FINDING EMOTION IN THE MACHINE
ON PIONEERING CYBER ART
Written by James Elliott
A Scintillating Story With 22 Marvellous Masterpieces & Some Interesting Illustrations
Technology is all about the possibilities of pleasure. How can we do this better? How can we do this faster? How can we accomplish this or that more easily and get more pleasure from it? So being fundamentally a freedom loving hedonist, technology has always fascinated me. Computers are nothing like as new as is commonly imagined. Their omnipresence is, perhaps, but computers themselves just always seem to have been there.
Back as a young teenager I attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Totnes, down in glorious Devon. We had 4 school houses that competed with each other: Smythe, Davis, Rea and Babbage. I was just delighted to be in Smythe as they had the ultra cool purple sports shirts. Colours worn by the other teams, green, red and yellow, seemed aesthetically inferior. Even as a young teenager my concerns were more with the artistic and sartorial, rather than sports or academia. I couldn't care less who won the rugby, football or cricket. The Gods left out the competitive gene. Put it this way: if you were to beat me at tennis, say, or I was to beat you, the outcome would be meaningless to me, in both cases.
When I was in my final year at school, which mostly involved motorcycle excursions to juke box cafés and seaside resorts with my red-headed, micro-skirted, fur-coated girlfriend, it just so happened she was a 'punch tape operator'. She operated a machine which converted data into long reels of blue paper tape, full of holes in various patterns.
Proto-digital if ever there was. These tapes were in a language that mainframe computers at company headquarters could understand. Also, in the Sixties a teenage friend of mine was a computer programmer. So even in those days computers were around, at least in the background. Mainly used by the large companies who could afford them. But individuals did not own them, they were too bulky and expensive.
The first hard drive was invented in my lifetime. By IBM in fact. This was in 1956 and it was called RAMAC, which was an acronym for Random Access Method of Accounting and Control. If you want an overview of how far we have come in just over sixty years, take a look at this picture of a 5 megabyte hard drive being unloaded.
In the mid 60s, another girl I knew operated the first ANITA, a new kind of desktop electronic calculator.
As soon as the pocketable Sinclair calculator appeared in the Seventies, I had to have one.
I always had this awareness of computers and technology. My interest in electronic music also goes back to the late Sixties. I saw the first ever Moog electronic synthesiser played on stage in 1969 by Keith Emerson at the Isle of Wight Pop Festival. I was 18 at the time. And I just thought, 'Wow! That is incredible! Exhilarating! And so new!'
"Music will all be like this by 1973", I confidently predicted to all and sundry. Little did I know way back then, that my ability to critically assess something and extrapolate, free of prejudice, was a gift from the Gods.
As Montaigne said "In the judgment of great things, a soul of equal stature is required."
I just always assumed everyone had this sort of perspicacity. And indeed my perfectionism. How wrong I was. This was also of course, the reason I took up Photography and not Painting. It was just a mystery to me, that the world and his wife couldn't see how obviously superior Photography was!
Vestiges of prejudice from a half past world, no doubt. Perhaps this explains to some extent, the cyclicality of life and death. The newly born see things with fresh eyes. Not always better but at least fresh. Zero jaded prejudice. But how could Photography have been around so long, without people realising what had been invented? Maybe it was the painfully slow evolution of colour photography almost a century and a half after its monochromatic invention by Niepce. Colour was not really perfected until the late Sixties, from an accuracy of colour and permanence standpoint.
I have often stated that had I been born a decade earlier, I would not have pioneered Photography as Art.
The medium was not good enough for my exacting standards. Consequently I probably would not have pioneered Cyber Art either, although it's invention and perfection was very much swifter than photography. Everything happens faster these days.
Regards inventors not realising the potential of their brainchild, it was similar with the laser and the microchip. Everyone knew they were breakthroughs, but no-one knew what to do with them.
The challenge here is that breakthroughs most often come from the scientific domain. A scientific mind is not so much a creative one, as it is extremely ordered and rational, so often the people responsible for breakthroughs are not the people best equipped to understand their creative potential.
