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February 15, 2007
Chronicle Books recently released a book called Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers. Richards contributed the photos to go alongside John Alderman's text on the history of 35 of the most influential computers, from the punch card machine to the computers of today.
The photos, some of which fill a wall from floor to ceiling, are on exhibit for the summer at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.
Richards took time out from his vacation in Canada to talk to CNET News.com about his book and exhibit, the switch from film to digital, stock photo houses, and the future of professional photography.
Q: Why don't you tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to this project?
Richards: Desperation and insecurity.
What do you mean by that?
Richards: Like anyone, I had a career as a photojournalist, and 9/11 started to change that in terms of the economy for a lot of people. Pretty soon it was like being an armadillo in Texas. You're just waiting to be run over. So, I happened to be going to an event called the "Vintage Computer Festival," kind of like nerds who get together and run old computers. I happened to see these computers while I was there, and it just kind of struck me how beautiful they were.
Tell me about the exhibit at the Computer History Museum that recently opened.
Richards: I actually made them look so different that I went back there. I was so bored with the collection versus seeing it on the book. This is the way my eyes see the world, not that the collection was boring; it's that I like to see things in a certain way. Some of them are 6 feet wide. There's actually a picture that was not in the book that I put up, and they'll be up till September.
How do you think the designs compare when you look at the old ones and now you look at the new ones? Would you photograph the new ones as well?
Richards: Only if you tied me to one. No, I think the newer ones are, from the photographic standpoint, just really different and they don't really show the obviousness of what they do. The designs are smaller, and unless we have an electron microscope, it is much harder to find those same patterns. So, no, I wouldn't. Although I do have some ideas for something that would involve them, but that's for later.
There are a lot of photographers doing what they call "found objects." Do you think you're in that school, or do you think you're more of a graphical photographer?
Richards: You know, I'm really bad with names so I have to apologize right off with that, but the influence is actually from a school of German photography that started off just at the end of the industrial revolution in East Germany by this husband and wife (Bernd and Hilla Becher). They sort of documented, and a photographer among many called Andreas Gursky, in a beautiful way mind you, historical artifacts. So, I don't know if it's like found objects because I'm really studying these things and looking for beauty in them. I'm just not taking everything that you see. I'm definitely editing to what I think and what I feel is interesting.
So, you're not looking to make statements through juxtaposition? You are really just trying to look into the machine?
Richards: Well, any photographer who's saying that he's not trying to make a statement is lying. It's just how subtle or not. No, I'm trying to make a statement. I think these have designs that show humanity even in something as static as wires and steel. When you look at the wires and different signals, you think about the human beings who designed them. It is the flow of the wires or in one case, the CDC 6600, I mean it looks like a face even, though crudely. Then there are these pieces on the Apollo spacecraft navigation system where it obviously has historical significance, and also it's just beautiful in its own right. It looks like artifacts of jewelry from some ancient population. And also, again, it shows in contemporary terms how crude the technology was that took us so far.
Richards: Yeah. I mean, when you look at that you just go, "Oh! My God."
Then there's another thing that you won't be able to see, but I made some of these prints very, very big, about 5x5 feet. They are just a whole different thing then. It becomes much more like fine art and removed from what they were and what they are. I really enjoy that you can look at something differently.
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