Our learning centre was an improvised set of former vehicle maintenance blocks arranged around a courtyard or in Arabic 'maidan'. It was the last place you'd expect to discover the amazing power of digital imaging, but that was about to happen to me.
On my timetable I had around 15 contact hours per week, leaving around one free period per day. On Tuesday the 18th of October, during one of those free periods, I was sitting in an empty computer lab. Each computer lab had 16 student computers and a teacher's computer, all networked together, all Apple Macintosh Centris 660 AVs. I was sitting at the teacher's computer, trying out various programs when I discovered a thing called 'Adobe Photoshop 2.5'. I'd heard vaguely of this program, but I didn't fully understand what it did, and was puzzled by the origin and pronunciation of the name 'Adobe'. Clicking on one of tiny picture icons, an image opened up on the screen. It was a sunset view of a castle, similar to a hilltop fort in the UAE.
I noticed there was a pen tool. I clicked on it and started to draw. I found I was able to alter the photograph in a way I'd never been able to do before. Clicking the eyedropper changed the colour of the pen, and I started to paint onto the sky. Then I tried the tool I later learned was the cloning tool. It 'grabbed' pixels from a source point and 'painted' them onto another part of the picture. There was an object on the right of the picture which I wanted to remove. A few daubs with the cloning tool enabled me to paint over it with the sky, and it was gone.
I was awestruck. This was a photograph, and yet it appeared fluid and malleable like putty or liquid. If it was so easy to intervene in a photograph and change it as you would alter a painting, there had to be endless creative possibilities. I was fascinated with the visual quality of the on-screen image, the reds and yellows of the sunset sky, the earthy browns of the sand and bricks. The colours on the screen glowed brightly, like a tv screen, though the image was marred by what appeared to be a pattern of dots. I later discovered that this was because the screen was set to show only 256 colours. Soon the bell rang, marking the end of my precious free period, l and was frustrated to have to close Photoshop and walk across the maidan to get the next set of students.
On subsequent days I continued to experiment and became more and more fascinated with digital imagin. I bought computer magazines and read up on the subject. On a weekend visit to Dubai, I went to a Kodak lab and had a selection of my photos scanned and saved to Kodak Photo CD.
I'll never forget my feelings of anticipation and excitement I opened the image files on the CD and saw some of my favourite slides and prints displayed for the first time as digital images on screen. The photo of buddhas taken in Bangkok looked utterly beautiful. I was able to explore minute parts of the photo using the zoom tool. Delving deep into the image and enlarging it to individual pixel level, I was able to see detail that was otherwise hidden. I made the the picture grayscale, then toggled back and forth between black and white and colour, making it look alternately like an old photo and a contemporary one. Going into lighting effects I applied the 'Blue Omni' filter, and was utterly captivated by the otherwordly quality it gave to an already pleasing image. Being able to manipulate pictures in this way, it seemed I had stumbled onto a power of image creation which was entirely lacking in traditional photography, or at least much more difficult.
For the previous two years I had slaved in my improvised darkroom set up in the bathroom of the apartment in Abu Dhabi where I lived. I'd spent many long evenings making countless black and white prints, some of which were successful, others not. It seemed the results I was getting fell far short of my aspirations. I found the darkroom increasingly frustrating. In the early days there had been an excitement to see the image appearing in the chemicals under the red light, but now more often than not, the image turned out to be disappointing, and the vapour given off by the fixer was irritating my eyes and nose. I made one attempt only at colour printing using the Cibachrome process and vowed 'never again'. The darkroom sessions became less and less frequent, my frustration grew as my creative ideas failed to find an outlet. A colleague suggested I take a look at computer imaging, but I assumed that the quality fell far short of film, and decided to give it a miss. I had written it off without trying it. My mind was closed. That is, until the 18th of October 1994 and the weeks that followed.
That period was one of the most exciting phases in my life, as I discovered more and more the power of Photoshop. I had more of my slides and negatives scanned and opened them on the screen as digital images. The liberating thing was that transformations to the image that were difficult and time consuming in the darkroom happened instantaneously in Photoshop. I had taken a black and white photo of a palm tree and landscape in Sharjah, but it was badly overexposed and I had never been able to get a decent print from it. Once opened in Photoshop, one click of the 'Auto levels' button immedately transformed into a beautiful picture. I experimented with the drawing tools, created patterns, flipping between positive and negative, standard and mirror image, creating montage, joining photos together to make panoramas, colourising black and white images, and lots more. It was a problem to print the images - I started off by photographing the screen and having conventional prints made. Only later did good quality colour printers come on the market.
My free periods spent with Photoshop weren't entirely a waste of time from a teaching point of view. I was able to incorporate my digital images into student tasks and devised a multiple choice quiz where they had to identify landmarks and attractions in the UAE. I was very proud to tell the students that I had taken all the photos.
By the beginnng of the final year of my contract, commencing August 1995, I could afford to buy an Apple Macintosh Power PC 6100, together with a Viewsonic display. In the spring of 1996, I ordered the Nikon Coolscan film scanner from the UK at a cost of �1000. It was one of the best and most-used pieces of equipment I have ever bought. I used it to scan literally thousands of images until I moved to all digital capture in May 2000.
Photography, like any other art form, should be about the magic of creativity, the excitement of making something new and beautiful with your own hands, of discovering the hidden power and endless fascination of your craft, whether it's theatre, carpentry, jewellery-making, fashion design or in my case, digital photography.
I'll never forget the 18th of October 1994 and how what I discovered on that day would change my life.
Aidan O'Rourke, Urbis Centre Cafe, Manchester, 18 October 2004
I'd just like to say thanks to the Technical Studies Institute, Abu Dhabi, UAE for employing me and allowing me to stumble on this amazing and unexpected opportunity,and for the generous salary which enabled me to invest in equipment and time. I'd also like to remember my computer lab colleagues Phil Botham and Lew Norris, both of whom have sadly died.
My fellow digital imaging experimenter Tim Scott went on to sail the Atlantic and paraglide over half of South America. I would ask him to get in contact please for a celebratory drink.
I'd also like to thank ex-senior teacher Peter Barlow, who now runs Pacific Consulting in Abu Dhabi www.consultpacific.com. His encouraging words helped me get through what was at times a challenging contract, and apologies for spending so many hours playing with Photoshop!