a website for photographers: what does it take?

a few days ago there was flickr's 10th anniversary, and the site has made quite a splash — good and bad — with their recent changes.

granted, flickr was not designed for photographers. rather, it was designed as a web-based shoebox. to this day, it serves that purpose with very few glitches, more so at present when one Terabyte of storage is allowed for free. 

however, people have a knack to cast websites into their own needs. likely with the advent of the democratization of photography — thanks to digital cameras, and the boom of the internet to a wider audience — flickr was able to serve as the gathering place for people that wanted to pursue photography beyond a shoebox holder.

unfortunately, flickr would break at the seams. the site never really pursued a photo-centric presentation of one's work:

  1. photos were cropped to a square thumbnail at the center without user selection.
  2. an emphasis on meaningless statistics, such as views/faves.
  3. a one-solution-to-all approach to explore the site via Explore page.
  4. dormant development/update of groups, which still has a late-90s functionality.

some of these failures are easy to fix, but others may require a site overhaul. one of the great difficulties with users appropriating the site to their needs was the high-levels of confusion that was created. for example, Explore is not a sort of critical/curated selection, but rather a social-metrics based photo selection that does not have a correlation to merit. but this confusion generated so many of the site's ills. elsewhere, groups such as the (infamous) Help Forum and Flickr Central gave the impression of official involvement, with users being confused for employees. more recently, even in the rollout of major changes, there was a failure to explain these changes. most sites make a short video to explain the changes/clicks and how the functions being rolled out work into a vision. instead, the site's changes had some good (bigger images, no more thumbnails), and great failings: no cohesive design, but one (seemingly) driven by ideas on coding prowess. it also showed that flickr was trying to follow the evolution taking place at other sites, rather than pursue a vision that was based on its years of experience.

for all of these failings, during the golden years, many photographers managed to learn in their own way and propel themselves within, and outside, of the internet. a number of groups, such as Utata, provided a sensible instigation to do more than take photos that were hoped to make it to Explore.

so then, in personally having been on the site since 2005, and active (uploading) through 2009**, what would be the features that would make for a good photography site? by this, I do not mean a we-are-all-artists site, but one that fosters the art of photography, and not a social site with photographs as its currency: the currency should be the pursuit of photography, not the photographs themselves. here are some notions:

forgo all metrics, but allow for some tracking features.

most sites these days provide means to use tools such as Google Analytics, and that should be useful to photographers, if they want it. if the photo pages gets a lot of views from a website that may have, without permission/attribution, linked to the photo, then it is good to be alerted. views and faves counts are useless because of their unreliability, and lack of control (e.g., people are not at the site at all hours, it is the nature of a global base).

remove the contests/competition

the idea of a ranking algorithm in photography is antithetical to the pursuit of photography, and drives an unhealthy pursuit for attention. it is rather clear that this is also what drives traffic/users to a site, and it is an easy temptation to make a site profitable.

devise a site-exploring algorithm

with the hype over big data, one of its perfect uses is to tailor the site's exploring for a given user. on flickr, there was the Greasemonkey script that would show one's contacts faves. provided one would add contacts on the merits of their photographs, rather an a social passive-aggressive duty, then the script offers a superior result to a socio-metrics based algorithm.

be big and small

a big site is great for exploring its photos, but useless for promoting one's photography needs: one is overwhelmed if not lost (e.g., 500px's lack of groups). a structure for groups and discussion is essential to the site, and rather than anarchy (as in flickr), something grows with time. in this instance, lessons learned from many discussion-based sites can be adopted.

love the comments, hate the comments

the user must be given control over comments on the a photo page. many comments are vapid ("Great Capture!"), others are passive-aggressive cut-and-paste useless words with links to their pages. Instagram and 500px have taken measures towards this problem, while flickr still allows HTML tags to be part of comments. in some ways, the user has to be fearless in "curating" the comments on a photo page.

templates!

on the one end there is the fiasco of MySpace customization, and on another, there is the unwelcome rigidity from flickr. yet, Tumblr thrives relatively well. a site can control the templates and their customization features, and with time allow for users to apply their CSS talents to make further template designs.

precise site management groups

while it is very unlikely that flickr's programmers designed the site, the impression gathered is that of an absent design team: any sort of integrated aesthetics are absent, and instead it is about what can be done with today's software, and what other sites are doing. it is imperative that the user experience be given the utmost effort towards a sensible design and functionality. 

