Network: Wilderness at the touch of a button

The work of photographer Ansel Adams is going digital. By Paul Rodgers

Some of the most striking photographs of the American wilderness ever taken could be available online - though for a price - and certainly on CD-Rom by 1997, courtesy of Bill Gates, boss of Microsoft.

The world's leading electronic art gallery, Mr Gates's Corbis, purchased the rights to the works of a top American photographer Ansel Adams last week, adding them to collections from Britain's National Gallery, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the 16 million pictures in the Bettmann photo archive.

A proposal to include the Adams pictures in a new pay-per-view online service is being considered, although the company is not sure whether the quality will do them justice at the low-resolution levels necessary for downloading to household PCs.

The biggest obstacle to the online project is the lack of bandwidth available to most private users. Corbis uses a very high resolution for its pictures. A typical digital image file might contain 30Mb, and the Adams photographs will be even bigger. Downloading one to a PC could take hours.

Even if the online service does not go ahead, the company plans to issue a CD-Rom with 400 of the late Mr Adams's images, which revolutionised American photography in the first half of the century. Some of the 100,000 letters he wrote over his lifetime will also be included.

An earlier Corbis CD-Rom, A Passion for Art, inspired the Ansel Adams Trust to approach Corbis about buying the electronic rights to his collection.

Although Mr Adams was best known for his nature pictures, and for lecturing former president Ronald Reagan on environmental issues, he was also a confirmed technophile. Before his death at 82 in 1984 he was one of the first IBM PC users.

"Like many artists, he wanted to be immortal, and he knew in the 21st century that was going to mean electronic imaging," said Bill Turnage, managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Trust.

Mr Adams paid particular attention to the printing of his pictures, achieving a level of quality which is often unrivalled today, and Corbis is pushing the limits of technology and talent accurately to reproduce his effects digitally.

"Scanning photographs is more of an art than a science," said Corbis's president and chief executive, Doug Rowan. "It's very difficult to recreate what Ansel was able to do in the darkroom. We need to capture the same feeling in the digital lab. You don't just take a scanner out of a box and throw a print in it."

Corbis was set up by Mr Gates as a private company, separate from his Microsoft software giant, primarily because as a private firm it is able to take a longer-term view than a public company, which must constantly be aware of the stock market's short-term demands.

"Bill Gates sees there being a time when there's a great value to digital content, but it's a five-, 10-, 15-year project," said Mr Rowan. "We're trying to build a digital library with a broad theme, capturing the entire human experience throughout history."

The company usually buys only non-exclusive rights, but was persuaded by the trust to take Adams's pictures on an exclusive basis because of its fears of copyright infringement. Adams's prints are among the highest priced in the world, and are often bootlegged. Corbis plans to use techniques such as digital watermarks to protect the works, although its main line of defence will be knowing who its corporate customers are.

Mr Adams was born in San Francisco in 1902, close to where the Golden Gate Bridge now stands. He took his first photograph with a Kodak Box Brownie on a family trip to California's Yosemite National Park when he was 14.

One of his principal beliefs was that photographs are made not taken. Probably his chief technical accomplishments was the development of a film exposure system that gave the photographer control of textures and contrast in each part of a scene, a technique now known as the zone system.

Among the works that made Adams America's most celebrated photographer were pictures for a string of books, including Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, Illustrated Guide to Yosemite Valley and This is the American Earth.

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