Remembering Ray Atkeson

February 18, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

A few weeks back I was at Cape Meres trying to make something of nothing light, when a gentleman started chatting me up. A long time resident he told me how Ray Atkeson used to set up his camera in the same spot, and how he loved that particular view. As I thought about it later, I realized how much those big coffee table editions of "Oregon" (volumes 1 through 3) influence my love of landscape photography. Lord knows how many copies of them I've owned or where, when or why they were let go, but I don't currently own any of them. 

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What I remember of these books is that they were largely gorgeous shots, but a mixed bag in terms of the quality of the reproduction methods used towards the end. Atkeson died in 1990, but was active from the 30's into the 80's, and like Weston and Adams, did most of his work using 4x5 view cameras. Some think his best work was his B&W ski photography and there is a nice site that collects a lot of his early work at The Ray Atkeson Image Archive. But it was his landscapes that earned him the title of Oregon state Photographer Laureate (1987–1990). 

Digital photography has lead to an explosion of amateurs like me that the industry chooses to flatter with the term "prosumers". Translation, we're the folk who keep the industry going with our "kit lust". I cop to getting chewed by that particular chigger too too often: thinking that if I just had that 50D Mk II my images would soar to a new level. Hell, if I chucked my Canon kit and went with a Nikon D800E I'd be…. Well, I'd be poorer and possibly divorced, and my pics wouldn't necessarily move to a new level. 

The sad truth is that in my area of interest -landscapes- I can replicate a 4x5 view camera's field of view quite easily, and, for the most part, exceed the levels of resolution of older view cameras. Using a motorized gigapan head and a relatively cheap Canon G11 on max zoom, with Kolor's Giga-Autopano Pro, I can create photos of incredible resolution that exceed Atkeson's equipment.

Pros would easily be able to tell that it was "cheated", but if I set out to recreate an iconic Atkeson shot, 95% of people looking at my print next to his wouldn't be able to see the tells that give it away to the obsessive pixel-peeker. Contemporary pros, most of whom make more by teaching folks like me than they do selling prints, will tell you it's The Eye, and The Passion more than The Kit. And that's both valid and touch of desperate attempt to set themselves apart from the prosumer masses.

What made an Atkeson, a Weston, or an Adams unique was that they had to make every exposure count. Big sheets of film were expensive, and labor intensive to process and print from. I have no idea how many dilettantes were out and about during the 30's and 40's but damn few would be using the big guns, and the Kodaks of the "enthusiasts" had limits. Serious limits compared to the better point and shoots available now for pennies on the 1940's inflation adjusted dollar. 

Yet, even with fewer limits, it would be very hard for me to replicate the career of an Atkeson, if that was my goal, because there are so many of us with the tools, and the leisure to take thousands of exposures, and throw away all but the three or four that are actually somewhat good. The market for eyes is flooded with TMI, and the signal to noise ratio is quite high. Flikr / Instagram / Google+ / phone cameras have all made it so that a portfolio site like mine is just one more damn thing to glance at, and tough to get a lingering eye in the age of visual spam. 

So, I'll fall back to the current standard: "I do it for me." (a bit of self placating, onanistic nonsense) and keep putting stuff out there. But to what end? I know I have no interest in "going pro" (at 70, I really neither need to, nor have the energy), so I settle for being driven by the desire to create a body of images that strangers would want to look at more than once. In some ways, Atkeson had it easier.

Note: Just checked Amazon saw that the "Oregon" books are OOP and offered for a mix of prices ranging from "collectable" to the used book equivalent of remaindered. In fact I just ordered the book in the photo for less than the cost of shipping. 

 

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