Narrative and the Serialization of Photography Online

©David Solomons – Another US Road Trip Part One

In July, 2011 I wrote an article titled The Process, The Stream, and The End which outlined some of my thoughts about how photographers are using the internet to publish their work. In it, I advocated ‘photography as process’ in which photographers embrace showing their work in progress in order to make a deeper connection with their audience. While I still think that’s relevant for some photographers, I’ve been slowly re-thinking my position, especially as I’ve come across new insights and ideas.

In the same article, I also touched on the idea of ‘serializing’ blog posts. It’s something that has been on my mind frequently these days, so I want to use this post to see if I can further these ideas and hope stir up some conversation.

When Magnum Jumped Aboard Tumblr

I’m on Tumblr probably too much for my own good, so I was curious to see how Magnum would use it for the next installment of the Postcards from America project. As expected, they posted photographs from Rochester as they worked, sometimes with short captions about the subjects, other times with nothing more than the name of the photographer. It was a your standard ‘random’ visual Tumblr, which is probably what they were aiming for I suppose. Use the tools of the day and all that.

The guys from Magnum are in a tough spot. People expect to see the highest quality documentary photography but as we all know, it’s tough to produce great work in a short period of time, and for them to show work in progress is probably challenging and goes against their natural instincts as disciplined photographers. The photos kept arriving in my stream but I wasn’t really paying too close attention. It just wasn’t all that engaging, but I did wonder about how they felt about using Tumblr and working on the fly.

Then oddly enough this article appeared on The Online Photographer which related to publishing random projects.

I find it curious that Magnum photographs are now so often compiled into random sets, even in books, when one of the reasons for Magnum’s founding was so the photographers could control the presentation of their pictures and make sure they were always presented in the proper context. Magnum photographs now most often seem to be seen out of the context of photojournalistic stories. And sometimes in the context of truly random groupings—such as pictures that include wallpaper.

Maybe the Postcards from America project is one of their ways of regaining some control over context while still working with the platforms of the day (Tumblr). It’d be interesting to hear some of their thoughts about it. I think the Rochester hook has potential but from the photographs I’ve seen it doesn’t really seem like the location matters too much. They just as well could be in Buffalo. I don’t want to be overly negative about the project but it hasn’t really resonated with me, nor with many of the people I’ve asked about it.

But they’re out there trying and to be honest, it’s not like there’s much imagination in photoland when it comes to publishing on the internet. That’s something that has bugged me for awhile, but like most complicated problems, I haven’t really come upon any insights worth sharing. Then I read Megan Garber’s piece about ‘Making the Internet More Like Our Brains’ in The Atlantic and a few things started to click.

The web may be, in the broad cybernetic sense, a brain; as a user experience, though, it has some faulty wiring. When we disparage the digital environment as “overwhelming,” what we’re also faulting it for is its lack of a narrative. The Internet moves, but it doesn’t necessarily move forward. It expands, but it doesn’t necessarily follow any particular trajectory. It lacks, in that sense, a purpose. It lacks a plot. Men die, the Greek physician Alcmaeon believed, “because they cannot join the beginning and the end. – Megan Garber, The Atlantic

What’s the Plot of Your Tumblr?

I suppose asking what’s the plot of your Tumblr might sound a bit strange, but it’s also a bit intriguing. Through social media we sort of naturally and passively tell our story and depending on the person, reveal varying levels of biographical details. In some cases a natural narrative develops but it often comes off as incidental, or at its worst is nothing more than personal branding with an economic objective in mind.

It’s funny how we work on certain ideas, and how they stick with us for months and years. In my article from last July I wrote:

Instead of posting a series of disconnected blog posts, why not serialize them and tell a story? Have a new project in the works? Why not plan out a series of posts that tell the story of how it came to be, from inspiration to execution. The only limitation to the possibilities here are creativity and courage.

This begins to touch on a larger issue within photoland. For the most part, I think the web is viewed as a platform for discussing and commenting on photography and not as a storytelling platform.

That doesn’t have to be the case though. The tools we have at our dispense are powerful and can be used in many creative ways. The time is ripe for a photographer to fuck with our expectations and put these tools to use in new ways that will engage us on a deeper level.

The stream is powerful and frightening. Conforming to its expectations is understandable. But the stream is also malleable. All it takes to change our perceptions of how it can be used are a few creative people who aren’t afraid to push the boundaries of what’s possible. And they exist everywhere.

In the Magnum example, I think instead of publishing the ‘Rochester’ project in progress on Tumblr, it would have been more interesting if they spent time editing the work, adding context and then releasing it in chapters or episodes over a short period of time. Each day they could publish a few pieces of content that link together in some way and then just like good serialized TV shows, leave a bit of cliffhanger. Much can be learned from serialized TV dramas and I think this is a way that you can embrace the randomness and pace of the web but also impose some narrative arc that tells a story. It won’t be easy and naturally photography doesn’t necessarily work like a TV drama, but I think a similar structure can be used in interesting ways.

Maybe I’m being a bit idealistic here, and it could be that I’m just want the web to do something it’s not very good at doing. That may very well be the case but I think photographers and publishers can do better and make the way we experience photography on the web more interesting and engaging (There’s always just ‘good’ pictures too I suppose.)

I haven’t fully fleshed out my ideas but I wanted to write something down to share what’s been on my mind lately. Perhaps we can use this as a starting point for a conversation. If I’m not being clear, or you have questions, please feel free to drop a line in the comments, or on Facebook, or Twitter, or email, or the next time you see me at the pub.

  • Photography Girl

    There are certainly a lot of details like that to take into consideration. All are good pints to consider for. I now consider the thoughts above as general inspiration.

  • Ewanglee

    Great article. The reason the internet expands is that no one is really editing. They throw images out there t see what sticks, To edit would mean we have to make a judgement of presenting the best, or best at that moment. I think Magnum’s release of work in progress shows that even great photographers produce average stuff. But they are great because out of many average, comes some amazing stuff. The internet is more a stream of consciousness than a place to show only greatness.

  • Andnowwee

    Really good point. I run a menswear label and the world of tumblr is a new addition to the brand, but I’m fortunate that I have a few guys working for me on music/film blogs who have experience. Regarding the visual/photography points I’ve found that more follows/re-blogs comes from this streaming effect as I did this concerning our trip to Ibiza with new content added daily. As someone fairly new to this massive blogging community I think my customers (many with an untrained eye) simply want to see images quickly and are lazy, not wanting too many clicks and love the scroll function. Got a lot from this article. Thanks. J

  • Simen

    I like Robin Sloan’s idea of stock and flow. Seems like the problem you’re/we’re all struggling with is how to make stock-ish flow, or flowing stock.

  • Ed

    Hi Brian. Some interesting thoughts to digest here. I do particularly like the serialisation idea and wondered if you have seen John Macpherson’s recent series on Duckrabbit? Here’s a link to the third and most recent part, the previous ones can be accessed form there: