Stephen Johnson

A Fine Arts Photographer and the New Digital Tools

Photographs by Stephen Johnson

A fictitious interviewer sat down with San Francisco photographer Stephen Johnson in early May 1994 to discuss his work and the future of digital imaging.

What is your background?

I have been working as a fine arts landscape photographer for almost 20 years. Teaching and publishing have been a part of that for about 15 years. My first experiences reproducing my photographs on press were encouraging. I had a lot of help. Early on in my career, Ansel Adams talked me through some of the difficulties of photographic reproduction, particularly the opportunities and frustrations of duotones. Many years of color printing made a huge difference in my ability to communicate with printers. But reproducing my work was always a struggle. I never would have dreamed that digital technology would have evolved so quickly that I would be doing so much of the pre-press work myself.

What is different about your work now?

I was never very comfortable with the typical scenario of the photographer handing over work to a publisher or printer, then letting the magic of reproduction happen. I like to control the magic.

Most of my work is in negative form, so I was having prints scanned rather than original slides. I was always very nervous about letting a slide out of my hands, particularly once I realized they were usually oil mounted for scanning. Even with the best care by professional scanning houses, this is extremely risky for original film. Scanning from prints has its risks as well. It takes a lot of work to make a good print, they bend easily, and color houses are less experienced with prints.

With digital imaging, the beauty of the process now is that I never have to let anyone handle my originals, or make interpretive decisions as to sharpness and color saturation. In fact, I do most of my scanning right in my own studio. The negatives are handled only by me, and the only object they come in contact with is the inside of a negative carrier. That is one of the great features of the Leafscan 45, it uses standard Beseler enlarger negative carriers to hold the film. I even ended up redesigning the carrier for Leaf so that it can scan strips of negatives. I made a prototype out of 4-ply rag board. I do all my prototyping out of rag board. I only use the best materials.

By doing the scans myself, I immediately see the results on the computer monitor. I'm viewing the RGB scan on an RGB monitor (drum scanners automatically convert files to CMYK). I can judge the need for sharpening by experimentation on the real scan. I can make careful adjustments in color and density. Many of these decisions are highly subjective and difficult to communicate verbally. Doing the work myself circles back to the control photographers are accustomed to in the darkroom--control over the look of our work. The new digital imaging technology extends that influence into the reproduction process. It certainly has been a very positive development for me.

Fundamentally, that is the exciting change in my work, I can now do so much of it myself. I can give it the care it deserves, and whatever time it requires. I can easily experiment with my own unprinted negatives, without investing in more darkroom time. And I can imagine new relationships in the work that I might not have seen.

You've done some ground breaking work trying to drive art & technology together & forward.

I was fortunate that I was getting involved in desktop digital technology just as some of the powerful tools for the desktop were being developed. The driving force behind all of this was the creation of the book The Great Central Valley: California's Heartland. The book developed out of an exhibit featuring photographs by myself and Robert Dawson, and premiered in 1986. I prototyped the design in late 1987 on a Macintosh SE using Pagemaker. PostScript type made the difference then. I designed one chapter of the book, printed it out on heavy paper, and then tipped-in original photographs. The mock-up was a well received and in late 1988 I proceeded to design the book.

The challenge I faced was considerable. A 70,000 word manuscript and about 20,000 photographs to choose from. The subject was about my homeland, California's Great Central Valley, the 500 mile long, 25,000 square mile agricultural heartland of California. I needed to construct a serious work, integrating an important text with landscape and historical photographs, maps, and graphics. I can't imagine how I could have done that without the flexibility of computer page design. During the design process there was a constant ebb and flow of moving photographs, graphics, updated text, and reworked relationships that was difficult, but manageable with the Macintosh.

I never imagined I would take so large a role in the reproduction of the photographs. Desktop scanning and image editing technology evolved simultaneously with the book. By the time the book was finished, I had produced 50% of the scans, opened every one of the 280 image files and checked them for dust, color, contrast, cropping, and alignment. My production needs for the book essentially demanded that the technology of desktop publishing rise to the demands of the fine arts. I believe that the quality of the book is pretty good evidence that the challenge has been met.

This is very much the kind of relationship I have with the high technology industry. I bring my background in fine arts photography and my understanding and experience with the technology into consulting relationships. I've been working with Adobe since before Photoshop was released. The duotone feature in Photoshop 2.0 was something Russell Brown (Adobe's Senior Art Director) and I lobbied for development. I think it turned out rather well. When Adobe was getting ready to ship 2.0, they asked me if I would construct sample duotone curves to ship with the product. Now everyone that buys Photoshop has starting points on duotones.

What about Digital Cameras?

