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A Picture-Perfect Silicon Valley Exit

After Years With Apple, Bill Atkinson Now Focuses on Digital Nature Photography


SAN FRANCISCO — To those with a knowledge of computer history, it might make sense that Bill Atkinson's nature photographs have an elegant simplicity and an economy of design and composition.

After all, those are also the hallmarks of his most famous creation: the user interface of the Apple Macintosh computer.

Atkinson spent nearly 20 years as one of the most influential software designers in computer history, helping to create a look and feel that can still be seen on any computer with a mouse.

But now he is devoting himself full time to what had been a lifelong hobby. And, predictably, he is doing so with a particularly high-tech bent.

Atkinson, 46, might be the most purely digital nature photographer around. His images are processed, manipulated, displayed, printed and sold as bits stored in a computer. The original photographs are still shot on traditional film with conventional cameras, but that too will change, he says, as soon as digital cameras can match the resolution of their analog counterparts.

Just two months ago, Atkinson launched a Web site ( that serves as his virtual gallery. It is where he "hangs" dozens of his photographs paying tribute to the intimacies of nature: exquisitely colored petals, water-dappled stones and those exhibitionists of the floral world, orchids.

He has taken such pictures since he was a teenager growing up in the hills of Los Gatos, an exclusive community near Silicon Valley. During his computer career, he said, photography was an indispensable release.

"Programming is left-brain intensive and requires intense concentration," he said. "Photography was very relaxing and nourishing. It was the antidote to my programming stress."

But the two are not entirely unconnected.

"There is one overlap, which is seeking essence," Atkinson said. "The key to making an expressive photograph is to eliminate, eliminate, eliminate down to where you've got the essence of the subject.

"Something like that happens in software design. You start with a vague notion of what you're creating. You refine and refine down to the essence. The more times you do a complete rewrite of a piece of software, the more you get down to the essence of it."

Atkinson took up photography long before programming. During high school, he worked at a Los Gatos photo studio to help pay for his hobby. It wasn't until he was a graduate student at the University of Washington, when he began tinkering with computers used to analyze neuroscience studies data, that he became intrigued by the device that would change his life.

Jef Raskin, a fellow photographer and computer scientist Atkinson met at UC San Diego, where Raskin taught and Atkinson was an undergraduate, invited him to Silicon Valley in 1977 and work for a start-up company developing a small personal computer. The company was Apple.

Raskin introduced Atkinson to all 30 employees Apple had at the time, including Steve Jobs, the company's legendary co-founder and its interim chief executive today.

"Jobs put a big sell on me," Atkinson said. "His argument, which hit home, was that I could influence how things come out, could be ahead of the curve. He said we had a chance to make a difference in the world."

Atkinson joined Apple and was an important force behind some of the company's greatest successes, including the point-and-click interface of the Macintosh operating system. He also wrote the original QuickDraw, MacPaint and HyperCard software.

Meanwhile, Atkinson continued taking pictures of nature, giving prints away to co-workers and friends. He said some of his works still hang in the homes of Jobs and John Sculley, who was chief executive of Apple in the 1980s.

In 1990, Atkinson left Apple with two co-workers to found a company called General Magic Inc. The company's mission was to develop a "personal communicator," a hand-held device capable of sending pictures and messages to friends, co-workers or family members. Seven years later, Atkinson quit in frustration.

"The personal communicator didn't happen and wasn't going to happen," he said. "That's what disenchanted me. After 20 years of programming, I was also pretty burned out."

By then, Atkinson was a multimillionaire, largely because of the Apple stock he owned. Photography was something he could afford to do full time.

These days, he travels frequently to his favorite photographic locales, including New England, the Olympic Peninsula in Washington and the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. But much of the work is done from his Portola Valley home.

There, he scans his photographs, turning them from etchings on film into digital images he can manipulate using Adobe Photoshop software on a Genesis MP 800 computer. (It's a Macintosh clone with four 200MHz CPUs, 1.5 gigabytes of random access memory and a 70-gigabyte hard drive.)

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