That is not a criticism, just an observation. Art and science are simply different areas of endeavour. One of the things which makes photography unusually difficult to master is exactly that. Great photography can only emanate from a mind and brain which is artistically and scientifically evolved. This is rare, as they involve using different sides of the brain. Most people polarise towards developing one side or the other.
To be a great photographer requires the mind of an artist and the brain of a scientist.
With other arts, many would argue that technique is far less important. In painting, for example, any kind of approximate, slap dash effort, seems to be the order of the day. This is probably just praxis and the low standards everyone has gotten used to. With photography however, the image must be technically perfect. The medium is far less forgiving. It cannot have any flaws. So creativity and technique weigh almost evenly.
Perhaps the first great image I created, which looks like it could have been created on a computer, was 'Infinity and Eternity' of 1972.
Back in 1970, I knew that for photography to become a fully fledged and credible fine art, it needed to move beyond black and white and observational recording.
Right from the start in photography I was using unconventional and original photographic techniques, to achieve innovative images and create a new vocabulary for the medium.
Throughout the Seventies, much of my art looks in hindsight as though it was created with computers, but were created at a time when computers were a very long way away from possessing such capabilities. If indeed, they do today. I am not convinced one can do the same thing in other media. They each have their own lexicon of possibilities and limitations. I am not convinced 'Metasphere' 1974+5 or 'Superchromatic Spectrosynthesis' 1986 could be done with computers. And even if you could.... what's the point? I was first and the fact of the matter is, that despite the technology being there to simulate, I am not convinced one could exactly replicate the image in all its subtle detail. I have thought of doing this many times, as I have a working knowledge of 3D, it features in some of the works, but I am not convinced it would be simpler and that is saying something, as the photograph took a Herculean 332 hours of work. But I just cannot think of a raison d'être.
So in a sense, I was exactly the right person to pioneer cyber art, because visually I was already there. And it is fair to say, that even globally, no-one was doing anything even remotely similar, never mind the same. The most common epithet used to describe myself and my art early on, was 'unique'.
Computer technology concerns itself with the correlationship between beauty and order. My work is extremely ordered and has a clarity. I nearly always make my art beautiful, with the possible exception of some of the heavyweight art. The darker emotions are usually better expressed with a little tempering of the aesthetic qualities. A picture about madness, say, needs to look powerfully dark and bizarre, rather than beautiful. But beautiful is the default setting for me. And this is something of an oasis in the art world.
My images have a poignant clarity. I remove absolutely everything extraneous or superfluous from a photograph. This is rare. Photographs are usually cluttered with irrelevant junk. Beauty is unfashionable these days I know, but the contemporary fixation on ugliness and banality is just wrong. Yes it is wrong. There is no piss elegance attached to pretending you appreciate work which would lower the aesthetic value of a rubbish dump. Art should be the exact opposite of ugly and banal. That there is a need for me to express that is truly astonishing. So fear not, beauty will return and most contemporary art will recognised as the God forsaken garbage that it truly is. The typical reaction for much of it will be "What the hell were they on?".
Order and beauty are essential to great art and inseparable from each other. So if my preoccupation with beauty is not fashionable, I couldn't care less, because beauty is above and beyond the trivial winds of trend. It's a universal and never goes out of fashion. Not even for a nanosecond. In a contemporary sense, art has lost its bearings. It seriously doesn't know it's ass from its elbow. And the shoals of fish are easily influenced by the money and the hype. Turn to the left. Turn to the right. Must get one of those. Dumbo's got one. Everyone must have one. No-one notices its rubbish. 'That's a matter of opinion.' No it isn't. People who know what they are talking about, never use such naive, meaningless, platitudinous drivel.
So chaos interrupts order occasionally, but order always prevails. The human spirit simply prefers it. It not only prefers order to chaos, but beauty to ugliness and brilliance to banality.
