OnLine Design
April 1994

A Passion for Images

Stephen Johnson's imagination is not dimmed by digital technology

by Daniel Fortune

Imagine pastel-hued, sun-drenched images of San Francisco with true rich blues, soft ochers, deep indigos, the gentle colors of a warm city day, soft sunlight bathing, caressing. Or images of sandstone sculptures, warm browns contrasted with granite grays, silica and silver of sand and rock. Craggy characters created by a random, wind-blown rock-cutter. The images have the feel of watercolors -- fluid motion, easy, a delight to the senses.

These images are not watercolors, nor mere flights of imagination. They are the latest images captured by Stephen Johnson, a mover and shaker of the next generation of photography.

"The digital image is here. It is now. It has arrived," says Johnson, a fine art photographer and designer of many books and exhibits. It has arrived via the Dicomed 4x5 Digital Insert, an insert for standard 4x5 cameras. The camera has a resolution of 6,000x7,500 pixels.

"We are seeing now with digital images what we could not capture before with traditional color processing; the colors are natural, not exaggerated. The greens are not as dense, we can see the features of the trees in the background, where in a film transparency these elements are lost."

Johnson was given the opportunity to test the Dicomed by Michael Collette, the camera's developer. In January, Johnson and Collette set out to make history by digitally photographing Northern California landscapes and cityscapes. "It's only fitting that it took place here in Northern California, the birthplace of Ansel Adams. The circle has come around."

Johnson has been instrumental in digital photography from its onset. His best-selling book, "The Great Central Valley: California's Heartland," a coffee table book published last year by University of California Press, was named one of the eight best photography books of the year by The New York Times. The book also received the Golden Light Award as nature/landscape photography book of the year. Johnson's subsequent project, "Making the Digital Book," is "doing great, and we are already looking at a reprint," he says.

He is working on two new book ideas -- a restoration project of negatives made after the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, and a scanning and archive project of the 700-plate negative collection of Frank Day Robinson.

Capturing a 'truer' image

Johnson is excited about the digital camera's ability to capture a "truer" image -- one closer to the image we see with our eyes -- than is possible with film. "The digital camera gives color purity and dynamic range that color films don't have. When you are creating a color image out of chromogenic dye -- created in the interaction of color developer and exposed black and white film, filtered through various layers -- gosh, it's a miracle that we can get anything resembling color reality. When it comes right down to it, it doesn't resemble what our eyes see very closely and if digital cameras can give us a purer rendition of that color, with fewer color biases, that's a damn exciting position for a color photographer to be in."

The difference is especially noticeable in the dark greens of nature. Looking at his traditional color photograph of the San Francisco Conservatory in Golden Gate Park, Johnson notes, "the trees appear to be almost black. When you look at the digital file of the Conservatory, the trees are open, detailed and green. There is an amazing difference.

"It's fun to take the first 4x5 digital camera out and make the first digital photographs of San Francisco. In fact, it's damn exciting!" Johnson exclaims.

"There are some nice things that parallel with history. It should be San Francisco that is the first city to be photographed and Yosemite should be the first nature that is photographed, because the digital technology was born here, the history of landscape photography developed here, and because of Ansel. He was born in San Francisco, lived in San Francisco, worked in Yosemite, lived in Yosemite. I'll always be an admirer of Ansel Adams' work."

In fact, Adams served as a consultant to Johnson in the late '80s during the development of the Central Valley book, and Johnson turned to Adams many times for advice and encouragement as he and his partner, Bob Dawson, were struggling to piece together their Central Valley tome.

`The Great Central Valley'

The creation and construction of "The Great Central Valley" took form in the hands of two college friends, Johnson and Dawson. "We were both from the Central Valley, we did some traveling together and Bob was one of the photographers that I had featured in the Mono Lake exhibit. Bob and I decided to go home and start photographing the Central Valley landscape. So we did."

The California Academy of Sciences agreed to sponsor the project and in 1986 the team contacted Gerald Haslam, a Valley native who teaches at Sonoma State and writes western fiction. Working from Dawson's and his own photographs and Haslam's text, Johnson designed a chapter of the book for review by UC Press' editorial board.

"From these first roughs, the UC Press then asked me to design the book," Johnson says. "Apple contributed some equipment, and in September of 1988 I started figuring out how to use a Macintosh."

Johnson knew a "little bit" about the Mac, but not enough to use Adobe Illustrator. Somehow, the evolution of hardware and software seemed to synchronize with the evolution of the Central Valley project, and they both matured together. As the project evolved, the grand scope of the book became clear to the partners.

They wanted it to break down barriers and to open up possibilities for how people could take ideas that they cared about and turn them into something concrete that other people could experience as well.

"The motivation remains the passion for the images." says Johnson. "Our passions come from the home, from the photographs we were making, and from Jerry's text, which is powerful both in its honesty and its breadth. It is a home that most people don't understand, misunderstand, don't appreciate or don't even know about. The real story is the positives and negatives of the Valley; it is the most productive farmland in the world and yet it is the most poisoned," Johnson says.

"California was made rich by the immigrants and we need to remember that. Agriculture in California was the backbone of California's economy for the first hundred years of its existence, and it still is," Johnson says. "The high-tech industry is large but agriculture still produces about $25 billion per year and most of that comes from the Central Valley."

Being editor and designer of the book allowed Johnson to look through, and to talk a little bit more about, the subjects he thought were important, such as the cancer clusters in the Valley's population, a result of the toxic chemicals used in agriculture.

"As an artist, I am in a position to use my artwork to explore the things I care about. I hope that these photographs will allow the general public to have access to more information and if the photographs can be effective in seducing the reader into looking and perhaps caring about what we are trying to say, then we have accomplished our goals."

In creating the Central Valley book, Johnson was able to hone his digital photographic techniques to the point where he was able to personally scan more than half the images. "It had been my intention to open every scan that had been created by someone else, but it was never my intention to do as much as I did. Art is hard work, let's face it. Part of the hard work is now sitting in front of the computer."

At first Johnson only had a video capture board for input, so he pointed a video camera at the prints. Later he got a black and white scanner and Barneyscan (now Pixel Media) gave him a slide scanner to use. His operation got ever more sophisticated, "basically as it got invented," Johnson laughs. "Eventually I got the Leaf scanner and I could scan all of our original film and with the big flatbed of the Agfa Horizon I could scan good 11x14-inch prints."

Almost all of the scans were made from finished prints, either from a Crosfield drum scanner or one of the flatbed scanners. Several images were made from original film with the Leaf Scan 45.

Johnson was able to get quality scans with his flatbed scanners and manipulate it until he was happy with it, in some cases getting better results than the high-end drum scanners. "These are my photographs and I'm damn well willing to work and work and work to get them to just the way I want them to be," he says. "I know what I want them to be and I know what I want them to look like. I think that there is a real argument to be made that half of the result, if not more, is the passion that you are bringing to the process.

"The prepress people will probably bring a lot of dedication and experience to the scan, but they can't know what I want in any detail for a particular image. Even if I was to make extensive notes about what I wanted, they would still have to make a judgment about sharpness, saturation, color balance. My color work tends to be pastel and I have to have some control over that."

Some of the pressmen who worked on the Central Valley book told Johnson "they had never run so little ink on a press in their lives," Johnson relates. "What I see when I look around is light and mist and subdued colors rather than dark, rich, saturated colors. I try to record what I see, and the process of recording it often creeps up in garishness and saturation. I am now in position to pull it back to where I want it to be in most cases."

How much would the Central Valley book cost if done with traditional methods? "You couldn't have done it, that's the bottom line," Johnson says. "It couldn't have been done. The restoration of the historical work could not have been done, the blending of photographs with illustrations with computer painting for some of the graphics could not have been done." For the page of fruit box labels, Johnson received estimates of $3,500 to $5,000 for scans and electronic separations. "I grabbed the labels, scanned them, edited them, and in the course of five hours had the page done."

The book's cover materialized one weekend when Johnson was traveling to visit his family in Merced. "There were these beautiful clouds, those pillow clouds stretching out over the horizon. Just as you enter the Merced County line, the foothills of Mariposa County start to stretch into the plains of the Central Valley. I pulled the van over and set up the 4x5 on top of the platform on the van and photographed the cattle out on the land with these big puffy clouds.

"I made three or four negatives, both color and black and white, although color was what I was interested in. I was giving it up, gathering all the stuff up and putting it back into the camera cases, when the sun broke out. I couldn't believe it. The sun lit the area right where I was pointing the camera -- and nowhere else. It was like a spotlight down on that field. So just as fast as I could, I grabbed a film holder, put it in and made an exposure, and it was just like Ansel's experience with Moonrise Hernandez. I pulled the film holder out, turned it over to make another shot, and the light was gone.

