Photography Collectives and the Wu Tang Clan

Photography collectives are not a novel idea, but their potential in the age of the internet seems relatively untapped.  I’ve been fortunate enough to be a member of two of them, one that failed, and one that’s just getting off the ground. In both cases they developed through networking on the web, and include members from all over the globe.  I’ve been following a few others such as DreamboatsFjord and iN-PUBLIC.  And I’m sure there are dozens not on my radar. Not to mention what defines a collective which is open for debate.

In both my experiences what hasn’t always been clear was the objective of the collective.  Perhaps others have a clearly stated objective, and institutions like MagnumVII and NOOR certainly have a clear objective.  I guess my inquiry is more about collectives focussed on fine art photography.  There’s certainly a blurring of the lines when you try to define genres, but there’s no question photojournalists and documentary photographers want their stories to be funded and reach a wide audience.

I was tasked with moderating the FUNDING portion of the Future of Photobooks discussion over at Livebooks and one of the comments pushed me in the direction of collectives.

I often say that the value might be in the aggregate, and not in the individual pieces. With the web, these groups and collectives can really span the entire globe, which is exciting. The dynamic at play in the work when gathered together in a book, can begin to carve out a recognizable group sensibility.

It’s kind of like the Wu Tang Clan. They bring the clan together, put out a group album, and then after that, promote the individuals, but it’s all really under the umbrella of the Wu Empire.

I’m not an expert on the Wu Tang Clan and haven’t read The Wu-Tang Manual (not yet anyway) but from my understanding their business plan was rather innovative and well executed, as their success attests to.

He devised what he refers to as his “five year plan”, in which the group would release a full length group album, and record a follow-up group album five years later, while releasing solo albums in between this time period to launch solo careers. – Wikipedia

When I read this I can see how it might relate to photography collectives and their potential path to success.  The collective could work on a couple of group books or magazines for a few years to build the brand identity (a phrase I’m sure makes photographers reach for the Rodinal), and then launch individual projects.  I think everyone who has spent a considerable amount of time following photography on the internet knows there’s a ton photographers out there doing interesting work.  How many times have you come across someone’s work, loved it, and then forgot their name a few months later, only to re-discover them again?  It happens frequently.  Keeping track of all the photographers out there is a daunting task.  I find it much easier to remember the names of collectives, DreamboatsFjordiN-PUBLIC, (self-promotion warning), Mindfist, MagnumVIINOOR etc.  If the collective model is embraced, the pressures of marketing and branding could be distributed amongst a group of creatives, most of whom likely have skills in other areas.

A huge challenge is always going to be financing and figuring out how to run the collective.  There are always going to be debates, arguments and conflicts within a tight knit group of creatives, but I think if that can be managed, these type of groups have a chance of making an impact.  If the photographs are interesting of course…

  • Brooks Ayola

    A group of photographer friends of mine decided to do a Blurb book for charity last year and raised a few hundred dollars while doing a fun project just for us… Now we’re working on the third book and turning into a collective without really trying for that in the first place. We just wanted to see our personal work in print along with people we knew and respected. It’s been fun so far.

  • bformhals

    Hey Daniel,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think you’ve really nailed it. And with so many photographers it’s tough to keep track of them individually, but like I mentioned in the post, a good name for a group can go a long way.

    I look forward to following your guys progress.


  • dshea

    I can’t tell you how happy seeing Dreamboats mentioned with Wu Tang makes me.

    I think having a clear objective is imperative. For example, we’re (d-boats) fine art photographers looking to create a system of financial and creative support, based on the tried and true and new methods. We can’t all be individual fund-raising machines like Rob Hornstra and Andrew Phelps (much love to both), at least not yet. With a collective effort, we can find new ways of generating money for new projects and ideas.

    Also, moving photography away from such a strictly proprietary competitive mess towards a more collectivist spirit is great!

  • Dan

    The Wu made it explicitly clear when they signed their major label deal (as a group) that each individual member would have absolute freedom to release solo albums on whatever label they wanted. This was a good idea, obviously, because they didn’t have to tie themselves to any contract first, then after the success of Enter the 36 Chambers they could all do better for themselves on their own…