Formats, Formulas and Publishing Photography on the Web

(Please note I’m fully aware this blog is guilty of some of the things I’m questioning)

I’ve been thinking about how to go about publishing photography on the web since the day I started la pura vida.  So I was very much interested in Brian Ulrich’s post about blogs and publishing photography. He makes several good points and hit upon some ideas I think have been swirling around for awhile now.  My objective with this post is to provide some thoughts and observations on the formats and formulas I’ve observed.  This ground was covered last year around this time by DLK Collection in their insightful post Comment, Curate and Promote: The Art Blog Triangle. Definitely check that out if you haven’t already.  I plan on focussing outward with this post, and will follow up with a post about my plans for this blog and la pura vida.

Expose, Promote, Curate, Share

“Our objective with this blog is to expose and promote photographers that we love and think you should know about.”

This is the default ABOUT template I attach to many curatorial type blogs. It could easily be applied to this blog as well.  For me, I think you need a clearer objective than to simply promote and expose photographers. Even if you ‘expose’ a photographer on a popular blog, that doesn’t often mean much more than a spike in traffic for them that day.  It can be tricky but I think you need to cultivate an editorial objective and think about why you feature the type of work you do on your blog or website, and then make that clear to your audience.

The challenge with curatorial blogs is presentation.  The standard format is to select a series of photographs, often with a short blurb, and always with a link back to the photographers work.  What is important for me here is that the blogger/editor/curator selects more than a single photograph.  Adding one photograph and a short blurb along the lines of ‘some very nice portraits/landscapes/work from XYZ photographer’ with a link to a project or site is uninspiring, outdated and lazy. Show me what you see in the work. Show me a series.  If you’re going to add text, make it thoughtful and well written.

A blog that mixes writing with a series photographs well is Urbannautica.  Aline Smithson of lenscratch is another good example of making a selection with excellent writing.  Because photography writing is often uninspiring, I tend to gravitate to blogs that just show me a series of photographs, like ThisPhotoThat and LOZ.  There are countless other examples, and which blogs you choose to follow will depend of on your sensibility of course.

And that’s the key word, sensibility.  The blogs that are strongest in this area have a rather well defined sensibility, and make a thoughtful selection.  Something I think all bloggers should work on (including this one), are headlines. For the most part, everyone uses the photographers name and that’s it.  There are so many photographers out there that we may as well just put up garbled text.  We should use informative, descriptive headlines. For example, and this isn’t a home run by any means, but something like “Surreal LA Streets From Parisian Raoul Gatepin.”  I know some don’t want to editorialize and think the work should stand on it’s own, but with the glut out there, I think you really need to sell it to the audience.  Add some zing and spice, grab our attention.

Most photographers have a personal blog, and many feature work by photographers they find interesting on it. This a practice that I have some reservations about.  I’m a firm believer in the separation of curating/editing and marketing one’s own work.  It’s a fine line, and many will argue that they are using their blog to reflect on work that informs and inspires their own photography.  This is a valid point. For me though, if you do this regularly, you should open up a blog dedicated to others work.  Save your personal blog for your work and thoughts. I find that more interesting anyway.  Why do I find this problematic?  Well, because you’re associating a certain visual style with your brand and I think it can be deceiving, not to mention you are using the work of others to drive traffic to your own website.  In the grand scheme of things this isn’t a big deal, but I do think it’s best to make a clear separation between curating and self-promotion.

The Photographer Interview

But an interview is not a questionnaire and all too many of these interviews are distilled down to a manufactured series of questions where it may even be obvious that the person asking the questions hasn’t even looked to see if those questions were answered somewhere else before. - Brian Ulrich

I find it hard to read interviews unless I’m already familiar with the photographer.  Most of the time I’m just getting the facts, and not insights.  An interview should be illuminating, insightful and give the audience something to think about.  Every time I read an Alec Soth interview I’m end up highlighting quotes and pulling out ideas to think over.  He’s clearly thinks deeply about photography and life, and knows how to articulate those thoughts.  Younger photographers and artists haven’t necessarily formulated a strong philosophical point of view, so often come across as aloof and not really caring that much.  Not all of course.

However, there is one point about the standard photographer interview that I think some of us are missing.  For a younger generation, these interviews are often more about networking, connecting and sharing than trying to give the audience something to talk about.  The way a ‘digital native’ approaches the web is often dramatically different than older generations. It’s less about publishing, and more about connecting and building relationships.  So, I’m hesitant to really be too judgmental on this formula because I think they might have different motivations.

