Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Bill Atkinson: Photography as a Second Career

An autumn hillside in New England. An autumn hillside in New England.
© Bill Atkinson

A look at a successful engineer who has shifted gears to follow his passion for photography.

It wasn't long ago that most people spent their entire working lives in one career and often one company. But times have changed.

As the average lifespan increases, seemingly in inverse proportion to the average length of a typical career, many successful professionals are finding more time to gravitate toward other activities — secondary vocations that may not be their chief source of income, but that are demanding enough to be called careers.

Photography, an inherently creative and usually solitary pursuit, has proven to be a popular choice for many businesspeople with a need for self-expression. Although there is no shortage of weekend warriors with autofocus SLRs and basement darkrooms who think they are the next Annie Leibovitz, a select few have been able to become nearly as successful in photography as they were in their initial professions.

We spoke to five people who were at the top of their fields — a software engineer, a surgeon, a forensic pathologist, a financial advisor and a business executive — before taking on a secondary career in photography.

Today, all have received high praise and recognition for their photography via published books, touring exhibitions or both.
Together, their successes are proof that creative and motivated people no longer have to decide between the careers that they love and the careers that they need to pay the bills.

Software to Photographer

One of the most successful examples of the dual-career trend is Bill Atkinson, a businessman and photographer.

"When I was 10 years old, my mother gave me a subscription to Arizona Highways magazine," Atkinson recalls. "I cut out several nature photographs and displayed them on my bedroom walls. I found that each day I viewed them, I felt nourished and inspired."

Those photographs inspired a lifelong passion for photography, even though Atkinson has had an illustrious business career.

He was one of the architects of many of Apple Computer's early software products. During the 1980s, he was the main designer for the Lisa computer, which preceded the Macintosh, and he wrote the MacPaint and QuickDraw graphics primitives on which every Macintosh system was built.

Atkinson came to Apple in a roundabout way. He moved to San Diego after high school to study neuroscience at the University of California. While there, he met a professor and friend who encouraged him to consider joining Apple. In the late 1970s, he finally agreed to visit Silicon Valley and meet with Steve Jobs, who persuaded him that, by joining Apple, Atkinson would be able to make a difference. "According to [Jobs]," Atkinson says, "by working at Apple, I would get a chance to invent the future, instead of just reading about it."

His 12 years at Apple ended in 1990, when he left and co-founded his own company, General Magic. In 1995, he left General Magic to pursue photography full-time. "It's ironic that most of my work at Apple could be described as designing tools to empower creative people," Atkinson says.

"It feels to me like the perfect payback that creative tools on the Macintosh now empower me in my own art. I use Adobe Photoshop every day, and I didn't have to write it."

Atkinson now calls photography his "primary career," although his photographic work is hardly the main source of income for one of the geniuses behind Apple. It has taken a while for people to know his photographs, but it's been worth the wait, he says. He is recognized for his nature photography, which is so intricate and detailed that it's been described as painterly.

While photographing Arizona's Petrified Forest National Monument in 1995, he became fascinated with the vibrant colors and shapes inside the rocks.

He began visiting rock shops in the area and bought polished, cut stones to photograph in his studio. "The resulting photographs were exciting and evocative," Atkinson says. "They looked more like abstract paintings than either rocks or photographs. Their shapes and colors showed a timeless mystery and complexity, and had no sense of scale."

As he showed the images around, each person saw something different. "They were like colored Rorschach tests," he adds.
His rock collection photos sold well in galleries that carried his work, so he decided that the rock collection would make a great book. The result, "Within the Stone," was a commercial and critical success.

"Looking back on my life so far, I see a common thread of personal passion and a desire to share my discoveries with others," Atkinson says. "And I have had a lot of fun exploring, playing and learning."
Atkinson's work can be viewed on his website at billatkinson.com.

Marilyn Morgan
Story Author: Marilyn Morgan

Marilyn Morgan is a Seattle-based freelance writer and photographer.

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