by Linda Daly Paulson

The San Francisco Examiner, 1997

The realm of the digital is where world views collide: order and chaos, science and imagination, truth and fiction. And in its midst, attempting to express and disseminate those dichotomies is the artist.

There is no better place where these struggles are more artfully expressed in the photographic medium than in Robert Altman's digital gallery.

Altman, a San Francisco resident, has been a noted professional photographer for years. Best known for his photojournalism as chief photographer for Rolling Stone Magazine during its hippie heyday; Altman's second incarnation was as a commercial photographer. Altman experienced what he calls his "personal and professional re-tooling cycle," in 1991 that led him to make the transition to the digital realm. That is a story in itself that is among the chronicles on his website.

"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," he explains.

So taken is Altman with the medium that he's begun teaching the next generation of artists about digitizing art and using the web. Altman now teaches at Center for Electronic Art and is wildly in demand as a teacher at other San Francisco schools and universities.

"I love the idea of teaching in the Bay Area." says Altman. "This region is the avant garde for the development of electronic distribution so it's quite heady practicing in this neighborhood." The parallels between this incarnation of Altman's career and his nascent photographic career are uncanny. In both instances San Francisco was at the hub of a transformational cultural movement. First rock 'n' roll and youth culture; now computers and the online culture.

"I'm lucky to have had this happen twice in one lifetime," Altman says. He also admits he was lucky to be an early apostle of computer-mediated art. Pleased with his conversion experience, he is eager to proselytize. And in fact, the digital experience often sounds like a religious experience when talking to Altman. "My job is to share my passion and stir enthusiasm inside of others who are ready to receive that wake up call. They can be part of this great evolution in publishing. This is like homesteading and you can claim your stake right now."

Photography enthusiasts and artists of all stripes, like Altman, are increasingly embracing technology for a multitude of purposes. There is a commercial benefit as well as that of creating an immediate exhibit without having the opening reception jitters and bad white wine.

"In my opinion, the quality and character of Altman's presence on the web is emblematic of a new future for photographers and photography as well," wrote Jon Warren Lentz in Photo Metro. "Web sites such as Altman's 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."

Altman, in addition to his work as a photographer and teacher, is also a digital graphics consultant, but it is in working with his website that he ultimately finds professional and personal pleasure. "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."

This sharing is most evident in Altman's digital photo-diary. "My Week" is an ongoing album of words and pictures chronicling the events and people which come and go in Altman's life. There are family bar mitzvah photos, lazy afternoons with a lady love, a digital photography experiment, recollections with analog and digital photos, party pictures and grab shots from vacations, business meetings and random gatherings and chance encounters.

"It reminds people of their own friends. There is personal chord it strikes with people." Altman has no pretensions as to what his art is about. In his estimation, there is room to appreciate and practice all sorts of photography. His work just happens to capture moments in time.

"I am more relaxed at a human level," he opines. "It's not this attitude of, 'I'm a fine artist. I am going to package my stuff in a finite, artistic way so as to not disclose anything about myself that someone can't discover through my art.' I'm not on that high a ladder."

His photography has a lot in common with the art of Norman Rockwell, the Saturday Evening Post illustrator whose art was "slice of life" rather than high concept. It's a comparison which Altman readily embraces. "The Rockwell icons are as deep as your own memories. The barbershop, Thanksgiving, that wonderful self portrait. ... Those images are imprinted at the front of your brain, Picasso? You can't understand that at first glance. I think Norman Rockwell and his times were just wonderful. There's a lot of Norman Rockwell in me. His sensibilities are my sensibilities, and I am not taking myself too seriously."

The sections of his virtual gallery that have elicited the greatest response are entitled "Classic Rock 'n' Roll" and "The '60s." It's not only the people who lived through those times who are responding to the images Altman has captured and is sharing, but their children as well.

"These pictures help regenerate the emotions from those times or the pictures in our minds," Altman, once a psychology major, explains. "I've had people who wrote and said they looked at my stuff and literally cried. For people to take the time and share at this level is deeply satisfying. That's what my website and this gallery is all about."

Altman's Website http://www.cea.edu/robert

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