Photo Metro Magazine, May, 1996



"I bet the other Robert Altman gets asked if he's the photographer."

-Guy Kawasaki, Columnist

Photo of Dennis Hopper Robert Altman is a mercurial talent who has led both his profession and his generation and who has--in turn--been turned and led by the events impacting his generation and his profession. If this was true of the young Altman, former chief-photographer for Rolling Stone magazine, then it is a treble verity for the 51 year old award-winning web master, educator and photographer-gone-digital.

Ostensibly, this column is about the digital realm and how it pertains to and affects the world of photography. In my opinion, the quality and character of Altmanís presence on the web is emblematic of a new future for photographers and photography as well. Web sites such as Altmanís predict a growing trend which promises to deliver not only more business options to photographers, but also more direct control over the nature of their participation as communicators in the international culture.

RA: "It stems from my involvement with the Net, which allows me unmitigated expression and little restraint. If I choose, I don't schmooze. See ya Mr.Publisher; bye bye Mr Gallery man. I'll publish myself, thank you very much. If I get notices, it's my efforts alone doing the walking."

This interview was conducted almost entirely via e-mail and through

repeated visits to Altmanís extensive site.  Quotations as above are

taken from Altmanís commentary which accompanies photographs within

the site itself. All such citations are extensions from the following

root address:

JWL: How / why did you get involved in digital?

 RA:  "In August of 1991 a message arrived that would change my life.

Henry Brimmer,  then publisher of  Photo Metro Magazine, had called to

offer me some free time in front of a computer. Hmmmmm. He said I

could check out Photoshop (whatever that was) and do some "cool new

stuff" with my photography. 

Thus began a total about face in my life. I was always intellectually interested in computing and had even attended the very first Apple convention, knowing that this event was historic. In the 70's, I sensed that computers were too dry and mathematical for me... I would return when they got easier to use and spoke the same language I did. In the 80ís, I knew something was afoot when I visited Jerry Pompili at Bill Graham Presents. He had a little Mac computer on his desk and there was this squadron of toasters flying across the screen. I was too embarrassed to ask what this was about, but I knew these flying toasters were significant.

So, arriving at Henry's workshop, he put a photo of a little blonde on the screen--a blue-eyed girl wearing an enormous red straw hat--and he said, "click here; drag this over there"... I could not believe what I was seeing! I was making miracles happen. In seconds, I was doing things that would have taken one entire hour for my air-brusher to do. (These were things that I had always wished I could do, but for which I didn't have another lifetime.) The rapture I felt was the same as I had experienced years before when I first picked up a still camera and watched the magic transpire. What I didn't realize that day was that I would be engulfed and swallowed whole; devoured and chewed up. Control of my life was not my own anymore--well, at least not for awhile, anyway--like Alice down the well, I tumbled into other worlds: Autonomous Zones; Synthesia; Cyberspace. For me it was more like "Cyberia." Well, now I've got control of my life back again... or at least the illusion of it. Never did thank Henry.

RA: "In a vain attempt to impress him I whipped out my new toy: a filmless digital camera!" Boy, I was sure I was still the first on my block to own the coolest, newfangle-est darned digital camera you ever saw. Impress him?


Richard Hart casually glanced at my 'antique' and with a slight rise says "Oh, the Kodak Digital 40"...he reaches to open a small box and out pops the Dycam Model 10. Not only does it cost less then my 4 month old Kodak but Richard's week-old camera already does twice as much: the option of a 35 to 140 mm through the viewer zoom lens; aperture control and a removable on-the-fly hard disk memory card. Gee, thanks a lot Richard.

 JWL: How would you describe yourself / your work?  (That is, you

are/were a film photographer who happens to utilize the digital technology


RA: "Nowadays, every time someone asks me what I do I get an uneasy feeling, take a breath and try to honestly address that most natural of questions, "What do you do?" Curiously, I also never really know what Iíll say. Really.

Now I am a digital imager who uses the photographic medium as my main source of content and who distributes his art over electronic mediums. I also teach and consult.
I have always been interested in the human condition as well as my own psyche, which is probably why I wound up with a B.A. in Psychology. This interest in people naturally led me to my chosen profession, photography--there is something which drives me to make images, and I usually point my lens at the colorful doings of my fellow man.