"It was one of those instances where if I hadn't already been set up -- completely set up, since it was with the 4x5 -- there was no way on earth I could have gotten that photograph."

There is a soft drink cup in the lower right hand corner of the photo, and Johnson said he would have moved it if he had the time. Of course, it would have been easy to edit it out on the computer, but Johnson said he had no intention of manipulating or changing any existing print. All the prints in the book are original; the only retouching done was normal color corrections and dust or scratch removal.

`Making a Digital Book'

The Central Valley book hit the bookstores to "stunningly good" reviews, including one on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "It got put in just before closing. I was just so surprised and pleased," Johnson says, "and when the reviews start rolling in like that, it's to the point now that if anybody says anything even slightly negative, I take great offense, like what's going on with these people?" Johnson laughs. "There's been such an overwhelmingly positive response that I am very pleased and proud of having gotten it all done."

Most importantly, the book was standing on its own merits. "The technology that created it was irrelevant to people unless they were already interested in the subject and happened to ask, and once they did there were a ton of questions. It seemed like it was worthwhile trying to contextualize the creating of the book. So I just sat down and started writing."

The result was "Making a Digital Book," the book behind the book. "Teaching all spring and winter (at Foothill College) really made a difference because a lot of the stuff was right on top of my head. All the images were already scanned for the book and I have electronic copies of everything, so I just started pooling stuff and working out a design. By the time Macworld Boston came around I had printed out a complete copy of the book on the dye-sublimation printer, made a Supermatch Proof Positive, saddle-stitched it with a staple gun and took it to Boston with me. I had the book financed by the end of the show."

The color composite that Johnson created using his in-house equipment is impressively close to the actual finished product -- in color, texture and general look and feel. "I got better and better as I learned to glue the dye-sublimation paper together. I had to get away with trying to staple it, but it was definitely hand-crafted. That's what this stuff is. It's about doing things yourself. I certainly don't have a bindery, even if I have a publishing system, so you figure out how to cut and paste like we all did with graphic design before computers came along."

Johnson's success with computer production has changed the way he thinks about book design. "I'm not thinking about conceptualizing the next book project with pencil in hand. I'm thinking about sitting down, putting scans in a design, and actually designing the book as I see if I really want to do it. That's a whole different way of looking at things and I like that.

"There are just some real elegant aspects to that in terms of letting an idea emerge from the process of designing the finished piece. You get to do that sometimes on commercial jobs. The personal work, you have such a long-term stake in it that you get set in a lot of concrete before you actually start the design. That's not as true anymore because I can sit down and just start playing.

"I'm beginning to try and sketch out time to get bodies of work scanned that I haven't gotten around to previously. There are at least three different projects that look like potential books. I'm gradually working on assimilating designs on all these."

Many of the historical images in the Central Valley book were reproduced from glass plates made by Frank Day Robinson. "Some of these things have a will to survive all their own," says Johnson. "Somebody found them in the Merced County dump in the '40s. It turned out to be almost 700 negatives from the turn-of-the-century through the '20s. A friend of the fellow that found them in the early '80s heard that I was doing the Central Valley project, and called me up to see if I would be interested in seeing the negatives. I said yes. I borrowed about 78 of the plates, and we made the best prints that we could from them. We devoted a whole portfolio section of his work right after the section on historical patterns."

After publication, Johnson received the complete collection of Robinson glass negatives. He is currently working to store the images in a more permanent form. "I am getting amazing results scanning the glass plates directly with the Agfa Horizon scanner." Johnson feels "a real obligation to preserve his collection for everybody to be able to see. It's astounding the precious and rather circuitous route they traveled before arriving in my hands."

Johnson is storing the plates on archival materials, and intends to mount a public exhibition in Merced County. "We'll get some old-timers to help identify the images, put places and names on them, and at that time we will have a much more valuable archive that might make sense to publish as a CD-ROM -- work that would be lost and unseen by any other means."

The photographer is sometimes plagued by self-doubt. "I don't mind having questions about the work, it's hard to sometimes continue to do it if the questions are deep and profound enough. I'm still trying to figure out whether what I do is any good. It may sound like that is not a particularly healthy state, but I kind of think that it is. I think that kind of questioning keeps you on your toes, and keeps you doing the best work that you can do."

Daniel Fortune is a regular contributor to OnLine Design.
He wrote about Sumner Stone last month.

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