Article: Digital pioneer opens up new landscape

New Media

Digital pioneer explores a new photographic landscape

PAM DIXON 04-Jun-2000 Sunday

Landscape photographer Stephen Johnson’s studio, set against the drama of Pacifica’s Bay Area coastline, is a wonder both for its scenic setting and for the photographs it houses. Looking at Johnson’s photographs, your eyes and your mind can play tug-of-war.

While viewing an image of the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, you wonder if you’re looking at a glorious collaboration between Georgia O’Keeffe and Johnson. You see a stark, rain-turreted desert hill, awash with stripes of gentle bronzes and pinks and set against a watery blue sky.

The image is so detailed that it is almost surreal. The image, along with thousands of others, is from Johnson’s landmark undertaking “With a New Eye: The Digital National Parks Project,” a first-of-its-kind project where he set out to digitally record the images of 50 American parks, from Alaska to Maine. “I wanted to prove to myself that the digital technology is viable for art,” says Johnson. “I also wanted to broaden people’s sensitivity to sheer ordinary beauty that is understated.”

The Badlands image is typical of Johnson’s work. He uses his lens to take unadulterated pictures of nature that are filled with pastel colors, natural light and a keen sense of seeing the glory in everyday beauty. While he can take high-drama black-and-white photos that are reminiscent of Ansel Adams, he rarely chooses to do so. A vignette of scattered fall leaves, a view of snow gently dusting the ochre cliffs of the Grand Canyon or an eerie, crystalline image of twisted blue-green glacial ice are more his style.

Johnson remembers the time he was photographing the Grand Canyon for the project. “As I was setting up my camera, a couple walked to the rim and looked out at the view. One said, `It just doesn’t look like the postcards,’ and they turned around and left.”

That is exactly what Johnson wants to avoid in his work. He wants to capture images that are so stunningly real that there is no lie in them. “That `it doesn’t look like the postcards’ is an eloquent reason to do the project. I want to show the soft light and color that really exists.”

Johnson knows that his photographs are in fact so realistic that they are often taken as something else. “Everyone asks me, `Oh, you must have doctored this somehow.’ But the answer is no, I haven’t. I just have the equipment now to capture what is really there, which I wouldn’t have been able to do using film.”

Johnson is one of the first fine-arts photographers in the world to use exclusively digital equipment from start to finish in his work. Because digital cameras and high-resolution printers are becoming more popular now, the milestone doesn’t seem as striking as it really is. But make no mistake: Johnson is still pushing the envelope with the equipment he uses, and has definitely made a mark in the history of photography. He’s played a big part in ushering in the era of digital photography, and he also inadvertently helped determine — and raise — the standards for camera, software and printer manufacturers.

But like most digital pioneers, Johnson had no idea he would become one.

The digital path

Johnson was raised in California’s Central Valley and thanks to a confluence of his love for the outdoors, his artistic ability and a knack with machines, he majored in photography at San Francisco State University. After returning to the valley to teach photography at Merced College, he purchased his first computer to help him organize his famed “At Mono Lake” project in the early ’80s. “The computer had nothing to do with images at this point,” he says. “Just organization.” But it got him started on the digital path.

A few years later, while Johnson was working on a project about California’s Central Valley with colleague Robert Dawson, he heard about a Sony Genesis system that the Department of Defense was considering as a training tool. Amazingly, Johnson was able to get one of the computer systems from Sony. “We created a video disc and authored it ourselves. We had a simple touch-screen computer for `The Great Central Valley: California’s Heartland’ photographic exhibit in 1986, where visitors could call up topics and see related pictures.”

The exhibit caught Apple’s attention, and Johnson was surprised when a group of the company’s executives came out to meet him. When Johnson had an opportunity to design a book on the Central Valley project, Johnson called his contacts at Apple and asked for technical help. As a result, in 1988 he purchased one of the first color Macs — a Mac II. By 1991, Johnson had finished designing his book (of the same name as the exhibit), having used computers to manipulate the images. At the time, it was unheard of for an individual to be able to do that.

During the critical time that Johnson prepared the book, he contacted technical people far and wide for help. “I got acquainted with Kodak, and I began consulting with Adobe on the development of Photoshop,” says Johnson. In 1992, he wrote a set of 146 examples of how photographers could use the Duotone curves in Adobe; the set is still included in the software.

In 1994, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. Johnson was approached by a camera designer with a highly experimental digital camera. At the time, the camera and its digital insert would have cost several hundred-thousand dollars. “It was a hand-built prototype digital camera. It used a digital scanning insert for a traditional, 4×5 view camera. I took my traditional color slide camera and shot side by side to test it. The results were amazing,” says Johnson.

“That was the day film died for me. The digital color was dead-on, and you could see into deep shadows like never before. That day in 1994 changed everything for me, and 150 years of photographic history dropped away and a new revolution became possible.”

Johnson never shot with traditional film again. A few months later, Johnson was attending a conference and happened to be sitting in on a lecture about tricks and tips for Photoshop, and something clicked for him. He didn’t want to see digital photography become a medium just for compositing photos and creating unreal images.

“It was right there that I dreamed up the Digital National Parks Project. I wanted to provide myself with a difficult test to see if the digital tools were portable and reliable enough to create real images of beauty. I wanted to be able to go out into the parks to photograph with a degree of accuracy and sensitivity I had never been able to before.”

Johnson devoted the next six years of his life to the project. The camera Johnson used, now called a Dicomed Field Pro Camera, is a version of the prototype he used in 1994. The camera shoots at 140 million pixels, which is about the same resolution that it did in 1994. Compare that to an average digital camera’s resolution of 4 million pixels, and you’ll understand why Johnson can take photographs that are unbelievably real.

To capture the images for his project, Johnson hiked with a backpack stuffed with his camera, a Macintosh PowerBook and a Global Positioning System receiver. He would sling a tripod over his shoulder and march, often alone, into some of the most isolated places in the United States. He used the GPS receiver to record the longitude and latitude of every image, and he used the Mac to preview the giant files that can reach up to one “gig” each.

Johnson, who gratefully says he’s the luckiest man alive, has just completed recording his 50th park. He may record a few more parks, but he is winding up the project — gathering all the photographs, choosing the best of them, and planning a large touring exhibition and a book of the project.

But meanwhile, he changed photography.

“I think by going out and recording the photographs with integrity and by this being the first full-scale digital landscape project of any kind, I have become a very public advocate for the digital era,” says Johnson. “The irony is that I have been heavily influenced by my traditional photographic values.”

That means that Johnson’s images of the parks tell the truth, so there is no disappointment over unretouched reality.


You can see images from “With a New Eye: The Digital National Parks Project” on Johnson’s Web site — — and at his Pacifica studio.

Johnson’s book “The Great Central Valley: California’s Heartland” is available from the University of California Press and from his Web site.

His current work is on permanent display at the Fahey Klein Gallery in Los Angeles (148 N. La Brea Ave.). For more information, call (323) 934-2250.

Pam Dixon’s column about technology and the arts appears the first Sunday of each month.