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Digital eyes on the digital evolution

A photojournalist turned artist focuses on the beauty of computer technology--and how it's changing his craft for the worst. Photos: Eye inside iconic computers

Photojournalist Mark Richards has his eye on the beauty of computer technology--and how it's changing his craft for the worst.

Chronicle Books recently released a book called Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers. Richards contributed the photos to go alongside John Alderman's text on the history of 35 of the most influential computers, from the punch card machine to the computers of today.

The photos, some of which fill a wall from floor to ceiling, are on exhibit for the summer at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

Richards took time out from his vacation in Canada to talk to CNET News.com about his book and exhibit, the switch from film to digital, stock photo houses, and the future of professional photography.

Q: Why don't you tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to this project?
Richards: Desperation and insecurity.

What do you mean by that?
Richards: Like anyone, I had a career as a photojournalist, and 9/11 started to change that in terms of the economy for a lot of people. Pretty soon it was like being an armadillo in Texas. You're just waiting to be run over. So, I happened to be going to an event called the "Vintage Computer Festival," kind of like nerds who get together and run old computers. I happened to see these computers while I was there, and it just kind of struck me how beautiful they were.

Tell me about the exhibit at the Computer History Museum that recently opened.
Richards: I actually made them look so different that I went back there. I was so bored with the collection versus seeing it on the book. This is the way my eyes see the world, not that the collection was boring; it's that I like to see things in a certain way. Some of them are 6 feet wide. There's actually a picture that was not in the book that I put up, and they'll be up till September.

How do you think the designs compare when you look at the old ones and now you look at the new ones? Would you photograph the new ones as well?
Richards: Only if you tied me to one. No, I think the newer ones are, from the photographic standpoint, just really different and they don't really show the obviousness of what they do. The designs are smaller, and unless we have an electron microscope, it is much harder to find those same patterns. So, no, I wouldn't. Although I do have some ideas for something that would involve them, but that's for later.

There are a lot of photographers doing what they call "found objects." Do you think you're in that school, or do you think you're more of a graphical photographer?
Richards: You know, I'm really bad with names so I have to apologize right off with that, but the influence is actually from a school of German photography that started off just at the end of the industrial revolution in East Germany by this husband and wife (Bernd and Hilla Becher). They sort of documented, and a photographer among many called Andreas Gursky, in a beautiful way mind you, historical artifacts. So, I don't know if it's like found objects because I'm really studying these things and looking for beauty in them. I'm just not taking everything that you see. I'm definitely editing to what I think and what I feel is interesting.

I think these have designs that show humanity even in something as static as wires and steel.

So, you're not looking to make statements through juxtaposition? You are really just trying to look into the machine?
Richards: Well, any photographer who's saying that he's not trying to make a statement is lying. It's just how subtle or not. No, I'm trying to make a statement. I think these have designs that show humanity even in something as static as wires and steel. When you look at the wires and different signals, you think about the human beings who designed them. It is the flow of the wires or in one case, the CDC 6600, I mean it looks like a face even, though crudely. Then there are these pieces on the Apollo spacecraft navigation system where it obviously has historical significance, and also it's just beautiful in its own right. It looks like artifacts of jewelry from some ancient population. And also, again, it shows in contemporary terms how crude the technology was that took us so far.

Right, literally.
Richards: Yeah. I mean, when you look at that you just go, "Oh! My God."

Then there's another thing that you won't be able to see, but I made some of these prints very, very big, about 5x5 feet. They are just a whole different thing then. It becomes much more like fine art and removed from what they were and what they are. I really enjoy that you can look at something differently.

Do you shoot some things in film, or do you shoot all in digital?
Richards: I'm sorry, what was that thing called again? No, just kidding. You know I'm a photojournalist. Historically, I started off in Afghanistan 20-something years ago, and obviously I did shoot film for many years, but I'm no longer attached to film at all.

I find it baffling, baffling that anyone would get into the romance of film. Everybody has different opinions, but to me it's like...In life these days, Moore's Law is predicting things and I think in photography it's even more so. It's just so strikingly so. Sure, there are some things we cannot do that we could do in film now, but they're so minor, and Moore's Law predicts that that will change anyway. It's just like having this piece of clay that you could turn into anything, and I find that marvelous, I think.

Film, I found was far more limiting. As an artist I don't want to be limited. I found my medium, and I'm just so happy I took to this thing.

