Biographical Note

While waiting for the convergence of computers and cameras, David Cortner has worked as a computer programmer, a systems analyst, a philosophy instructor, a writer, a star-guide, as many kinds of photographer and as a photo-editor. Now that cameras and computers play so well together, he's looking forward to doing a lot more photography.

Aldo Leopold Wilderness

Autumn Grasses, Aldo Leopold Wilderness, NM

I began to learn photography at the small end of a telescope when I was 11, in 1966. Three years later, my parents introduced me to the American West. We crossed the Mississippi at Memphis, drove through the southwestern deserts, then up California (in Yosemite, I held an original print of "Moonrise Over Halfdome," in Ansel Adams's studio, but I couldn't convince my parents to buy it for $25). We drove upstream beside the Columbia River, and downstream beside the Missouri. We accidentally backtracked Lewis and Clark. I loved it all, but more than anything else, I adored the low and cutting light on the northern prairies, the silence, the undisturbed closeness of the stars. I heard birds flying over before I saw them. I have wanted to photograph the sound of a bird flying over ever since. I was born in 1955; I was reborn in 1969.

I began college intending to major in physics and finished as a graduate student of philosophy. I am still learning photography. I seem determined to work my way through the alphabet from "phi" to "phy." As an undergraduate, I minored in computer science and in 1983 first encountered digital imaging in a seminar on the subject taught by a former NASA engineer. Ever since, I have waited for that technology to mature to the point that it would be the medium of choice for photography. Digital imaging, I imagined, would free photographers from the limits of chemically limited response curves and their bondage to the accidents and vagaries of the single exposure. I have been banking images since the 70's. I sketched with the camera, collected details, textures, incomplete images, knowing that someday, something could be done with them. In 1983, I learned what that something would be, and I began adjusting my attitude toward photography so that I would be ready when that new age began. I went to graduate school at the University of Arizona, where I studied philosophy (and attended seminars with astronomers and planetary scientists). I saw the first images come down from the outer planets, and thought, "Ah, digital photography has spread throughout this solar system, but when will it make it to planet Earth?" I worked as a computer operator, programmer, and systems analyst. I taught philosophy for one year. I developed software for a tiny little feasibility study for the Cassini mission to Saturn. I waited. I learned more about traditional photography. I worked briefly as a photo editor. I wrote and illustrated some magazine pieces, shot a wedding or two, some advertising photos. I continued (and continue) to pursue astrophotography both for the beauty of the night sky and for the discipline it requires.

3 self-portraits (in Photoshop). L to R: volunteer star-guide at Chaco Canyon National
Historic Park, New Mexico; on the loose in Chaco;
dressed for the opera.

In 1999, with my wife's encouragement, I gave up the rigors of an interstate commuter marriage and took up photography full time. To no one's surprise, two subjects to which I return again and again are the night sky and the American West.

Lately, I have discovered the same, sere beauty in the wild places of the Old World --in northern Scotland, for instance-- and am excited about applying an aesthetic developed in response to the American West to the austere landscapes of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.

My work has appeared in an eclectic collection of outlets in America, Britain and Europe. It's appeared on the cover of the Washington Post travel section, in the movie "Cold Mountain," in Astronomy magazine, in natural science textbooks, in a coffee-table review of America's westward expansion, in an architectural book about San Diego, in advertisements for a sea kayaking outfitter. Etc. Considering my history, I am particularly gratified to have my work chosen with fair regularity for NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

I believe the day has come when photography is ready to be redefined in terms of digital techniques. None too soon. It is exciting to know that we can do more this year than last, that we will be able to do still more next year than this. I have yet to photograph the sound of a bird flying over.

David Cortner
December 2004