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Visions of Earth
JULY 2005
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Visions of Earth
By Siobhan Roth
Photograph by Bill Atkinson

Globules in matrix opal seem to reflect the world around them, like shimmering seadrops on a bed of sand.

Discovery in Stone

If you want to find out more about photographer Bill Atkinson, go to the toolbar on your computer screen, click on "file," and look at the drop-down menu. Done. Almost 30 years ago, in a time Atkinson refers to as another life, he invented the drop-down menu for a start-up computer company called Apple.

Atkinson is now a world-class nature photographer, and though long retired from the byte race, he certainly didn't leave his computer chops at the office. He marshals them in service to his art, spending a huge amount of his time developing the best techniques to simplify and improve digital printing for fine art-quality color photos.

Within the Stone, a 179-page volume featuring 72 intense close-ups of rock cross-sections, is the most recent product born of Atkinson's twin passions for nature and technology. It began in 1999 when he and landscape photographer Charles Cramer visited Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park. Polished by time and the elements, the stones he found and photographed there dazzled him. He spent the next five years exploring the shapes and colors that dance across a simple slice of polished rock. "I like to place viewers of my photographs in the center," he says. "I want them to be right there, to experience the voluptuousness and the beauty." 

Each of the stonescapes contains a multitude of meanings. The images mesmerize you while you're looking at them and haunt you when you turn away. At first glance the amber and blue harmonies in a matrix opal could be cells in a petri dish or a rocky sand bed viewed through the water. And nature's thick brush strokes on a section of pietersite evoke the action of an abstract expressionist painting or even the more jagged edges of human emotion. Who says only geologists can find poetry in a rock? 

Gearing UpWhen Atkinson began his adventures in stone, he bought a diamond-blade saw and taught himself how to cut into rocks to reveal their hidden worlds. Then he polished them so that the purity and grace of nature's handiwork could shine through. But he soon realized it would be much more efficient to buy or borrow rocks that were already cut and polished. Atkinson made pilgrimages to the annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show (see
Fossil Wars, NGM May 2005), which draws thousands of collectors from around the world. "I'd show one of my pictures to dealers and ask if I could photograph their very best pieces," he says. "They were very warm and generous people. Usually they'd dig into a special drawer and say, 'Well, this one is not for sale, but I'll let you photograph it.' I'd spend the whole day sifting through stacks and stacks of slabs, finding pieces to photograph. Then I'd bring them back to my hotel room and work all night photographing them."Atkinson typically spends one to two hours photographing a single stone. He rests it on a little black beanbag and tries to find different stories and rhythms in the patterns. The piece of stone he uses may be an eight-inch (twenty-centimeter) slab, he says, but his subject—the star of the show—will be a mere inch-and-a-quarter (three-centimeter) section, about a tenth the size of the resulting photo print.

Finding the Art Inside
Shooting extreme close-ups of polished opals in a hotel room couldn't be farther away from hiking in the woods, seeking rays of evening light that hover between the branches of a flowering dogwood tree. But the two have their commonalities. "It's a found art, a little bit like landscapes," Atkinson says of his stonescapes. "I don't make aspen trees, but I choose what to photograph and how to compose the frame. With the rocks I get to choose even more."

The pietersite specimen that appears in this month's "Visions of Earth" (see the fifth image in the Photo Gallery) was not Atkinson's first composition, but his fourth. "As I was turning the stone I said, 'Ooh! There's a waterfall there!' It's like encountering something really beautiful in the forest. You find it by tromping around and keeping an open mind."

A High-Tech Quest for Perfection
Not surprisingly, Bill Atkinson has always been in the advance guard of new photo technology, starting with his preference for making color prints of landscape scenes in 1965.  Back then black and white still held the art world enthralled. 

His quest to make prints that retain the natural beauty he wants to convey—coupled with his fascination with the possibilities of computers—drove his innovations in digital shooting and color printing. A medium-format Hasselblad camera, Fujichrome Velvia film, and studio strobe lighting were his usual tools when he first began photographing the rocks. But to achieve finer imaging and more accurate color, Atkinson soon moved to a
BetterLight large-format scanning digital camera and Altman Star Par CDM lighting fixtures. He custom-creates ICC camera profiles using a GretagMacBeth ColorChecker DC target and digital camera profiling software.

Discovering the composition and envisioning the picture is the right-brain part of Atkinson's work. The left brain kicks in with the next steps: scanning the resulting transparencies and printing them. 

In the back of the Betterlight, where you would expect a sheet of film, there's a scanner. "Twice as much resolution as four-by-five film, and I get to scan the original rock," he says. The major technical challenge is that the printer might read, for example, a shade of red that is more orange than it should be. After much testing, Atkinson gives an identifying number to each shade so that the printer can consistently read the color correctly. 

Atkinson has spent more than a thousand hours writing and testing these printer profiles. When he finishes one, he lets Epson, the company that makes his preferred printer, post the profile on its website so that other photographers may download it and use it free of charge. "His color profiles fix Epson's basic output," says landscape photographer and friend Charles Cramer. "Atkinson was the only one who took the time to figure out how to correct the problem and make great prints."

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