Dan Margulis Applied Color Theory

Bruce Fraser 1954-2006
Bruce Fraser
Posted by: Dan Margulis
Sun Dec. 17, 2006 3:15 pm


With deep sorrow, I report that Bruce Fraser died yesterday. His contributions to our understanding were great. He was also a gentleman in every respect. Our field is diminished by his absence.

His achievements are widely known and need no repetition here. Since, for more than a decade, our names have been frequently associated by those who mistakenly assumed that we were polar opposites, it is appropriate to share some memories of him.

I first encountered Bruce's name in the early 1990s. His background was as a writer and amateur photographer, not in heavy-duty Photoshop production. But he was developing a specialty as a writer about color. In around 1992, I believe, another publication featured a long panel discussion involving four color experts who were talking about what the future would bring. One was a Pantone executive, I forget the other two, and one was Bruce, which I thought was quite odd. What was odder was that I thought he had more intelligent ideas to offer than anyone else on the panel.

In 1993, along with Thad McIlroy and Rudolph Burger, he published a monograph entitled "Using Color Management Systems for Pushbutton Color" That "pushbutton color" phrase got rubbed in his face for many years, particularly by me, as it became apparent that no such paradise was going to be achieved in that century, let alone the next one.

In 1994, I published the first edition of Professional Photoshop, followed around a year later by Bruce and David Blatner's Real World Photoshop 3. Anyone who has given the matter much study knows that there is not now and never has been much overlap between those two titles--my books historically compete more with Barry Haynes' Photoshop Artistry than with RWP. However, in the parts that they did overlap, there were fireworks. My book targeted "calibrationists", a position that was somewhat, but not exactly, similar to Bruce's views, with which I was not yet fully familiar. In RWP, Bruce struck back with a lot of shots across the bow of CMYK dinosaurs who did not realize where the industry was headed. No names were mentioned, but it was clear that there was one particular dinosaur to whom he was referring.

At that time, we did not know one another, maybe we had shaken hands at an industry conference, nothing more. We both assumed the worst of each other. It's understandable that we each thought this: it was an age of rampant idiocy. Much of the prepress industry was in a state of denial about the move to the desktop, and Bruce naturally assumed I was one of "them". Many of the self-styled color theorists of the time were pompous fools, and I naturally assumed he was one of "them", too.

We were both to discover that we were mistaken. Over the years we became good friends and shared many a happy moment. I don't know exactly when the suspicions broke down. It took a great deal to surprise Bruce, but I actually saw his jaw drop on one occasion. We were trying to make small talk early in our relationship, and a subject came up in which I have considerable experience and expertise, to wit, whisky. It would be hard to express how shocked Bruce, immensely proud of his own Scots heritage, was to learn that I could distinguish not just Lagavulin from Laphroaig, but Ardmore from Bowmore from Cragganmore, to say nothing of Craigellachie from Glenallachie. I believe that it was only after that time that he began to seriously consider the possibility that CMYK was a useful colorspace.

At that time, online commentary was just becoming an important factor. Bruce and I were both Compuserve subscribers; with the Web a non-factor, this was a place where much serious discussion took place. The swordplay that Bruce and I indulged in caused much amusement, as we went from topic to topic--I can't even summarize all the things we argued about, except to say that some exquisitely refined barbs found their marks on each of us.

From this, some assumed that Bruce was the progressive, and I the traditionalist, but this missed the mark. In most ways Bruce was more conservative than I was--particularly with respect to the field he had written about, color management. I had never expected much of a contribution from vendors, and therefore was not surprised when they let us down. Bruce held them to a much higher standard.

In April 1997, at the Seybold Conference in New York, Thad McIlroy and Bruce Fraser held a session discussing how the field had progressed since the "Pushbutton Color" monograph of four years earlier. Naturally, they were disappointed. Thad described himself as "bitter" and stated flatly "color management has failed." Bruce lit into monitor vendors. He said that the calibration assistance they were providing was "worse than useless", and the built-in profiles they supplied "a cruel joke". In using those words, Bruce was not joking. There was no smile on his face. He meant them to be taken literally.

The above says a lot about why Bruce was so effective in his writing. You may not agree with his ideas but there is no difficulty understanding them. A lot of what he discussed was highly technical, but he would always get to the point in a very comprehensible way. The main problem with technical books is that they are written either by knowledgeable people who can't express themselves very clearly, or by people whose skill in writing disguises the fact that they don't know what they're talking about. Bruce was the rare writer who could combine understanding of the subject with the ability to explain it. That ability to condense complicated topics into language people can understand is why, to me, his finest work was Real World Color Management, on which he was lead author, along with Chris Murphy and Fred Bunting.

Bruce's dry wit emerged in his last public post (AFAIK) in October, he thanked all those who had expressed concern about his condition, conceded gracefully that he had a terminal illness, and apologized for not having responded earlier, saying, "being sick is a full-time occupation."

The funniest thing he ever wrote was in a vicious magazine review panning an early version of profiling software known as ColorBlind. He illustrated it with several images of absolutely appalling color produced by profiles from said product, which had an interesting marketing slogan. Somewhere in my office I have a copy of this magazine, but it has made itself scarce, so I am going to have to paraphrase what Bruce said: this isn't word for word, but it's close: "This product's slogan is, 'Perfect Color With Your Eyes Closed'. And so it is--for as long as you keep them closed. It's only when you open them that you can see how dreadful it is."