Reviews, Commentary and Criticism

This is treacherous territory, and a place I don’t often visit.  If you’re going review books, write criticism, or comment on art, you need to be a damn good writer, and being a damn good writer, is damn difficult.  Not to mention you really need to know what you’re talking about.  More often than not, you end up sounding like a babbling, self-involved blowhard preaching from a podium.  Everyone’s a critic, everyone has an opinion, everyone has a blog.  But few are knowledgeable, insightful writers. The aforementioned DLK Collection writes exceptional reviews as does Jeffrey Ladd at 5B4.  I often enjoy Blake Andrews reflective, casual writing as well as Colin Pantal’s musings and acerbic sense of humor.  Mrs. Deane is wry, often insightful and blends commentary and curating perfectly.  The guys at insig.ht have carved out a nice space for reflective writing on the photographic process, which I prefer to reviews and commentary. And if you think you’re going to make a living as a photography critic, reviewer, or commentator on the web, well, good luck to you.  I think photography criticism relevant and has it’s place, but it’s never going to be widely embraced or consumed.

The Online Magazine, Photoessays and the Slow Web Movement

At the moment I’m very interested in these type of websites.  There are many that are doing it right: Fraction, Daylight, Ahorn, Deep Sleep, Burn, Too much chocolate, SEESAW, HUH., The Black Snapper and several others. With these type of sites you have editors working with photographers to create unique, thoughtful features that require your time and attention to consume.  These type of websites force us to break free from the single image paradigm that plagues the web and often creates meaningless consumption.

However, there are a few challenges. First, presenting multiple features at once on the web is difficult because of our short attention spans.  You’re lying if you don’t find it challenging to spend more than a few minutes browsing a website.  Second, since they don’t publish as frequently, they’re often not as visible.  Some run blogs as well, which is a good idea, but then it becomes a balancing act.  How frequently do you publish? What goes on the blog? What do you feature in the magazine? Also, the tendency to mimic print magazines often leads to disastrous presentation but I feel we’re evolving beyond that mentality.

I’ve heard the term “slow web or blogging” passed around by Jen Bekman, and Laura Brunow Miner, and I think it’s appropriate for this discussion.  These online magazines certainly abide by this philosophy and in the era of Twitter, status updates and microblogging, I’m not sure why someone needs to be blogging multiple times a day.  Certain people will take offense to this because they hate Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr, but I think they’re on the wrong side of progress in this instance.

Conversations, Community and Microblogging

Twitter is my hub for conversation and information.  I know it has it’s detractors, but I feel that microblogging and short conversations are important elements to the web experience.  For example, sharing photographers and articles over Twitter can cut back on the necessity of blogging. If you’re going to just show one photograph and a link, why do you need to blog it?  Again, this will be contentious, but I just think that Twitter and to Tumblr are perfect for aggregating, conversing and sharing.  Save the important features and items that can’t be communicated quickly, or paraphrased for the blog.

I find it mind boggling that a writer, curator or editor wouldn’t interact and converse with their readers in a public forum.  No comments, no Twitter, no participation, essentially preaching from a podium.  Yes, comments and chatter can be annoying and time consuming, but the benefits of interaction and engagement far out weigh the drawbacks.  There will be people that are set in their ways, but I think they’ll eventually be marginalized if they can’t adapt.

Conclusion

Within the photography community I often sense a displeasure with photography on the web. Image overload, viewing photographs on a screen and many other annoyances make people just want to give up. I certainly feel that way at times, but being an information junkie, I find it impossible to stay away.  However, I do think that bloggers and publishers should always be looking for ways to evolve, and make their content more relevant.  I think there’s a big divide between people that feel the web is best used for commentary, discussion, reviews and criticism as opposed to actually displaying and presenting photographs.  It’s a worthy debate, but I think the web gives us opportunities to present work in different ways than we can in the physical world.  The web is great for mashing up, interacting, collaborating, and experimenting.  I know I’ve opened myself up for criticism with some of what I’ve written, and there’s no question I’m guilty of many things I’ve mentioned.  In part two, I’ll lay out my plans for la pura vida and this blog.

p.s. – Yes, I know it’s your blog and you can do whatever the hell you want with it. Point taken.

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  • http://photothis.wordpress.com/ PhotoThis

    About Twitter: I totally agree. I only started a twitter account associated with my (humble, to overstate) photoblog because I wanted a way to link to other content that I found interesting without diluting the blog itself. Even a daily “link roundup” would, I think, hurt the image of a blog that does even update daily with major posts. So twitter became a way for me to “retweet” links I found worthwhile.

    Great insights, and thanks for the link to Brian Ulrich’s post.

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  • bformhals

    Thanks for the comment Patrick. Your blog looks good.