Anyway, as I said, in the Seventies there weren't any electronic computers capable of creating the sort of work I created. And without wanting to state the obvious, computers don't create anything. Artists do. Computers merely facilitate. People confuse art with the methodology. Painting does NOT create art. You can paint your bathroom or paint your car. Photography is not intrinsically an art any more than writing is. You can write a shopping list or write poetry. Photography as a medium does not automatically create art, but you certainly can create art with it. And of the very highest order. The same is true with computers, cyber imaging in itself is not art, but the possibilities to create fine art with computers, are virtually limitless. This should all be axiomatic. It's simple, observable fact which isn't really debatable by anyone compos mentis.
By the mid Eighties, systems like the Scitex were getting underway. Figures like 'Six million for the computer and a million for the software', were bandied around. I never checked the veracity of such hearsay, but I remember thinking, "Still some way to go then".
In 1986, I created the image 'Digital Visage'. It was a huge breakthrough image, inspired by a matrix device I had seen. If you pushed this device onto your face, thousands of tiny rods would be pushed into relief on the other side and thus form an automatic sculpture of your face.
In 1986, thinking they were the future, I bought my first computer. Every middle class punter in England seemed to have one, but no-one was creating art with them. I also hired and borrowed computers. Additionally in the Eighties I used the Quantel Paintbox which I thought was fantastic.
In 1990, I talked a friend of mine into letting me have some time on the new Kodak Premier retouching system. Initially people viewed digital imaging software as a set of corrective retouching tools, the extraordinary creative capabilities of said tools was overlooked. But I immediately spotted the spectacular creative potential. I have always been a good extrapolator.
The British invented Quantel Paintbox and the Kodak Premier system were both amazing, but hugely expensive, hundreds an hour to hire or hundreds of thousands to buy, even back then. And there were still considerable output limitations. 'Art is no longer open to all', I thought, although that would slowly change over time. New technology is invariably expensive, but existing technology and mass production usually make it cheaper. Economy of scale. I had no idea at the time, that Photoshop would soon bring digital creativity to the masses, or at least those who were computer literate and understood what it was. They were still a tiny elite minority at the time. For just over £600 you could acquire similar creative potential to the computers costing hundreds of thousands.
It's 1990 and a friend is on the phone from a London pro camera centre, banging on about some computer program called 'Photoshop'. I sat and listened, but half of it is going in one ear and out the other. We all try to dismiss sales calls. This insignificant incident however, would return to haunt me.
I'm in Los Angeles a little later, to photograph the first of my Superglamour models and naturally I pop down to Sammy's Pro Photo store to see 'how they do it here'. Much to my amazement they had a computer room for digital technology. I wandered in and engaged in some idle chit-chat with other photographers. I didn't see any great results, but man, these guys were serious about digital stuff. As I say, I already had experience with the high end Kodak Premier and Quantel Paintbox, but here these guys were getting all excited about consumer stuff. Expensive consumer stuff anyway. You know, five grand for a scanner etc.
I did two things before I left LA. I bought a book on Photoshop which the salesman at Sammy's in a moment of admirable candour told me, "It's not very good, but it's the only one available". I also researched in L.A. who made the best digital prints and later asked for state of the art ink jet prints samples, to be shipped to me in London. Couple of weeks later the prints arrived at my flat, just off St John's Wood High Street. I remember opening the package. My heart sank, the results were truly awful. Complete crap. And from a $50,000 machine. I remember thinking, if this is high end I am glad I didn't see the low! The colours were muted and the detail lacking.
I remember also lying on the bed in my apartment, staring vacantly into this book on Photoshop, I had bought in America. "Alpha channel what?!!".... it was just double dutch to me then, so I threw it aside.
One day a little later, I am at a computer trade exhibition. Photoshop is becoming a little more evolved. It's up to version 2.5 and I see someone using the cloning tool. "Oh my God, that's incredible!" I thought. The answer to all my prayers. No layers yet but still amazing. I bought it and immediately installed an advanced computer system. Twenty grands worth of it (£40,000 today). An Apple PowerMac 8100 with a 18 x 12 inch Wacom graphics tablet and a high grade 17 inch monitor. I found the A3 Wacom graphics tablet amazing. "Canvas of the future", crossed my mind. For the record, I never used a mouse. Too inaccurate for my meticulous masterpieces.