It is hard to believe that more than five years have passed since the 9/11 attacks, but I'd like to go back to that time, to San Francisco, Bruce's adopted home town, for a defining moment in our relationship.

The fall 2001 Seybold Conference took place only two weeks after the attacks, which naturally devastated attendance. Many companies forbade their employees to travel on what most certainly were the safest flights in this country's history, and about half the attendees also cancelled.

From time to time the two of us had appeared together on panels to discuss various aspects of color management, being that this was still a hot topic. For this Seybold, we had been scheduled for such a panel, with four other people, of whom Thad McIlroy was one. Two, plus the moderator, pulled out because they were afraid to board the aircraft to San Francisco. The fourth panelist refused to appear for fear of finding himself in the expected crossfire between Bruce and me. Thad then suggest that *he* become the moderator, and that the entire 90-minute session be a debate between the two of us. Both of us agreed that this would be a poor idea under normal circumstances but that the circumstances were not normal, and that anyone who had made the effort to come to San Francisco deserved to see some fireworks. So, flyers were printed up and distributed on the show floor announcing the program change.

Moderating, Thad correctly noted that nobody knew what kind of people were attending Seybold, so instead of announcing an agenda, he would ask the audience what they wanted to hear Bruce and me talk about. He pointed at the first person, and asked, "You, sir, why are you attending this session?"

To which, the reply was, "I came to watch the death match."

That attendee was disappointed. I asked Bruce whether he now concurred with my assessment that Photoshop 5 was "a major disservice to the industry." He replied that he did. He asked me whether I thought service providers were unduly resistant to change and I launched a five-minute tirade about how true that was. I asked about the technical capabilities of most color-management consultants and he attacked them. And then we both ranted about how poor implementation of color management discredited the entire concept. Thad threw up his hands and yelled, "Don't the two of you disagree about *anything*?"

No, the truth is, we didn't, not about very much, not after the turn of the century, anyway.

The most disagreeable feature of this field is how it seems to bring out the worst features of people's personalities. There have been far too many regrettable instances of user-bashing, often by people who share some of Bruce's views.

It is a testimony to Bruce's character that he did not indulge in this. I never knew him to berate users even when he was convinced they were wrong. When he found that he had misstated any of my views he invariably corrected himself. When he needed to say that he had changed any of his own views he did so gracefully. He was very patient in answering questions that many other experts might have had difficulty being patient with.

In setting this example for others, Bruce changed our lives for the better. This list has had its share of hate speech recently. I am happy to say that elsewhere, moderation reigns. I see very little of the "you don't agree with my workflow, therefore you are a fool" rhetoric that was so common just a few years ago. Bruce does not deserve all the credit for this development but he certainly deserves a lot of it, which brings up the natural question of how he will be thought of ten years from now.

It's not easy to outguess history's judgment. This is particularly true in Bruce's case because his most valuable contribution was probably behind the scenes.

Based on his public writings, the contribution is a mixed bag. Unquestionably he helped popularize Photoshop and, later, Camera Raw. He made the concepts of color management accessible to many more people than otherwise would have been the case. As against that, I am not going to sit here with a straight face and pretend that I think that his histogram-worship and overweening concerns about data purity did anything but set us back.

What Bruce had, though, was common sense, and he also had the ear of many influential people in the industry. He knew that the biggest obstacle to workflow adoption was making it too complex. The term "rocket science" as applied to many color management concepts was his. He was continually saying to vendors, "you are making rocket science out of a simple concept!" He was, therefore, an advocate for you and me.

How successful he was at this is anybody's guess. If the vendors implement something successfully that was actually Bruce's idea, they're unlikely to give him the credit for it. If they ignore his advice with disastrous results, they won't tell us that, either.

My suspicion is that we all owe a lot to Bruce in ways that will never be obvious.

Late last year, while on a business trip in Europe, Bruce collapsed at an airport. Upon being transported back to California, he had emergency bypass surgery (his second such operation). The recuperation period was lengthy and he received, naturally, many expressions of support from well-wishers. In mid-October, he posted a public thank you, acknowledging the seriousness of his condition, and adding,

"But my prognosis is excellent...I'm feeling a little better every day, and most of all, this whole thing has given me the tools and insights to disempower, finally and with prejudice, some of those self-destructive demons that have been with me for most of my life. You've all made me realize how much I have to live for."

It is heartrending to read those words and realize that only around six months later doctors would give him a diagnosis that no one deserves to hear.

This serves as a reminder to all of us about the perils of putting off making certain changes, because we don't have any assurance that we'll have the time to make them. Bruce's life was tragically short. There, but for the hand of Providence, go you or I. For myself, I aspire to arrange my life so that if it comes to an early end, I should have few regrets over how I chose to spend what time I had been permitted on this earth.

Will I be able to say that, when the hour comes? Will you?

While this is a sad occasion, it is perhaps a happy one in the sense that we know Bruce would have been able to answer the question the way we would all like to. He worked in a field that he loved. He aspired to make a difference, and he did. He aspired to be respected, and he was. He served as an example to all, and all are poorer for his passing.

Dan Margulis