OpEd: Photography On-Demand

photograph ©Hin Chua

Despite how you may feel about viewing photographs on the internet, I think most will agree its allowed us access to a wide variety of photography that was out of reach to the vast majority of us beforehand.  I don’t think anybody will argue there isn’t a shortage of interesting photography to view on a daily basis if you do some digging.  But even with what for many is an overwhelming sea of imagery on the web, my hunch is that we’re still missing out on an amazing wealth of great photography.

Naturally there’s no way for me to know for sure what’s missing from the web, but something like errata editions Books on Books project, which is “dedicated to making rare and out-of-print photography books accessible to students and photobook enthusiasts” is one signpost that indicates the type of work many don’t have access to, either in print or on the web.

In fact, I’m willing to bet a high percentage of what we might call influential or canonized photography is completely inaccessible on the web, and in many cases probably in print as well. The library is one fantastic resource of course but many cities won’t have an extensive selection.  And if you’re in a larger metropolis you can find a wealth of books at certain bookstores and spend hours browsing through entire books (hey, I’d buy them all if money were no object.)

When I think about this, I try to relate it to other mediums.  For TV and cinema, you can pretty easily get your hands on just about anything via Netflix.  With cinema, it might be a bit more difficult especially with foreign titles, but certainly not as challenging as it is to get your eyeballs on certain photography books.  Maybe literature is a close corollary, and certainly painting and sculpture are difficult to gain access to in anything other than re-productions.

This could very easily veer down the path to a discussion about what constitutes the final object with photography. The overwhelming answer today will be the physical print or book. But I don’t entirely buy the argument that when you view photography on the web you’re not really seeing the photograph.

Technology races on and in a few years we’ll be viewing photography on screens we never imagined possible. After all, five years ago I never would have believed that when I wake up in the morning I’d reach for my phone to read the news, check my email and the status of 500 people I’ve known since high school. Call me optimistic about technology.

But really, regardless of technological improvements, photographers will still be faced with a dilemma.  What constitutes the final version of their work? A print? A physical book? A digital archive/book/gallery?

I hope photography books don’t go extinct and I don’t think they will. I think it’s important for photography to have beautifully designed limited edition books that end up in collectors hands.  However, I also think it’s important for photography to be accessible for study and enjoyment, and not just to the university bound, but to as wide an audience as demand dictates.

If we want photography students (and our culture) to become more visually dynamic, does it really make sense to keep some of the most sophisticated photography locked away and in the hands of only a select few elite?  Or worse yet, to allow some of it to simply disappear completely?

Photograph ©Peter Baker

What I think would be awesome would be if there were a Photography on Demand service.  A yearly subscription would provide you access to a large database of digitized books, and perhaps even complete archives from certain photographers, viewable on the iPad and next generation HDTV’s.

Now, before you raise objections, this is just a theoretical daydream.  Naturally something such as this would have considerable logistical & business nightmares, like Netflix currently demonstrates, but my primary point here is that our visual culture would greatly benefit from having greater access to artistically and culturally important photography.

There’s probably an argument to be made that this would decrease the value of books, but I don’t think that’s true because a well crafted, limited edition photography book by an important photographer will always be coveted by collectors.  We’re talking about two different audiences.

I think the enormous benefits of having a vast archive of photography on demand would greatly out weigh the objections.  The bigger issue might really be demand.  Would there be enough to make something like this financially feasible?

For now, I’ll just stick to my daydream of kicking back back on my couch and taking in a narrated slideshow of Atget or Winogrand on a 60″ next generation smart TV.

  • http://www.williamrugen.com bill

    oh, i agree you can only buy so many books in a year, and they are not cheap by any stretch of the imagination and I am fairly sure part of it is a generational thing. but attention spans are shrinking and i am not sure that will change, and the “younger” folks are also used to things being free or very cheap when it is on the web.

    perhaps it works though as art work on the tv, sort of like bill gates has in his house where he has large monitors on the walls and it rotates the images. that would be of interest to me. I like my images large and the TV option would be good for that.

