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Paesina Marble: A mineral specimen as patchwork quilt.

Stone Secrets

Bill Atkinson's magnified images reveal hidden beauties in the rocks around us


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MACINTOSH enthusiasts might know the name Bill Atkinson from his 12-year reign at Apple Computer beginning in 1979. He was the one who designed a good portion of the original Macintosh user interface. He designed the pull-down menu. He wrote MacPaint. Some folks even say he's one of the godfathers of the entire graphics software industry.

Nowadays Atkinson is more intent on redefining digital photography and printmaking. And exactly what is he taking pictures of? Rocks.

On display at the Tech Museum of Innovation are several huge, richly colorful digital prints of insanely magnified polished rock specimens. Seventy-two of the images appear in the accompanying book, Within the Stone. The book also features 70 texts from seven commissioned writers to accompany 70 of the images. The texts range from prose to poetry, from the scientific to the psychological, from literary to quasi-autonomic.

Amazingly, many of the images look abstract and entirely computer-generated. You wouldn't have known they were flat surfaces of rocks if someone didn't tell you. As a result, each viewer will conjure up his or her own interpretation of them. Some will envision surrealistic dreams, while others will imagine creepy H.P. Lovecraft deliriums. Forget everything you ever pictured of matrix opal, munjina stone or ocean jasper.

"They look like paintings," Atkinson said. "That's what I love about them. They're very evocative, very mysterious and very emotional. They're almost like colored Rorschach tests. Everybody sees something a little different in them. Nobody sees them as flat polished rocks."

Using his own proprietary software to drive a $5,000 Epson Stylus Pro 9600 pigment printer, Atkinson developed ways to make that printer reach the full range of its capability. The large-scale prints speak for themselves on that matter. As a result, digital photographers just might have more artistic control than ever before, as long as they can foot the bill for the 9600.

Making Within the Stone was even more difficult, as replicating the intense color of the large prints with a four-color offset press proved nearly impossible. "I've been spoiled with these printers that can print a very wide range of color," Atkinson mused. "The normal four-color printing process is like playing with an eight-color Crayola set."

So Atkinson worked with Vanfu Inc. of Japan to revamp the entire printing process. "Without this technology of high concentrated inks and color management—without it, less than half of my images would print acceptably. With it, all of them printed acceptably." As a result, Within the Stone received a Gold Ink Award for excellence and innovation in printing.

The process Atkinson goes through to photograph these rocks would constitute an entire article in itself. Instead of using a typical digital camera, Atkinson uses a high-resolution, large-format scanning camera, the kind used to make digital reproductions of fine art paintings.

"If you just put the rock on a flatbed scanner, you get horrible results because of the flat frontal lighting," he explained. "But with the large-format scanning camera, I was able to get high enough resolution for 4-by-6-foot prints that are tack sharp, and I was able to get much more accurate color than was possible with film."

The rocks photographed were all between 1 and 10 inches wide. Atkinson photographed them with reflected light and used cross-polarized lighting to reduce glare, to enable seeing deeper into the rocks and to fully bring out the rocks' colors and textures. "Each capture, each original scan, is 275 megabytes of uninterpolated data. So that's what preserves all the detail when you [make the large print]. We're talking 6,000 by 8,000 pixels at 16 bits deep. And full color for each pixel."

When asked if he misses the software industry, Atkinson says no. "When I was at Apple for 12 years—from when there were 30 people to when there were 15,000 people—I made tools to empower creative people. That's what I did there. And now it's the perfect payback because I'm being empowered in my own creative endeavors. I'm making beautiful fine art prints that sell at many galleries, using Photoshop. And I didn't have to write Photoshop. I'm making beautiful books using InDesign, and I didn't have to write InDesign."

Over at the Tech Museum, 20 of Atkinson's large-scale prints adorn the walls in one room. Like he said, they can be seen as colored Rorschach tests. One magnified image of pietersite from Namibia looks exactly like a print of an abstract painting. I can envision bold yellow and blue brush strokes and globs of maroon and black. I see waves, angularity, fracture, surges and rhythms.

A beige horizontal image of Paesina marble looks like an aerial shot of patchwork farmlands in the Central Valley, but steamrolled through the old fragment filter in Photoshop. It's like looking down at the ground from the airplane window, somewhere between Fresno and Bakersfield, after about five scotch and sodas.

Another pietersite image features vivid flows of waterlike blues and whites bisected by a violent slab of reddish-orange, with supernatural color masses germinating in from the right. The image is straight out of some ghoulish Lovecraft psycho-dreamscape. Get close to it, and the image will conjure up "The Curse of Yig," "The Crawling Chaos" and other macabre titles. Old Howard Phillips would also delight in Atkinson's matrix opal image on page 113 of Within the Stone, an image I wish Atkinson would have included in the show. It's like stepping into a funhouse, an opium den and a paint store explosion all in one.

Speaking of Within the Stone, the book combines three integral parts: the images themselves, the literary pieces that accompany them and the mineralogical descriptions of the rocks used. Atkinson's daughter, Laura, a creative-writing student at Brown University, supplied the final literary piece to accompany an image of dendritic agate, which also graces the book's cover.

The descriptions of the stones are over the top: "Tiger Iron is a varietal trade name for a particular variety of metamorphic banded iron formation (BIF) rock called jaspilite—rock composed of highly folded, alternating bands of black and brown hematite and magnetite and red jasper—that is mined from the 3.2 billion-year-old Nimingarra Iron Formation on the northern edge of the Pilbarra craton in Western Australia." And that's just the first sentence.

Within the Stone has something for everyone. Graphic artists, gem-show freaks, printmakers, geologists and Lovecraft fanatics alike will rejoice at the endeavor.

Within the Stone shows through February at the Tech Museum, 201 S. Market St., San Jose (408.294.TECH). Bill Atkinson will appear Nov. 17 at 7:30pm at Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. (650.324.4321)

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From the November 10-16, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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