OpEd: Context and Web Presentation

As he has a tendency to do, Blake Andrews wrote an insightful and thought provoking piece on the demise of the iconic photo.  While that’s certainly an interest topic worthy of discussion, I was also interested in a comment he made about Flickr and image democratization.

Every photo gets the same treatment, same size, same layout, the same opportunity to be seen.

One of the frequent complaints you’ll hear about Flickr is that the way the photographs are presented isn’t appealing.  I agree. It’s not great. But it’s also not that much worse than any website or blog.

For example, how many bloggers use a rather generic Blogspot or WordPress template and present images at basically the same size and ratio? How is this any more appealing than Flickr?  Or on a platform like Tumblr where in the Dashboard where every post is formatted to the same size or layout.  Same is true for Facebook, if you’re crazy enough to post photographs there.

With personal websites, you can run into equally as generic formats at times as well.  There’s really no need to beat up on Flash anymore but there have been so many times where I’ve closed a photographer’s website because the photographs take forever to load.  Many portfolio sites are pretty much carbon copies these days.  Same layout, same slideshows, same general size of the photos.

But there’s another issue at play here, and that’s context of course.  In my comment to Blake’s post, I wondered if Vivian Maier’s work would have received the same attention if it first appeared on Flickr rather than on a blog.  What if it was a Flickr set that was passed around? Would it have been dismissed simply because it was on Flickr? Or if not dismissed, viewed differently?  Right now the work is displayed on a rather standard Blogspot template with very little custom design.

The general response I’m guessing is going to be that great photos will be recognized no matter where they appear. I tend to agree, but I also do think there is a general bias toward work that appears on Flickr, which is a bit irrational. Especially if you make the claim that presenting it on a blog is some vast improvement. It might be a bit better, but not much.  But I don’t think it has so much to do with how the photographs look as much as how Flickr is perceived by photographers, critics, curators and writers.

An interesting case study for presentation is Noah Kalina who posts plenty of work on Flickr. He doesn’t allow comments which cleans up the interface a bit, and you can view most of his work large by clicking on ‘All Sizes.’ Again, some will argue that you can do this on any blog, or website. That’s true, but then I would ask, why is it so appalling to do it on Flickr?  Does the branding bother you that much? Fair enough if it does.

I’ve looked at many photography websites and blogs which has of coursed impacted how we’ve chosen to present work on this website.  Right now I prefer large photographs, or larger anyway. We aim for 720 pixels on the longest side. Sometimes they’re smaller.  And we’ve been using Viewbook for the slideshows (full disclosure, they are a sponsor) which I think presents photographs very nicely, especially in full screen, even if it is Flash.  It works on the iPhone and iPad though, which is pretty cool.  We’re also a fan of Indexhibit powered websites which many photographers and websites use these days.

What is your preferred way of viewing photographs on the web these days?

  • http://www.andresalegria.com/blog/ andrés alegría

    I agree that between a generic theme/Blogspot/Tumblr, might as well show it on Flickr. But here I’ll give a slight edge to Flickr, if only because I think it’s a little bit nicer than most standard themes. Not for browsing around, but for looking at a few photos.

    But in general, I do prefer a site or theme where I can feel like I’m in a somewhat quieter space than Flickr or the web in general and I can focus on the photos before me, at least for a while. I like Indexhibit too, though it can be a bit repetitive. Personally I don’t enjoy the horizontal scrolling quite as much.

  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals

    It does get complicated when you talk about context because even on a blog or website, photographers are really only displaying a portfolio or condescended edit of a project.

    I very seriously doubt any photographer would say they create work just for the internet. So at this point, you could call photography on the web all PR and MARKETING.

    I don’t think that’s the case, but we do seem to be in an odd predicament where nobody seems to be satisfied with the way work is presented, yet we seem to have an insatiable appetitive for viewing and presenting work online.

    But for me, looking at work on a generic Blogspot blog or Tumblr is no different that viewing it on Flickr.

    And ironically, I view most of the photographs from Flickr through Google Reader! Via RSS. All public streams have an RSS.

  • http://blog.camdenhardy.com Camden Hardy

    I despise cookie cutter websites, but at the same time I’d rather see an artist focus their time, effort, and money into that which is most important: the artwork. Website template/Flickr branding issues aside, you bring up some interesting points that I think warrant some further consideration.

    I’ll follow your example and pull a quote from the write-up: “The general response I’m guessing is going to be that great photos will be recognized no matter where they appear.”

    I’m not sure whether I agree with this statement. Modes of display such as size and templates certainly have an impact on the viewing experience. More importantly, though, is something you touched on: context. How is the image presented? How do the surrounding images affect its interpretation? Is there any supplemental text? What was the photographer’s intent?

    Flickr, to me, is a very A.D.D. (or even schizophrenic?) means of looking at photography. It’s a conglomeration of disparate images, and while they can be presented in sets there seems to be a general sense of disjointedness about the whole Flickr experience. But maybe that’s just me.

    In any case, I tend to give images on Flickr much less attention than I would if they appeared elsewhere, such as a blog or generic template website. Andrews’ quote above may have something to do with it – there’s no sense of distinguishing images from one another in the unending sea of newly posted photographs. The thought of sifting through the masses for the occasional gem is daunting, to say the least.

    I think that websites and blogs offer a sense of control, whether it’s really there or not. I’m not referring to layout per se, but the context in which the image is shown. I won’t go so far as to say that Flickr’s “everyone gets equal treatment” attitude seems to contradict the notion of controlled presentation.