I'm a storyteller, a communications man, I love meeting exciting people. Maybe they're wildly talented, maybe they're famous, or it could be they're just extremely colorful people whom I want to film. Also, I love to share my experience with others. This is a primal drive for me--I suppose that, at the dawn of man, I would have been the one responsible for the cave drawings."

RA: "My camera has always been my passport into wonderful homes and historical events. In the sixties, I was swept into the tumult and color. Sometimes I recorded events of a day; other times I helped to create and shape those events. All through it I felt a drive to photograph and to capture, it was my job to be among the chroniclers of those events and times. But I definitely didn't do it for the money (e-mail laugh here).

Honestly, my greatest strength as a photographer is as a photojournalist, although I believe that some of my work is at the level of fine art. In the late 60ís I was shooting freelance, and doing studies of my friends as well. Then, in about 1970, John Burkes published an award-winning article in Rolling Stone magazine which reviewed some three hundred photographers who were working for 180 underground and counter-culture newspapers across the country. I was cited as one of the top three, and I know that is what led to my appointment as chief photographer at Rolling Stone shortly thereafter.

Now I am pursuing a third incarnation. I love reinventing myself, I can't imagine otherwise. When I've consummated a cycle there's a slow death until the next orbit begins. Each of my orbits has been anchored in the photographic medium. First, I began as a photojournalist, shooting rock stars, celebrities, personalities, and historical moments. Then after all that travel, my second incarnation centered me for 20 years here in San Francisco as the Robert Altman Studio. I focused my lens on fashion and commercial photography, got married, and together my wife and I created a model and talent agency. Now, in my third turn, I am 'Digital Photo-Man'."

"Self-indulgence is what the World Wide Web is all about." -Laura Lemay

Although Altmanís site has an certain authority which derives from the overall high quality of his archive, it is also, at turns, bravely idiosyncratic, raw, embarrassing, chic, kitsch, sublime, tawdry, nostalgic, sublime, sweet, and personal. Either there are lapses of aesthetic rigor, or there is a willingness to publicly explore and expose the entirety of the self without reservation. This reminds me of a favorite line from Walt Whitmanís Song Of Myself: ďDo I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)Ē. So I find this refreshing, and besides, on the net, it IS easy to by-pass whatever disinterests me--as easy as turning the page in a magazine. But there are several powerful bodies of work here.

I am struck by the autobiographical series (-/Small.Circle.1.html), by many of the chronicles--which are as excellent as photojournalism gets (-/Rapture.jpeg) , and by many of the portraits (-/JoesephAldenThompson.jpeg) which are scattered throughout. The early portrait of Dennis Hopper, which tells a story in the vein of Duane Michals, (-/DennisHopper.jpeg) may be about his best. In a medium where you can have dynamite content and still have a terrible web site, Altmanís site succeeds in both areas. It is well crafted throughout. Everything is tuned for the WWW medium and perfectly balanced at the antipodes of image-quality and download-speed. These are important issues for the photographer (who wants to retain the integrity of his work in an alien medium) and for the web surfer (who is statistically impatient).

RA: "This photo was not shot with a long lens as its apparent shallow depth of field implies. In fact it was taken with a fixed 35mm wide lens. I have digitally jimmied its background to blur, an effect that a long telephoto lens with a short F stop delivers. God bless Photoshop. This is the second photo in this column of other photographers working in the field. I guess I enjoy capturing behind these scenes-images of my brother and sister "shooters." I am really jazzed with the immediacy of shooting digitally, jamming with the image through my Mac "box" and then lobbing it out to you there in Cyber." -/My.Week.Nov.4.html

JWL: What software do you use primarily? Why?

RA: "I have tossed out every "rule" of orthodox photography. The computer has provided me with a brand new paintbox and tools which extend my tactile faculties beyond what I imagined possible. I use Adobe Photoshop because it is the richest, deepest, most versatile graphics program I have encountered for manipulating the photographic image--with Photoshop I can accomplish almost everything I would ever want to do to my photos. If I get stuck, it is inevitably myself and not the program that is lacking. Airbrush tasks--like removing a telephone pole from behind a subject's head--are a breeze with Photoshop. The miracle (or bane of the program, depending on your point of view) is that there are 50 different ways to achieve an effect. Strategy is the key. My first Photoshop mentor taught me that, in Photoshop, the "selection" of objects is half the battle."

