Scanner Photography

By Paul Tough

December 15, 2002

SCANNER PHOTOGRAPHY • Many of the old rules of photography have been shattered in recent years by the introduction of cheap digital cameras and image manipulation programs like Photoshop. But one assumption has remained unquestioned: every photograph requires a camera, and every camera needs a lens.

Not anymore. This year, two different artists working independently, one on each coast, mounted exhibits that were remarkably similar: a collection of dazzling images of cut flowers, "photographed" not with a camera but with the moving lens of a flatbed scanner, the kind used in offices every day.

Mark McAfee Brown, an artist and designer in Mountain View, Calif, displayed his "Night Blooms" in a show at the Palo Alto Research Center this fall. Katinka Matson, a literary agent and artist in New York, exhibited "Forty Flowers" and "Twelve Flowers" on her Web site beginning in January. Both artists create their images by placing flowers and other natural objects on top of a 12-by- 17-inch scanner - they leave the top raised to avoid crushing the flowers - and then scanning the arrangement from below. The method creates a digital image that is vivid and precise: a photograph that requires neither film nor camera.

Behind this new style of photography is the idea that the moving wand of a scanner can capture a sense of perspective, a richness of color and a level of detail that a single, static lens cannot. Back when scanners were used only to reproduce flat images like prints or documents or book pages, people assumed that images created on a scanner would lack depth. In fact, the opposite is true: the flowers look thick and voluptuous, and the images seem almost three-dimensional. Petals touching the screen appear crisp, while ones raised an inch or two are ghostly shadows, fading into blackness.

As the moving lens slides along the surface of one of Matson's tulips, it is able to view the flower from all sides; her floral pictures are so intense that looking at them, you almost get the feeling that you are able to peer around the flowers themselves. Another advantage: the distortion that a single lens inevitably creates disappears - details at the corners of these pictures are as sharp and clear as those at the center.

Kevin Kelly, an author and photographer who often addresses the confluence of nature and technology, writes in an introductory essay on Matson's Web site that she "is at the forefront of a new wave in photography, or what we should call new imaging." Kelly invites viewers to "imagine a painter who could, like Vermeer, capture the quality of light that a camera can, but with the color of paints. That is what a scanner gives you. Now imagine a gifted artist like Matson exploring what the world looks like when it can only see two inches in front of its eye, but with infinite detail!" PAUL TOUGH