  • Bryan Formhals

    But how many books can you buy in a year?

    Also, do you remember what viewing anything on the internet was like in 2000? I think the flaw that most people have in this argument is that they base their experience on what exists today which doesn’t take into account the enormous speed with which technology is improving.

    There’s a clear discrepancy between viewing on a screen and viewing on paper. I bet makers of LCD’s know and understand this and will find ways to slowly improve the experience.

    I don’t really foresee this as something you’d necessarily be experiencing on your laptop either. As we get closer to convergence, I think more people will view photography on a TV screen than perhaps a computer screen I mean, the iPad has made an impact already and I think that’s just the beginning.

    Unfortunately for those of us a bit older, this is also a generational thing as well. When the current generation of kids reach adulthood, they’ll probably be more accustom to viewing photography (and anything really) on the web than in a book or on a gallery wall.

    That doesn’t mean books will disappear, but they’ll likely be in smaller and smaller editions and likely just be for die hard collectors. Of course, publishing on demand could also improve dramatically which would make things really interesting.

    In my world, this doesn’t need to be an either or, one is better than the other scenario. Different mediums for different objectives.

    BTW, I dig your work too :) Mind if I post a few images on the blog?


  • http://www.williamrugen.com Brugen

    While I like the idea of on-demand photo viewing, for instance I would love to see more avedon, misrach, etc, the experience is just not the same and I don’t know that it will ever be as fulfilling as viewing a hard copy and I am not sure how much I would pay to view them online. To me perhaps the biggest difference between viewing something on my computer/the web or in an actual hard copy book/magazine is that I end to look longer at the hard copy. There is a tactile and physical experience (so I also include seeing works in a gallery/museum). I am not sure why this is exactly (perceived value? I pay for it so I own it and so ti has value to me?) but I am sure this is is generally the case. I own a fair number of photo books that I try to look often, and rarely is there a day that I do not view a lot of images online and I actually think I am spending less and less time per image online the more I view. I am fairly sure this is the case whether it is shore or someone on flickr whose work I like. hard to figure I price I would pay but I know I would be more willing to buy the book as I know that I will value the work more and take more pleasure from it than would looking at it electronically.

  • http://jophilippe.wordpress.com/ jacques philippe

    The technology will be here, no doubt about. But when you say “The bigger issue might really be demand. Would there be enough to make something like this financially feasible?” is finally heart of the matter here. And I believe a mix of traditionnal and more high-tech model is what is likely to work the best. To me your “Photography on Demand service” concept could be simply a virtual (i.e. on-line) museum, which does his business just like a “real” museum” that is: to act like an agent between the estates (who own the rights and make profit out of it) and the potential audience, either by buying the works or by borrowing it. And this model already exists in some way (e.g. The NYMOMA has put much work on-line, and it is free to browse, the Library of Congress has published about 170000 negatives from the FSA/OWI projects etc…).

  • Philip

    Yes ok, I’ll take your archive but the hole in my heart is for the limited edition that once nobody wanted except those few in the know, and now that we’re all in the know, nobody can afford.

  • Bryan Formhals

    You realize you’re posting that comment on a blog, right? 10 years ago the ability to publish and reach and audience was a rarity. With the internet, and advent of blogging software, anyone could publish their own content and reach an audience if they had something to say.

    The destruction of rarity has been taking place with rapid acceleration in all forms of media, and I for one think it’s been beneficial for our culture.

    The idea I’m proposing would not have mass appeal I’m guessing so I don’t really know how it would be destroying rarity anyway. It would simply provide more open access for the small portion of people that are interested in this work and willing to pay for it.

    Not to mention, this wouldn’t impact the rarity of the actual objects which are the limited edition books and prints.

  • Philip

    “I think the enormous benefits of having a vast archive of photography on demand would greatly out weigh the objections”

    I can think of nothing worse than the destruction of rarity, and that includes spiritual rarity. Consumerism is the stomach of the masses and it will eat everthing up and demand second helpings and still never be satisfied