curating

as part of the process to learn photography, one must be able to pursue the means to curate series of photographs. flickr has provided this functionality through their Gallery pages, though it has to be made possible to energize them and make them points of interaction and discussion. a greater power for its use would require access to photos outside the site, and this is a harder problem to solve. presently, Tumblr offer such an opportunity, while an integrated functionality to a site offers greater potential.

in general terms, the new site developers would have to overcome the hi-tech malaise of "flickr killer" mentality. even for less photographic-centric sites, this thinking requires a replication of flickr-features, which may not be of service towards a successful site.

in closing, the design of a site such as this requires quite a bit of algorithmic and social know-how that builds on the usage of the sites developed so far. there is also a major problem to solve about the financial success of such a site. ideally, the site should have a sizeable functionality be free, with some customization at a fee. yet, it is unclear if a "free+" site could survive financially. further, the structure of how to balance user feedback and the "lynch mob" activity that besieges the Help Forum on flickr has to be avoided. also, users cannot be confused for the site's staff. this is not to imply that a group can be structured, clearly, that it is a user-based to assist with questions.

the simplest question, once all the ideas are in place: is there a need for such a site?


[ link ] comments can be made on facebook post

** I was encouraged by the changes rolled out on May 2013, but the execution was extremely flawed, and soon after beginning some uploading frenzy, it had to stop.

that idea that all photos have already been taken

 the democratization of photography via digital cameras is not quite finished, as people move from compacts into dSLRs and/or phone cameras — for example. it would not be a stretch to think that most people in this wave, myself included, did not do a formal training in photography. nor its history.

when I started, at the end of the last century, there was no easy way to view a vast amount of photographs. (books! but you know, I am busy learning the gadget I just bought.) actually, I did not start looking at photographers until the later part of the last decade. yes, some photos are famous beyond the art, but I could not name photographers, let alone know about styles and famous photographers. to this day, this is a big gap in all things photography for me.

while I took photos at the beginning of the last decade, I would post some photos in Livejournal, and then I made the move to flickr in early 2005. when I got to flickr, it was a huge shock in two ways: I could see what others were doing in vast amounts of photo being served, and what I thought was my not-too-common way of viewing the world was quite clichéd. I mean, the raindrops on glass, and so many others. with time, flickr was a teaching tool that was missing... on what not to do.

people wanted to "develop a style", and have unique photographs. but it is rather obvious that photographs are hardly unique when it comes to some styles. long exposure minimalism? New Topographics? overly-yellowed portraits in an open field? most famously: wide open ƒ1.4 lenses bokeh photos. photographs to be enjoyed, but hard to escape them on the site.

it was hard not to imagine that all photos were taken already. so what to photograph?

 by  Lewis Baltz  (via  Art Tattler International )

 by Lewis Baltz (via Art Tattler International)

except, that is the wrong view. the problem is not repeating photographs, but immersing oneself in anonymity. whoa! how can that happen? one can look to New Topographics, and the minimalist long exposures, to see that, for the most part, it is very difficult to discern who took the photo. that is, the implied rules/aesthetics of the styles govern the photo's composition and printing/processing that it is (generally) difficult to discern between photographers immersed in that style. in some instances, one can discerns the photographer if one is presented with a series, but a single photograph makes it difficult — unless one recognizes quirks about the photographer. in some ways, I think I can discern some photos by Lewis Baltz [ link ].

 by  Michael Kenna  [ http://www.michaelkenna.net/ ]

 by Michael Kenna [ http://www.michaelkenna.net/ ]

these two photo styles can be readily "plagiarised" with some equipment knowledge and placing the camera in the another photographer's "tripod holes". there was the case of David Burdeny versus Sze Tsung Leong a few years ago. (many links to PDN and other sites are now 404 Errors.) is this a problem? I do not think so, as it is more indicative that photos are not unique, and some styles more than others are susceptible to "plagiarism." the market/internet will deal with how acceptable plagiarism is tolerated.

aspiring photographers would become popular on flickr by servicing a consistent style. to me, this was not a style that was presented, but a persistent photograph and/or post-processing and/or theme — something new for the internet age in terms of frequency and almost industrialization of the results. flickr users seem to love that consistency and flock to the account to provide (mostly) platitude comments — which rarely exceeds three words — and rack up the fave/like count.  this social currency is quite effective to move into a commercial realm of photography, so it is not to be dismissed. now we can see the same behaviour in Instagram and 500px. in the latter, the "style" is pervasive through the entire site, casting a sort of anonymity to the entire site.

