is because of the work of one person, a polymath who happens to be a photographer.

Employee #51

At the age of 10, Bill Atkinson received a subscription to Arizona Highways magazine and was so inspired by the images that his own passion became photographing nature. But along his life journey he found some greater interests, especially in the fledgling field of computer sciences. As a graduate student at the University of Washington, using the limited computer resources available in 1978, he wrote software that produced accurate 3-D images of the human brain, some of which were on the cover of Scientific American.

He was recruited from Washington to Apple Computer, where he became employee #51, originally hired at the Application Software Department ( 1 ). While people may argue about who was the father of personal computing, no one argues about who the father of the graphic interface was: it was Bill Atkinson.

He became the developer of all graphics and user interfaces for the Lisa and then the Macintosh computers. These were, at that time, an entirely new type of personal computer that was graphically based, not command line based. The internal programs that allowed the Macs to draw graphics—boxes, circles, patterns, even just lines—were called QuickDraw and were almost entirely written by Bill ( 2 ). Here’s perhaps the best example of how legendary his reputation was as a programmer. Steve Jobs, the cofounder of Apple, was once asked how many programmer man-years it took to develop QuickDraw. Atkinson had developed the release version, working on it part-time for 4 years, but Jobs replied, “We invested 24 man-years in QuickDraw,” using the assumption that one part-time Bill Atkinson year was equal to six years of full-time work by other programmers. Apple guru Andy Hertzfeld later said Jobs’ estimate was low ( 4 ).

Atkinson also wrote the groundbreaking program MacPaint (and its predecessor, LisaPaint), which allowed people to draw on a computer using a mouse for the first time. If you don’t realize how important that program was, look along the edges of the screen capture below—there are some Icons you might be familiar with: the paint brush, lasso tool, line tool, selection rectangle, paint bucket, eraser tool, and others that you use every day in your post-processing program, all of which debuted in MacPaint 25 years ago and are basically unchanged (although more powerful) in Photoshop and the other image editing programs today.


A screenshot of the MacPaint program, circa 1984, showing the tool icons. The grandfather of Photoshop and every other image editing program we use today.

Another Bill Atkinson innovation you’ve probably used is the pull down menu—every program and computer interface uses them today, but they were first widely seen on the Mac interface he designed. That interface also included the first widespread use of scroll bars, folders, and cut-and-paste, among other things.

His greatest achievement, though, is a program many of you won’t recognize. Hypercard was a program that allowed people to create their own programs based on the revolutionary (for the time) concept of hyperlinks—a bit of text or graphic that when clicked on takes you to an entirely different page. Yeah, I know you do that every day, clicking your way around the internet. But hypercard came years before there was an internet. The first internet browser, Mosaic, took the hyperlink idea online years after Bill Atkinson originated it.

In 1983, Atkinson became only the third person ever appointed an Apple Fellow, the most prestigious award given to Apple programmers and designers. In 1994, The Electronic Frontier Foundation honored him with the EFF Pioneer award as a person who created dramatic advances in computer science. Without Bill Atkinson the development of digital cameras would still have occurred, and someone would eventually have written software to view and manipulate their images. But because of Bill Atkinson, the software was ready and waiting long before digital cameras were capable of generating adequate images. And I can pick the Unsharp Mask tool by moving my mouse over the drop-down menu and clicking on it, instead of typing something like: Cdrive:Photoshop:UnsharpMask:radius=1.1, %=98:run.

In 1990, Bill Atkinson left Apple computer, and by 1996 had returned to fine-art nature photography full-time. Since then he has become widely recognized as one of the premier landscape photographers in the U.S.

Several years ago, while photographing in the desert Southwest, he became fascinated by the colors within the rocks themselves. He began photographing polished rocks and developed polarized lighting and photographic techniques to obtain beautiful rich-color photographs of polished rock slabs in his studio.

Exhibitions of his work Within the Stone have exhibited at the Ansel Adams Gallery and the George Eastman House: International Museum of Photography and Film.

True to his history, when he found that a normal four-color press could not properly reproduce the color of his images in book form, he worked with the printer to develop screening processes with highly concentrated inks to create a wider print gamut than had previously been possible. The new printing techniques led to the publication of his groundbreaking (pun intended, I’m afraid) Within the Stone fine-art book. In addition to accolades for its photography, the book has won a Gold Ink Award for its innovations in printing technique.

He also continues to work in computer science, although he now focuses on educating photographers about printing and color management and his color profiles are used by many photographers and fine-art printers. He also is actively developing, along with his wife, an iPhone application that will allow his nature photographs to be sent as greeting cards (and having received one, I can say it’s spectacular).

You and I work every day with the direct descendants of those tools Bill Atkinson first designed almost 3 decades ago. I think it’s nice to know he’s using those same tools today to create beautiful images just like me. Okay, okay, much better than me. But then that seems appropriate.

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