Over the last few months I’ve been thinking about how we choose to present photographs and photographic projects on the internet. The first results of this inquiry were a couple of articles that I wrote about writing which I think is an important aspect to presenting photography on the internet. In this article I want to discuss a few ideas that have crystallized in the last few weeks which will hopefully open a dialogue about some of these issues.
Photography as Process
Over the last few years there’s been an ongoing debate in media circles about the evolution of journalism in the social media age. One of the ideas that I’ve found interesting is the notion of ‘process journalism.’ Simply put, this means posting a story on the web before it’s fully baked, or all the facts are known. As consumers, we’re able to watch the story form in real time across various networks, such as blogs, Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook. This is quite different from the traditional way we’d consume news which would be by reading a fully fleshed out article in the newspaper.
There are certainly pros and cons to it but I’m not going to get into that, rather I’d like to talk about how it relates to photography.
By now it’s rather common for photographers to share work from projects in progress. In fact, it’s so common that I think we’ve taken for granted how big a change this is from the past. You’ll often hear photographers from an older generation say things like “only show your very best work” or “never show your contact sheets,” advice many photographers still heed, but I think amongst younger photographers we’re seeing a tendency to show more photographs from projects, many of which will likely end up on the cutting room floor.
Not only are photographers showing more work but they’re also openly discussing their projects on blogs and other social media channels. This provides other photographers and fans with an opportunity to glean insights about the project as well as follow the travails that accompany working on a long term project.
I think photographers who are transparent with their process and share openly make a stronger connection with their fans and other photographers. Emphas.is is a perfect example how this might work on a larger scale. We’re already seeing evidence of how fans and followers can become apart of the process which offers some exciting possibilities for collaborative projects in the future.
The photography as process model does present a few challenges. First, it’s more work for the photographer. Instead of devoting all of their attention on making the work, they also need to devote time to writing articles, editing and engaging with their audience. This can be challenging, especially for hermetic type photographers.
Second, there’s the potential for over exposure. By the time the project reaches completion many followers maybe bored with it, or have seen enough of the work online and will decided not to buy the book. Also, on the fine art side I’ve heard that some curators and publishers warn against over exposing projects online. I don’t understand the logic of this but I’ve heard it mentioned a few times.
I’m sure many people would rather experience a project in its final form and won’t be interested in the process, but I think as the way we publish photography on the web continues to evolve we’ll see more thought put into how we present ’photography as process.’
Welcome to the Stream
The platforms we use to share and distribute information almost uniformly present it in a stream of some variety. The stream constantly flows with fragments of information, links, photos, stories, etc. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of the odd juxtaposition in our streams. We jump from a funny meme to a serious news story to a blog post from a photographer we admire almost seamlessly. This behavior has become so habitual it’s like channel surfing.
The stream dictates how photographers publish and present work on the web as well. Blogs are typically a stream of individual, disconnected posts about projects, accomplishments, ruminations or just a series of new photographs. Flickr and other photosharing sites are built around the stream too – the “photostream.”
We have Twitter streams, Facebook streams, Tumblr streams, Google+ streams, all sending a constant flow of articles and photographs. For many, it must feel like being caught in the rapids of raging river.
What do most of us do? We feed the stream without much forethought. We find an interesting article, we share it on Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook/Google+. When we have a funny thought or observe something strange while at lunch, we post it to our Twitter or Facebook streams.
Blog posts might be the one area where we sit back and take a bit more time to formulate our thoughts. But each blog post is generally its own self-contained piece. We might think about a post for a few days before publishing it but my general feeling is that most photographers still write their posts when inspiration strikes or they come across something on the web that sparks an idea.
I’m sure all of us understand this is the nature of publishing and sharing on the web but I want to put it in words so we can slow down and think about it.
And then I want to ask why we follow this formula? Why do we allow the stream to dictate our behavior?
There are people out there breaking out of the formula, but I haven’t seen many in photoland. (Send me examples!)
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.
When Does it End?
In what might be the most insightful article I’ve read this year, Paul Ford writes illuminatingly about how our consumption of information via “the stream” and social media competes against our desire to experience stories with definitive endings.
You should read it. Especially if you’re a project oriented photographer who believes your work is meant to be viewed in a book.
It wasn’t until I read this article that I realized what bothers me most about photoland, especially when it comes to looking at projects. And what bothers me is that I rarely get to see the ending. I rarely get to see the project presented in the form the photographer intended.
Each day we’re exposed to a number of new projects. We look at a selection of 10 photographs on a blog or 25 on a website but that’s it. That’s like watching a trailer for a movie, or reading a chapter from a book. In most instances, that’s all we’ll see. We’re left with a series of fragmented stories which interrupts our desire for endings.
I think this is why photoland can be so frustrating on the web. We’re constantly teased with interesting projects and bodies of work, but rarely get to see them in their final form. We may buy a book on occasion but I’d guess most people can’t afford to buy the book of every interesting project they come across on the web.
So, what exactly are we looking at when we view 10 photographs from a project on a blog or a series of 25 in a portfolio? A marketing campaign? A book trailer? Abridgment?
With few endings in sight, ‘the stream’ consumes us and we start to wonder why we even bother. That body of work on Fraction or Conscientious or LPV is great but we’ll never likely see it in its completed form, so what’s the point? Are we more creatively fulfilled knowing this work exists or would we be better off devoting our attention to completed works?
Unfortunately, this is the type of article without a nice tidy ending. The best I can do is share these thoughts and put them out into “the stream.” Maybe someone will latch onto an idea which may attract another idea and eventually crystallize into something insightful.
I know the photoland experience on the web can be more interesting and engaging. ‘The stream,’ and all the other tools can always be used in new ways if we challenge ourselves and embrace the flow.
We’ll still need professionals to organize the events of the world into narratives, and our story-craving brains will still need the narrative hooks, the cold opens, the dramatic climaxes, and that all-important “?” to help us make sense of the great glut of recent history that is dumped over us every morning. No matter what comes along streams, feeds, and walls, we will still have need of an ending. - Paul Ford