ok, so we take photos others have taken... and?

the refuge for others is to take the photos that we want, and realize that what is missing from most of these trends in photography is an indelible mark that, after some time, makes an impression on the viewer of who the photographer is. this is not unreasonable, as we can consider that if we converse with someone, we need to speak for some time before the other person gets a sense of who we are. 

quite simply: the idea of the photographs is not to tell a story of the scene, as most people like to praise a photo by such an accolade, but for the photographs to tell a story of how the photographer sees the world. to some extent, some photographers in long exposure minimalism and New Topographics achieve this mantra.

 

the internet in the workflow (part 2)

•A Shift In Workflow

in the first part [ link ], it was noted that the old way for many to work their photographs through a system/workflow for feedback, or understanding , was (effectively) no longer valid. for many, flickr was the sole source for many functions and results in sharing a photograph online. the decline of flickr, and the rise of mobile devices and apps-based photography, along with other sites picking up on disenchanted flickr users, meant that some sort of change was required.

one of the negative aspects of internet sharing was the urge to get a photo up and ready to share: maybe one per day, to maximize comments and activity on the photo. not surprisingly, this is not really a way for someone to take photography serious, never mind the distraction from social quid pro quo.

Becoming Independent

then, a new of thinking of how to use the internet for a photographic workflow is required. this new way has to be much more independent, to remove the dependency on one site, and perhaps shed the urgency that social-sharing brings into the selection, and processing, of a photograph — among many other issues affecting the process. 

this also means that one must begin to rely on repeated viewing of one’s own photographs to see how well they fit into the current vision.  this is not too different to listening to music, and with time seeing how the song details come into our way of hearing details, or it just is a “flash in the pan.”

since there is no urgency to post photos to the internet, it is good to work the photos all at once. that is, all of the photos constituting a potential project are gathered to consider which ones are suitable for further work on them, if any of them are needed. a lot of deletion should occur here, but it is only a first step. if some photos are just “soooo good,” then one can still do as before, and process one or two and post them in the process of the first step noted below.

•Use The Entire Internet

the steps, or segmentation, would be something like:

  1. post photos to fish for interest
  2. revisit sites to reconsider the work
  3. group the work into projects to “kill your darlings”
  4. complete the projects via book product and/or portfolio website

additionally,

  • curate
  • shake up the process with Mobile Photography

for Step 1, the many social-photo sites are not as active in commentary about photography. just presence-actions like faves/likes, posting to groups (if available), and short 3-word comments are the norm. however, search engines and search through tags offer a way to put photos to bait for additional work, and the rare useful feedback. this step also offers a way to get some photos out while the entire project is being edited.

consequently, one can post one’s work to many sites — flickr, 500px, Instagram, etc. — without increasing one’s energy put into such endeavor. especially since editing software now has automatic uploads to many of these sites. 

because of Step 1, or because of Step 3, the biggest benefit is to look at one’s recent work against the old, and repeated viewing in varying context to reconsider if the photo is in final form. this is Step 2. perhaps a heavy-handed processing is noticed, or a change in composition to improve the impression comes as a result. in a way, Step 2 is on-going through Step 3... all the way until the end of Step 4.

the hardest element of photography is editing one’s work. not the presentation, but removing/deleting seemingly favorite photographs from a set to make the collected work stronger. Step 3 is about this process, through repetition and reconsideration. the repeated viewing that leads to re-editing the photo’s presentation also brings about a consideration of its strength in a group. it also becomes apparent how a body work “hangs together” and/or can be subdivided.

Step 4, while it is just about making a final selection of the photographs in a project, and giving them a portfolio — or final resting place — it is perhaps the most difficult of steps. this one is much more personal, and up to one’s personal demands on phoography. this step can be complemented, or substituted, by proceeding with a book project. the book forces a process of selection, flow, and possibly writing, which can be very enriching — even if the book is not to be a “big seller.” actually, it is best to make the book for oneself, rather than for an audience.