I also bought my first digital camera around the same time, which cost £5,000 (£10,000 today) and came with a large attachment for slide copying. This was essential as there weren't any really great cameras in the digital domain back then. The Leaf Lumina camera had a resolution of 2,700 dpi, so about 4,000 pixels on 35mm. This was a shade below optimum as high quality film could hold about 4000 dpi, so 6,000dpi on 35mm film. But one did have the sharpening tool, which more than compensated. The Leaf Lumina camera was slow as a bus and required a tripod and many seconds of exposure. Top quality digital cameras from the leading camera manufacturers would not arrive until the new millennium.
The thing which struck me as totally anomalous about the advent of digital imaging, as I say, was that manufacturers and users alike saw it as a corrective tool. Something to correct errors. I immediately saw the artistic potential of the technology and perceived it instead as a massive creative breakthrough. This would ultimately make Photography as fluid as paint, but with a thousand times the creative possibilities. And indeed, with a verisimilitude vastly superior to painting.
A similar thing had happened decades before with music and the advent of the electronic synthesiser, which I also followed closely. The very first synthesiser wasn't really the Moog (pronounced Moag). It was that damn awful organ, the guy in the pub used to play, where he would switch in a crude drum machine and bass pattern. Boom-chick-a-boom-chick-a-boom. Truly awful.
The error? This dreadful machine was trying (badly) to imitate existing musical instruments and sounding very much like the cheap plastic copy. What was fantastic about the Moog was that it created beautiful new sounds unobtainable with other instruments. The same was true with cyber art. It would open up a palette of new visual forms, with imagery unobtainable by conventional visual media, like painting or even photography. In fact digital technology would swallow them all up.
You would think it axiomatic that Art is not about imitating other media. But this simple fact had escaped almost everyone, with Photography, electronic music and computer art. Even cinematography originally made the same error, by imitating theatre. And it was just awful. Little more than a movie camera pointing at a stage.
It took me a while to figure out that computers have primitive brains which can do what they are told, but that is all they can do. They cannot instigate. They do not have what I term 'spiritual volition'. Why would they? I quickly learned that things one takes for granted, the computer doesn't. It's like a child. You have to tell it everything! Proof perhaps of Cartesian dualism. Computers have a brain but no mind or spirit. So you can safely forget all that pathetic nonsense about computers taking over!
Within a few months, I started to get really good images with some sort of consistency. Prior to that it had been very sporadic.
Photoshop 1 was very short lived. Just months. Creating on Photoshop version 2, some of my images looked more like electronic painting than photography and I did indeed work with a number of software programs including painting software, 3D, live sculpting, fractals, special effects and so on, sometimes using up to 4 programs on a single image. Hugely innovative at the time. Layers became available in Photoshop 3, which I duly bought for about £600 ($900 US). This introduced massive flexibility and creative possibilities. I would often use up to twenty such layers. I took digital software to the limits, as I did with photography. The biggest challenge was to find emotion in the machine and create work that had weight, substance and stature.
Everyone said "You can't create art with computers." Fortunately I tend to laugh at fatuous remarks, but the same acute critical ability or perspicacity, which had told me photography was capable of high art, sensed the same thing was true with computers.
I think the picture 'Angelica Geometrica' of 1994 was a high point in the early computer images and is a picture I still adore today. It has that timeless simplicity which is the hallmark of great art. The 24 inch square originals look amazing.
Not the meticulous linear materialisation over time, which typified the earlier part of my canon. Of course, massive research and experimentation took place prior to said spontaneous materialisation, sometimes up to a thousand attempts, but nevertheless the image formed instantaneously on arrival. Computers though, never completely get it right.
Computers tend to move you in a direction at great speed, but they always mess up in some minor ways. The imperfections then take a lot of work and patience to eliminate.
But the speed with artificial intelligence, enables the artist to try different things at incredible speed. What can be done in an evening, would take a lifetime, to paint the same number of permutations. It might be tempting to think that the image required little effort, but that would not be true. Tremendous experimentation is necessary in advance. The metamorphosis is fast and the perfection long and arduous. So the work just shifts to the front and back end. The middle bit is fairly easy.