When did you make the switch?
Richards: As soon as I could, way too early, way too early, 2000.

What was your first digital camera?
Richards: My first real digital things that I did in two-page spreads were in People magazine and Mako Magazine with a Canon D30, which was 3 megapixels. But, you could do amazing things even then.

Anyway, this project would not have happened without it (digital photography).

Why don't you go into a little bit about why?
Richards: Because the project was based upon the premise of beautiful computers, which if you just say that phrase, it doesn't really roll off your lips and inspire anybody. It took a long time to convince people, and the access was difficult for these machines in some cases. But just having the ability with a small digital camera to move around, get to the different angles, the machines made it easier A, and B, when you shoot with a digital the way I do and a lot of people do, you shoot linked to a computer. So, you shoot the frame; you see it on the computer. It's just like a Polaroid, except way more accurate and you can zoom in and yada, yada, yada.

It's so scary being professional right now because the economic model is in some cases a dollar per stock photo.

The Polaroid would have killed you in pricing. You couldn't afford it. And just the fact of looking, taking a three-dimensional space and turning it into two-dimensional, then using that two-dimensional space on the computer screen to edit--you really see far better than you would. I mean, some people can do it, you know, maybe just look it through. I'm not that person.

What did you use for this project?
Richards: The Canon 1Ds Mark II with the camera, the Canon 5D...There are a couple of cameras...The Canon 1Ds are all full frame 35mm. The Canons are just way ahead of everybody, I think.

You mean at the professional level?
Richards: Yeah, and I mean the Nikon is still not full frame because as far as I last checked, their lenses were made by Sony. I'm sure that Sony does it and it may have changed, but you know Canon--it's much bigger in the infrastructure.

So, I guess that answers my Canon or Nikon question.
Richards: Yeah, but you know what, I'm a runner as well, and I recently just got a little pocket camera, which shoots in what they call raw. I just can't believe the quality.

Which one do you have?
Richards: It's the Ricoh GX100. It's really a cool camera. I take it along with me on vacations, and I'm carrying it right now.

What are your plans for the future? Are you going to stick to this, or are you going to photograph maybe other types of technology?
Richards: We're in a new phase. Photographers practiced a craft before that invoked scarcity, the economic model of scarcity, and that's no longer true. Photographers are right now kind of as scarce as a six-pack of beer at a 7-Eleven. So, I think from an economic standpoint and an artistic standpoint, I need to define something that probably is going to follow this.

What do you think about how we've progressed so quickly from digital photography technology with 3-megapixel professional cameras? Now anyone can get that on a point-and-shoot, and with Picasa and Flickr and all these sharing sites and voting on photos, it seems like everyone's a photographer.
Richards: I'll just put it this way. It's so scary being professional right now because the economic model is in some cases a dollar per stock photo. Now these tend to be lower end, but Moore's Law predicts that it will go upper in the sense of more sophisticated equipment, better photos, yada, yada, yada. And the feedback loop is, "You know, I can go on iStock Photo right now, just look at all these photos, and then just copy one that I think is really good," in some cases. It's not all the cases, but yeah, it's very distressing. You cannot stop progress. I profit from it as well, but economically for professional photographers, I don't know what the future is. It's not good so far.

There is this whole amateur thing where they're just giving away rights to large companies. Hopefully, people will realize what they're giving away, but I kind of doubt it.

What do you think of these stock photo houses now, where anyone can say, "Hey, yeah, I want to join and an advertiser can use my photos for free, and here's the raw copy."
Richards: Well, economics dictates that I don't have any say in it. I mean, if I was an amateur working a job, you know, I'd probably want to do this, but I think they're being taken to the cleaners. I mean, when I see people on some of these boards saying how great it is that someone uses their stuff in advertising, I just think, there goes that model out the window because it degrades everybody's pricing.

How do people like you distinguish themselves now from these photographers?
Richards: I think I have to define something where there's a scarcity. If you cannot define scarcity, you cannot define economics. Doctors do it and lawyers do it through, you know, having a license that's hard to get. If photographers don't define the scarcity space, they are screwed. Economics is the arbitrator of us all. So I don't know, that's one thing I'm going to try to do, and every time I figure it out, it just goes away.

Was there anything else you wanted to add or talk about?
Richards: It's just very scary, but I'm not the first one to say this. I mean, you know how many jobs have been outsourced for other reasons.