For Example... Kodiak Xyza on the Internets... woo hoo!

for Step 1, I post photos to flickr and 500px, though I do not care to post all of the photos to flickr, and posts a bit of the strong ones, once the project is near completion, to 500px since I am using the site as an intermediate portfolio. consequently, I post the photos in different sequence to each site to keep looking at the work.

the projects for effecting Step 3 are uploaded to Dunked [ link ], where they get revisited, and perhaps some subdivision of the projects take place. along with the project segmentation, it is good to write some words that would go with the photographs in a book.

for Step 4, I have a “resting” place for projects: A Touching Display [ link ], of which Wedding Photography is a very quick process to get to it — this is because the project is dealing with a client, and there is nothing to write about it.

it is good to shake up the normal process as well, and two ways is to look at photographs from other photographers, and pursue a Curation project. there are many sites to pursue this curation, especially if one wants to blog about it. I want to keep it simple and use tumblr: Moments After A Dream [ link ]. however, given the awkward “dashboard” in tumblr, there is no attempt to make a connections to other tumblrs, as the site is usually used just like twitter and Instagram: the idea of following and presence-interaction.

in some instances, one can see a scene in different ways that is dependent on the camera used, and I like to carry a couple of cameras, and one of them constitutes the mantra I am pursuing for Mobile Photography. (an article on this is soon to be posted, for now there is a preview on Dunked [ link ].) in this case, it is a way to shake-up the more contemplative approach to photography, and quickly decide on a preset, in my case from VSCOcam, and upload to VSCO Grid [ link ]

I quite like that Dunked and VSCO Grid are not social, and merely allow links to be provided to direct people to the work: people can look at the work as they wish, for however long they wish, and there is no need to make a presence-interaction of any kind.

social photography is dead

though the question is: was it ever alive?

the answer is yes, in that flickr had stumbled upon facilitating such a situation. Social Photography is facilitated by a site where the user has a photo used for currency, and people can act in a social manner on the photo. typically, this is by views, faves/likes and comments. subsequently, there was a curating effect, self-serving or altruistic, via invitation to groups.

that social photography was a success in furthering photography, or perhaps trivialized it, is to be another (long) conversation; or even that social photography was engaged by a significant number, or a critical mass, of "true" photographers is yet another conversation. 

social photography thrived through the rise of flickr and its peak, before an anecdotal decline — and many reasons seem to contribute — which allowed other sites to rise and be noticed. this period was from 2005 to about 2007, or 2008 at the latest. there is no clear demarcation of when social photography "lost it", and this is not of great concern, though it is sensible to argue that the rise of Instagram marked its death. the change in platform, from flickr's desktop to Instagram's smartphone, propelled the change in what a photograph is among people.

someone may think: « but Instagram raison d'être is that of social photography!  »

not quite. Instragram is not social photography, because there is no engagement about photography. yes, a photograph is created for the purpose of a social interaction, which is in line with previous mechanism, albeit at a much smaller scale and perhaps not involving so many strangers. thus, there is nothing photographic of merit in Instagram. that is, aside from the photographer putting as much, or little, effort into taking and processing the photo — in third party apps — but not in enriching that experience through a social interaction. while Instagram had to solve a photograph-storage/servicing engineering problem, Instagram is about sharing/connecting and not photography — this according to one of its founders. still, we must remain aware that despite a company's intentions, people can morph the intent of a website to their needs. this clearly happened with flickr.

while this generalization can benefit from a longer discussion, and definition of terms, the important observation is that it has created (at least) two notable groups: the Social Photographer, and the Longform** Photographer. ( a person can fit in either, or both.)

the Social Photographer is working the social sites, notably tumblr and Instagram, and amplifying it through social networks, notably twitter and facebook. the interactions of faves/reblogs, short platitudes — such as the infamous "great capture" — and comments is the gained currency from mining the right photo. there is much to be enjoyed in this realm, if one finds the proper content generators. the photographic qualities of the photos are secondary, or non-existent.

the Longform Photographer can be working within the social network tools, but seeking a different way to communicate — perhaps often frustratingly so —  and requiring more than mining socially-appealing photographs to build an audience. actually, an audience is required by any photographer type, but the required audience count threshold may be lower. this Longform Photographer may reside somewhere in between the Social Photographer and the traditional art-world photographer.

clearly, the author is in this latter group... and in the process of learning, and figuring out how to use the internet to help a photographer's, and a photographic, pursuit. the audience is less of a concern at the moment, since much is to be figured out. this site is an aid towards that pursuit.

** a commonly used term in online journalism is "longform journalism" , and The New Yorker has references to "longread" articles.