When creating with computers, you have nothing for a very long time and it seriously feels like you are getting nowhere, but then suddenly the graph spikes a mile high and you have a masterpiece. It arrives rapidly or even instantaneously after much investment of time. Invariably though, the technology gets something wrong and you have to go back over it again and again to perfect it. Computers are not perfectionists, but their operators can be. Same with cameras.
If like 99% of people, you are skeptical about the entire concept of spontaneous materialisation, consider this: a four week old human foetus creates neurons at a rate of 250,000 per minute. Over 4,000 a second! If one could watch that unfold, it would be a form of spontaneous materialisation. Or as close as one can get, as clearly even that which is apparently spontaneous, must have a timeframe. A nanosecond or some such. Something without a timeframe cannot exist, or at least it would not be observable to us.
My first research with digital printing started, as I said in the early Nineties in L.A. In 1995 I bought my first colour ink jet printer. The original Epson Stylus Photo. "Rubbish", I thought "but how incredible that you can do that with a computer at all". It was as grainy as a gravel driveway and worse yet, the permanence was appalling. We're talking single figure weeks here, before discernable fading. I joked at the time that applying a density graduation filter in Photoshop was desirable as prints were fading on their way out of the printer. Only kidding, but the problem was severe. From that moment forward though, I watched digital print technology very closely.
Whilst waiting for progress, I went a different route. From the mid Nineties I chose to output my digital images to the devastatingly expensive HK image writer. This machine was about the size of a park bench. It would output to 10 x 8 inch transparency with staggering precision. Downside was it cost over a hundred thousand dollars or euros to buy. Alternatively, about £80 ($120) per exposure to output whether you get it right or wrong! And there was plenty of scope for error, believe me. Without question though, it was the highest quality product of its kind. The machine used photographic sheet film on a revolving drum and then wrote each line of data using fibre optics to an amazing 1200 lines per inch. A genuine 1200 lines per inch.
Results from the British made HK image writer were seamless. Literally. I blew up tests to the size of a door and the image was entirely free of any evidence of digital processing. Don't confuse this with the nonsense printer manufacturers quote in terms of lines per inch. Those are pure fantasy. This was a large format transparency (slide) without any screen or evidence whatsoever that the image had ever been digitised. This was contrary to everything else available at the time. It was for all intents and purposes analogue achieved digitally. And so I would subsequently print my finished 5 x 4 inch transparencies in traditional manner on Cibachrome.
I used this analogue-digital-analogue sandwich for many years with great success and tried hard to ignore the costs. "Price of innovation", I rationalised.
When Epson brought out their second generation Stylus Photo, around 1998, the technological leap was staggering. "Nearly there" I thought. But permanence was still an issue. And colour rendition was not entirely resolved. I kept my eye on all the high end machines and even made visits to obscure trade shows to check out the state of the art, but for the best part of a decade, the critical quality I demanded, would remain unavailable.
Long before I even picked up my first single lens reflex camera, I already had a colossal technical education because in the early days I could not afford a camera, so instead, I would go to the library and read up on the science behind the art. So it looked as if I made fantastic progress in record time, and I did. But much of the groundwork had been put in place years before. Years of technical experimentation and study, including of course, extensive experience with high end colour darkroom printing. So my rapid progress innovating, had actually been decades in the making. An 'overnight sensation' proceeds on the same principle. You simply don't see the enormous amount of effort which precedes the magical success.
Technology can and should facilitate the creation of art, but it won't make the ideas any better. That is, always has been, and always will be, a human thing. This is not universally understood and it should be. Great art is the mind behind it.
It would be facile to think that anyone could have done what I did.
But in sense nobody can, as no-one can be me.
I'm already taken.
And my cyber art has my persona stamped all over it.
From that point in 1996, I went on to create what I consider to be amongst the greatest works of my life. I embraced digital imaging, electronic painting, 3D and other forms of computer based art at full tilt. I rarely do things in half measures.
One man holds a paint brush the other a camera. Which is the artist?