"In the Rain" is kind of what I feel; well I guess all days can't be blue skies. Anyway, photographing this piece triggered a new experience for me. It was the first time I picked up my camera and thought on the spot, while my eye was searching through the viewfinder, that I would digitally alter what I was seeing later on. Boy, that was a jolt. Even though I had been working with computer enhancements, this was the first time I thought in those terms before the fact. I visualized removing unwanted items that were in my field of vision like wires, telephone poles and the occasional wet newspaper. Several hours later I did just that and then I put it through Painter's grain effects, and finally through several of Photoshop's filter effects to get the impressionistic effect you see." -/My.Week.2.Feb.25.html

"I have also found that all the hours I spent in the darkroom have served me well in the digital realm. The ability to digitally manipulate an image to get its faithful tone, saturation, and hues--which bear the emotionality of an image--comes easily with Photoshop. Although I do miss how images "talked" to me from the developer tray, I donít miss the smell of hypo or the exhaustion after a prolonged darkroom stint. In all probability, I will never see the inside of a darkroom again and, while that may be blasphemy to purists, it is just fine with me. Instead, I am cultivating a relationship with master photo-printer Kirk Anspatch."

"What I still want is greater control with the illustrative, painting and graphics tools of Photoshop. I have dabbled with Fractal Painter, which has filters that I use to give some images an impressionistic style with brush-stroking effects. Until now, I conceived many images and variations but I was always limited by brush and pen. Now, beginning with a camera, I can transform the raw photo into a Monet-esque tableau by coaxing pixels into a more appropriate formation."

JWL: What excites you about your work?

RA: "I consider myself lucky that, at fifty-one years, I am on the cutting edge of today's most interesting and popular technologies and that I can integrate that with my art. Fortunately I have had the time necessary to acquire an array of new skills. The disciplined act of learning was all but forgotten when I stepped up to the digital mountain--and the digital learning curve is never, ever over. In photography there is always some new knowledge to acquire, but the pace seems tame. Maybe, for me, the worst is behind.

First I learned to shoot straight and handle people; then I learned lighting and studio skills; now I am on the digital track. Itís impossible to keep pace with all that there is learn about digital--and I am certain that if I had dwelt on that fact, I might still be frightened off. So I just keep moving, learning. In order to cope I focus on two areas... Photoshop and the World Wide Web. Photoshop seems a self-contained world with upgrades every two years. Although it might appear to have finite edges where one could stand up and say "I've mastered this planet" it's truly so huge that one could never reach its limits. But this should not discourage anyone from sitting down with it, as it is simple to acquire basic, yet powerful Photoshop skills that will enable you to get going.

The Web, on the other hand, is as infinite and expansive as the universe itself. It streams in all directions and the knowledge needed for mastery expands daily as more of the multimedia fields are added to the mix of technologies adhering to the Internet protocols. When the Internet began, only written words and alphanumeric code files were distributed. That lasted for about 25 years. Then Marc Andressen added graphics to the mix and the Internet exploded with the WWW. That's when I stepped in... it was 1994, a digital eon ago. At that point I was considered one of the HTML wizards. Like Charley Chaplin being handed the ball from Tom Edison when he had invented the moving picture camera... Chaplin was the first artist who did something wonderful with the tool. I was lucky to be one of many who took the WWW apparatus from the engineers and moved it to a place where art is possible.

What really excites me is this new ability for me to take my art to the marketplace...and what a new marketplace it is! My presence on the Web has brought new attention to my work. I have received new orders for prints of my work; I have found new clients and received new assignments; I have been given design notices and merit awards; and besides, I have been making friends all over the world.

FOOTNOTE Your comments, insights, and leads can be directed to me here at Photo Metro Magazine via snail mail or you can e-mail me directly: You can access my base web page at: Past columns #1-4 are archived there in the "postings" area of the page and it has a link--at the bottom--to my other site.

Copyright 1996 by Jon Warren Lentz , all rights reserved. Photo Metro Magazine

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