I'm very intertested in how this technology will fundamentally change the way we make photographs. I've made some photographs I'm very proud of with the Leaf Digital Studio Camera. Recently I've been out shooting with a new 4x5 digital camera being brought to market by Dicomed. I'm setting up the shot, looking at an electronic preview, inspecting a histogram, and recording a 6000x7000 pixel (130MB) image in the field--then opening the file on my Powerbook right there, wherever I happen to be making the image. That is a fundamental change in the way photographs are made. The color is more accuate, and the dynamic range is greater than film.

It demands a wide range of skills, doesn't it?

All of this essentially starts to demand a kind of new renaissance artist, well versed in a variety of skills and willing to take the time do get in there and work a project until it is right. The technology has matured to the point that it is now possible to achieve fine-arts quality. It is now mostly a matter of what the individual creator brings to it.

Is fine arts really possible on the desktop?

My poster projects have been very demanding, and demonstrative of just how far this technology has come. The first poster I did entirely on the desktop was a quadtone project for Adobe. Russell Brown designed Duotones and Denali, I scanned the negative and created the curves. It was fun to do because we were so confident that we could make something beautiful. It was a great promotion for Adobe. Last fall we did a follow-up Anasazi White House, bigger and with a more detailed duotone tutorial on the back.

I routinely use 200 line screen halftones. The images are getting bigger and bigger, and consequently so are the files sizes. My most recent poster of the cover of the Central Valley book was a 170MB CMYK file.

How did Making a Digital Book come about?

After the Central Valley book was published, I kept getting questions about how I was able to do all of this on the Macintosh. In fact, there was a fair amount of disbelief that I did all of this on the Macintosh. So, in July 1993, I sat down and started writing and designing Making a Digital Book. It evolved into a kind of handbook on the current state of desktop imaging and publishing technology. It seems to be addressing the very real hunger for information on digital imagery.

Are Color separations really deep mysteries?

The real deep hole for most photographers is the process of color separation. Very few of us really want to become color separators. Nor do we have the background and experience. There are some excellent color separation software programs now available. Photoshop itself does a pretty good job. Candela 4-Seps is very good. PixelCraft's Color Access links scanning and color separtion.

Some of this mystery can be illuminated with simple definitions of terms and processes. In order to print photography with ink onto white paper, you have to subtract some combination of red, green and blue light from that white. We use RGB opposites, cyan, magenta and yellow to seletively absorb the RGB light from the white paper. CMY inks do not have suficient opacity and purity so we have to use black ink in the process.

The color separation process is essentially changing a RGB scan into a CMYK scan to print with ink. You can derive the CMY files directly from the RGB data. But where do you get the black? And what happens to the CMY values when you add black ink? This is where black generation, GCR, UCR and total ink coverage come into play. It is worth educating yourself regarding color separations. The most important thing to do is to establish a relationship with your imagesetting house and your printer to set parameters and calibration with your processes and taste.

How did you get involved with Duotones?

Photography is the core of my work. My love of the black and white image remains strong. The ability to achieve a quality of reproduction that really does imitate the beauty of a gelatin-silver black and white photographic print is now in my hands. In many ways, I now have more control over the appearance of my image in reproduction than I do in the darkroom.

The control of the reproduction of fine black and white photographs has been enhanced considerably with Adobe Photoshop's Duotone feature. The control now available on the desktop exceeds what was possible by more traditional pre-press methods. That is why I have expended some time and effort on duotones.

Where is this going?

One of the most exciting aspects of digital imagery is the new and wide ranging possibilities for image creation. Whether its digital compositing, painting or simply rendering a photograph onto a new print material (such as Iris ink-jet prints onto rag paper), the future of photography looks very dynamic and interesting.

Photography is definitely in a period of transition. It is scaring some photographers and others seem to be excited at getting beyond the limitations of film. I know that I am excited. There is clearly a whole new set of tools available.

On the downside, it is now easier to steal someone else's photographs, and there is not nearly enough being written about digital ethics. That part is really quite simple: if you didn't shoot it, you don't own it, and you can't use it. Get permission and pay for use. Don't steal the very product that supports us and keeps us able to make images.

The positive ramifications of digital imaging are what makes it an exciting time to be involved in imagemaking. A degree of restoration is possible today that was simply not previously imaginable. Subtle tonal and color relationships can now be more easly preserved. Many of the wierd biases of color film can eliminated with digital cameras. Spotting dust from photographs is now much easier. Color images actually have a chance of survival instead of the certain fading of color film.

All of these changes create new opportunities for the imagination. I hope people dive in with their dreams and ideas, have some fun, take the potential for important work seriously, and make beauty in the process.

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Last updated on June 15, 1995. Mail comments to:
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