Answer is : Either, neither or both.
Few people have any understanding of the simple fact that whether or not something is art, has little to do with what art is actually made of. Very few painters or photographers are artists. Simple fact. That they are holding a camera or brush is utterly meaningless. Using the epithet 'Artist' or 'Photographer' is equally meaningless. So is hanging something in a gallery.
A gallery may or may not contain art.
So when computer art and digital imaging were being dismissed as things unworthy of serious contemplation, it was a case of déja vu. They weren't so much wrong as just lacking in imagination, regarding what could be developed. They were wrong about music too. ALL recorded music today is created with computers. Electronic instruments prevail everywhere. Samplers, synthesisers, drum machines, MIDIs and so on. Eventually synthesisers came to sample actual sounds rather than using an oscillator to mimic them, but ironically without the early attempts to mimic existing instruments, all the new sounds would not have been created. And clearly, electronic sound is very much the defining hallmark of modern music.
Even those musicians who erroneously call themselves 'purist' and use traditional instruments, all use computers and samplers to record. Even where music sounds free of electronics, it invariably isn't. Even the greatest guitarists, for example, take a short piece of music and perfect it digitally and move it around to another place in the recording, and so on. Although few realise that, I know.
Why there is resistance to these facilities, I have no idea. This is also an error. I guess even today, people still want artists to nail themselves to their crosses. This rather silly view still exists, that if something was that easily done, it can't be art. Truth is, they want it to be difficult for you. Hell, they don't want to pay all that money for something you did in half an hour. I'm afraid that people who think effort equals result, still have a few things to learn, philosophically.
The reason people fail to grasp brilliant new concepts, is that a they lose their child-like sense of adventure. Children run to catch snow flakes. Old people just moan about the weather. Spirits should be ageless. Forever young.
During the 90s, probably about 1996, I had a series of epiphanies similar to the ones I had with photography, back in the early Seventies. I realised that you could work with the same image and creatively take it down six different channels, metaphorically speaking, and end up with six images so different from each other that you do not recognise the source. This was a revelation. One of those things you just cannot comprehend until you see it done. This almost seemed like creating something out of nothing.
Which is what I did next. The next progression.
To create my anthropological masterpiece 'Nemesis' of 2000, I started with nothing, just a blank black square.
Here is how it ended up.
All I did with my initial black square, was to add a white border so I could see it, but I did NOT introduce any elements from external sources into the picture. No additional resources or files were imported.They were all generated from the black square with white border. This is hard to comprehend unless you have seen it done. It's like drawing a single note out of the silence with a synthesiser and then going on to create a symphony, once you have the note. The speed at which this can occur is phenomenal, although an extraordinary input of work and experimentation is required before the spontaneous materialisation. It always takes time to summon order from the chaos.
Certain thoughts preoccupy my mind. At present, for example I think a lot about the complexity of physicality, so that appears often in the work. It's not that you deliberately set out to do a picture on a particular thing but rather that whatever is on your mind, tends to come out in the work you create. It's automatic. And in any case, I haven't work with preconceived ideas for decades.
Back in the NIneties, my preoccupations were things like spontaneous materialisation and the cycle of creation and destruction in the cosmos. So I ended up with the latter coming through in 'Ultrametamorphica Supercybersynthesis'. This masterpiece was created using FOUR software programs. The breakthrough came when I discovered a brand new and now long gone piece of software, which allowed three dimensional sculpting in real time. This allowed me to literally grab things and stretch , mould and shape them. During my three decades of pioneering it is truly astonishing how much brilliant software has come and gone. There was incidentally, no photography in this image at all.
I still love it as a work of art. I have a huge 1.5 meters framed original in the lounge. here in Abbey Road.
If you catch yourself talking to yourself, how many of you are there?