    There are so many blogs out there that unless we as publishers really think about the content we’re publishing, it’s all going to end as one homogenized mass. Posting a few photos is rather simple these days, but really thinking about presentation and why the work is important to you is difficult.

    peace,

    Bryan

  • http://artsponge.wordpress.com/ Patrick

    very insightful article, I agree with most of the stuff you say

    doing more than just posting pictures without thoughtful observations was my first motivation in creating my blog. I wanted to find a theme or style in every photographer’s work that I truly appreciated and could describe in words for my readers. I never really thought about it until I started getting lazy and posting random selections of work and making my ‘blurbs’ shorter and shorter.

    Reading this article has reminded me of what I’m in blogging for.

    Thanks

  • http://pentimento.squarespace.com/ sean

    Your comment on separating the personal from curating is an interesting one – and I see the merits in your reasoning here. Indeed, I had the same reasons myself. However, I find myself drifting back towards integration: of the personal work, of the blog and of the soon to be pdf magazine. That I am in two minds about maintaining the integration of the third element, and the reasons why is reflected in your post, in your own misgiving on doing so (tarred with the self-promotion brush).

    The reason for integration is one of ease – only one web site to take care of, to moderate and of course to promote. Add Facebook (which I barely use)and Twitter (which I have begun to use more often) into the mix, and whatever else comes next – that’s a lot of to keep track of right there! But as I say, I am still in two minds.

    The points you raise on interviews are interesting – I have done a few and am (trying) to work on a few others. while I have tried to adopt a more conversational approach to this (I’ll ask you a few questions, and then ask a few more points raised in the replies, and then hopefully do this again…), not all artists are responsive to this. I imagine time is a factor – as is having to actually say something detailed and meaningful about a work/s.

    Well, I look forward to the second part. I hope you will explore your Magcloud venture in this!

  • http://www.joaohenriques.com/abitpixel/ Joao Henriques

    oh man, you’re touching my strings all over the place. Guilty as hell, that’s what i am. Nonetheless i’ll try harder, you make some very good points here and i guess they deserve attention. But you shouldn’t have written this :)

    thanks for all this effort with “la pura vida”.

  • bformhals

    Hey Marc,

    Thanks for your thoughts. You raise some good points about criticism. This has been mentioned in the past but I think many photographers are reluctant to criticize work because it’s bad PR for them. In general these days anything the hints at negativity is generally dismissed or ostracized. People are hyper aware of about damaging their careers and such.

    Writing critically about anything is challenging, and more often than not with blogs, there isn’t too much time put into thinking things over. I really like what the insig.ht guys are doing even though that’s not necessarily criticism. For me, it’s challenging because if don’t respond to the work, I don’t really want to spend too much time thinking about. However, I do make sure that I can answer why it doesn’t work for me.

    And really, the bottom line, I’m not sure there are too many people that have a thorough understanding of the history of the medium. I know I certainly don’t, so I feel that I don’t have all the necessary tools to write critically.

    Everyone needs to work on their titles. This is something mainstream bloggers in other mediums have figured out long ago :)

  • http://www.eyecurious.com/ Marc

    Great post Brian. So many issues raised here are not sufficiently thought about. A few points really struck a chord with me. Firstly, post titles. This is something that I struggle with and I’m clearly not the only one. Looking at my RSS feeds, I realise how few post titles tell me anything about the content of the post itself. There is definitely an art to this, and even if there will be mishits, I think titles are necessary. Imagine a newspaper that just name-checked the subject of each article.

    Then there is the issue of conversation. In my view this is something that is sorely lacking on photoblogs and an area that there is a real appetite for. I have talked with several bloggers of late who have told me that they have chosen to post less frequently and to a more limited audience, as long as that audience is willing to engage in an in-depth conversation. I think this is related to your point about the standard format of: one photograph + short blurb + link, which is less and less relevant. Related to this issue of conversation, one thing that troubles me is how few museum curators I know of that blog or tweet. It seems like a massive missed opportunity to widen the scope of the conversation about photography beyond very closed institutional circles. Maybe I am just looking in the wrong places, so if anyone knows of any please send some links my way!

    One area where I disagree with you is criticism. I think this is something that the photoblog/artblog world could use a lot more of. I almost never see any intelligent critical writing about work on blogs, or even in mainstream media. Instead most writing eulogises, focusing on describing why the writer likes something or why it is so good. This comes back to the issue of conversation: it can become pretty futile if there are no dissenting views in the mix. Ideas and concepts need to be challenged to move forward and I don’t think there is enough intelligent, constructive criticism on the web, both for photographers and artists themselves and just to keep the conversation about photography interesting and challenging.

    Thanks for so much food for thought. Expect to see some changes on eyecurious in the coming weeks!