At the start of the new millennium, after a lot of incremental progress, digital printers started getting serious. The results obtainable from a high end ink jet machine, finally equaled and in many cases surpassed results achievable with conventional wet process colour photography. I first saw this quality in 2001 on an Epson 10000CF at Epson's HQ in Hertfordshire. Superlative results were possible, when combined with a carefully selected paper. Choice of paper not only affected aesthetics but also archival longevity. The Epson was an amazing machine, capable of huge prints of fantastic quality. The models from the year before in 2000 were all good, but just one notch short of great. You have to give Epson Seiko credit for rising to what must have been an incredible challenge.
So by 2001 all the major problems with digital printing had been solved. The quality was there and the permanence problem has finally been solved to a very high degree. Permanence is now far greater than for conventional photography. That's what I was waiting for. In fact, if you look at recent printers, the quality and permanence are demonstrably better than conventional photography.
In 2007 I bought my first high end HP 24 inch Designjet Z2100 pigment printer , which was a massive technological breakthrough from an artist's point of view. Apart from allowing print sizes up to 36 inches (90cm), for the first time photography could rival oil painting in terms of permanence. Figures of over 200 years became the normal. An outstanding technological achievement, way beyond any levels of permanence in conventional colour photography. So the challenges for printing are completely resolved.
I later bought the 44 inch version of this printer, which allowed prints up to 60 x 40 inches. With this I created my largest masterpieces ever.
So we've come a long way and cameras evolved more or less in parallel. The breakthrough for cameras came in the early Noughties. Although I had owned a digital Leaf Lumina camera since 1994, Even in 2000 I still used analogue film for the camera in most cases. I used my beautifully made Nikon F4S camera and then used an extremely high quality Nikon scanner which matched film in resolution and captured all highlight and shadow detail. I owned every Nikon scanner since their first multi format 5 x 4 inch model, the LS4500 in the Nineties. This evolved into the Nikon Coolscan 8000 and then the 9000 which were medium format 6 x 9cm scanners, rather than the original large format. The quality was beyond reproach. I did tests with drum scanners, but found no additional quality from the image, just more dust, debris and abrasions, due to the light source. Which means endless retouching.
These Nikon scanners resolved everything on the film. 4,000 pixels per inch was the exactly correct resolution. Specifications seen on other brands such as 7,000 dpi was just marketing, as beyond 4,000dpi you are just scanning into the grain. There is no more photographic detail to be had. All scans had to be manually retouched regardless of scanner type, as none of the anti-dust software or hardware worked for the critical user. It left unacceptable artifacts which required even more retouching, so both methodologies were self-defeating.
It's worth also remembering everything was slow back then. The computer I use today is forty times the speed of my first system. With the early work there was a lot of watching progress bars.
Digital cameras finally reached the required quality in the early Noughties. I started with a Canon 20D, which was just a little below film of high quality, but I did some great work with it. Simply because a sharpening filter in Photoshop could more than make up the difference. In fact, I had a few years earlier realised, that said filter could turn 35mm quality into medium format quality, so I quickly sold all my medium format equipment in 1998. I had always worked in multiple formats, 5 x 4 inches, 6 x 4.5cm and 35mm.
I quickly moved to a Canon 5d with 24-105 Canon L series zoom, which easily matched film in terms of quality. I did comparison tests of identical subjects.
Later on, I moved again in 2009 to the Canon 5D MkII, this was well beyond 35mm film resolution and nearer medium format. A truly superb camera. My film cameras incidentally were all Nikons, mostly the F series, for more than three decades. I started with the Nikkormat FTN in 1972 and then used sequentially the F2, F3 and F4, right up to 2004. Always in black, to match my outfits. As well as avoid reflections.
Movies are very different to the creation of photographic art. In some ways movies are closer to music in that they have a dynamic which can be used to create a climactic narrative. Photo Art is more to do with capturing said climax so that it can be suspended in time for all eternity.
The improvements of the new Super VHS over standard VHS video were huge. I would freeze-frame images and look at them. Some were gorgeous! Though not technically good enough for serious photography. I thought back then that what I want from the future, was an imaging machine to do video of extremely high resolution that I can run in still mode at 25 frames per second with photographic resolution!
I mentioned this idea back in the early Nineties, in a published interview. Amazingly, most of this has now come to pass. Interestingly the solution was at first the opposite of what I envisaged. Video was added to stills cameras. With the latest mirrorless cameras, this has switched back again and they are nearer video cameras with a higher resolution still option. Just all round imaging machines.
Does that take all the Art out of Photography? No, not the art, just a little of the timing skill. Anyone who thinks it takes the art out of photography, has no understanding of what an artist is, or does. I left observational recording behind 50 years ago. There is an ocean of difference between snapshots, however well timed and artistic masterpieces pulled straight out of the imagination. Only the latter says anything much about the artist and his mind. It was indeed the observational recording of the previous generations that I rejected as Art. They did too.
The other thing about Kalachnikoff shooting at 20 frames a second, is that amazingly it often misses the peak moment. And your brain can surprisingly, very often capture it, if you have swift reflexes. I did on a few occasions use a video frame as input for the starting point of a work of art.
In 2005, a breakthrough image was 'The Dying Spiritual Embers Of An Aftermath'. The complexity of form is unprecedented in art and I would argue, impossible by any another means than cyber art. It started with a number of actual physical crosses I had made, about 40 I would say. These were made of wood, were about 12cm high and made with cross halving joints. I then painted them lilac. This I had done a couple of decades earlier in Cricklewood in when I was working on the masterpiece 'The Inevitability Of Circumstance', the penultimate picture I created there.
Almost a decade later I decided to evolve the image still further. This happens quite often. What I did was so complex even I could not trace it back, but I definitely created one of my greatest works with 'The Dying Spiritual Embers Of An Aftermath'. I love to create images which are impossible by any other means than the latest modern technology. That is the real breakthrough.
Also the technology is constantly shifting with regards to software. Many of the creative software engines that existed in the Nineties, do not exist today. They fell victim to disuse, incompatibility with operating systems and subsequent disappearance. One must technologically make hay whilst the sun shines. It seems to me extraordinary that such powerful software of immense creative potential, should fall victim to economies of scale and the constant gravitational pull of mediocrity.
So you can view much of my ground-breaking cyber art with a certain additional relish. The means to create so many of them, no longer exists. It's funny how we tend to think things will just always be there and they suddenly vanish. It reminds me of way back in 1973, when I created a photograph called 'Lady Of The Manor' (q.v.).
At the end of the day, masterpieces take time and there is really nothing you can do about that. I find it interesting that since I shifted the emphasis to computers in the early 90s, my prolificacy did not increase. In fact it remained EXACTLY the same, which is fascinating. Ten pictures a year. Mastery is mastery at the end of the day.
Masterpieces swallow up time like a black hole swallows up light.
So don't be tempted into thinking computers make art easier. They don't.
Although massive experience as a photo artist, certainly worked to my advantage.Consider this:
Magritte was truly awful photographer.
I saw some of his snaps in a New York gallery and I just laughed.
The fact that you can paint or sculpt will not make you a great photographer.
Or cyber artist.
Every art form has its own unique area of mastery.
Photography and Cyber Art are no exception.
In some ways they are more difficult to master than the conventional arts.
Both creative supremacy AND technical technical virtuosity are required.
Speaking of Surrealism, much of it is too random.
What I create are imaginative, complex, synergistic, cohesive truths. Not random in the least.
Easy to recognise but difficult to define, there is definitely a magic to creating art.
It's that "Oh my God!" factor which one discovers during the act of creating.
It was nothing a moment ago and now it is brilliant. It's like magic.
The exact opposite of random.
That synergistic synthesis where everything becomes greater than the sum total of its parts.
When it metamorphoses into art.
I always search for that.
And nearly always find it. Should I not, then I abandon my creative endeavour.
This philosophical bedrock has never failed me. It is a form of honesty.
And a higher form of image making.
So much of it is like exploring terra incognita.
Running across virgin snow.
It is an exhilarating pleasure to innovate.
To pioneer twice in a lifetime, that is something to celebrate.
Written 2002, 2018 & 2020 at Abbey Road, London
(well.... I had a lot of other important things to do....)
9600 words with 33 Fabadoodle Illustrations
© JAMES ELLIOTT 2020