The Internet has changed the way we consider photography, and the medium has undergone remarkable transformations at every level. No longer restricted to the gallery wall or the printed page, photography now regularly—and sometimes exclusively—appears on computer screens. In the past decade, photoblogs, online magazines, and digital galleries have revolutionized the way we look at photographs. More significantly, Web 2.0 is influencing contemporary photo culture around the world by connecting international audiences to art experiences, enabling the discovery of new work and presenting never-before-seen channels of expression and communication. These are exciting times for image-makers wishing to publicly show their work: armed with a computer and an Internet connection, the 21st century photographer can share his or her visual ideas with a worldwide audience of peers, fans, and patrons. And these artists are redefining the medium every day.
In his essay, Online Photographic Thinking1, photographer Jason Evans explores the nature of digital media and its impact on the processes of making and experiencing photography: “In the inevitable and frankly tedious digital versus analog debate, my position is one of either/and. Both systems offer distinct possibilities, but I ultimately believe that they are just different sides of the same coin.” He's right, of course—the way a picture looks is relatively similar in print and online, but seeing an image on an un-calibrated monitor is hardly a substitute for experiencing a book or print as the artist intended. Still, screen-based picture constraints shouldn’t be the sticking point. We instinctively faulted the Web for its deficiencies as an image-delivery mechanism. Instead of recognizing digital media’s distinctive qualities, we cursed its inferiority to perform at traditional standards of expectation. Evans argues for an expansion of “what photography can be” and his plea is significant because it champions the Internet’s unique potential for photographic publication, exhibition and distribution.
Photography has been married to publishing from the beginning. Historically, and particularly before the popularity of galleries and museums devoted to photography, the printed page has been the ultimate venue for viewing a photographer’s work. Until recently, magazines, journals, and books were the primary outlets for circulating photos. But printing photography can be costly, and therefore photobook runs are usually limited. Online publishing—especially blogs, but also social networks and photo-sharing websites—radically alters the relationship between photographers and publishers by empowering the former to engage directly with the public at a fraction of the cost.
This broad access to online publishing has been met with skepticism from some corners of the photo world. Though the stigma is fading, concern still lingers about amateurs compromising the quality of what we see online. It’s true; the barriers to entry are low. But as credible publishers embrace the form, the association of mediocrity with blogs and social networks should be retired. A thoughtful website is as legitimate as any traditional publication, and social media has been embraced by established institutions the world over. If the printed pages of Camera Work functioned as a reputable platform for Stieglitz a century ago, how can a blog or online magazine be any different today?
A natural broadcast and publishing medium, the Internet is also a distinctly social medium. Blogs, for example, are inherently communal. We don’t just look at or read them; we become a part of them by contributing to the conversations they generate. The best photography blogs are collaborative, providing a public venue for lively discussions on all aspects of contemporary image-making. Certainly we tune in because we identify with the author’s editorial perspective, but also because we like posting comments and seeing how peers respond to our ideas. And the widespread adoption of social networks has given each of us the ability to discover and share photography at lightning speed. Who among us hasn’t joined the legions of Facebook or Twitter or Flickr users?
In less than a decade, the online space has become a vibrant public realm brimming with images and ideas. I don’t live in one of the world’s major photography centers, but Web 2.0 has made it possible for me to participate in an ever-expanding ecosystem of visual experiences and photographic relationships nonetheless. The Internet connects the world and in doing so, is fostering the growth of a global online photographic community. Day by day geographical boundaries dissolve as each of us interacts with and learns from each other more spontaneously than ever before. All of this is a click away, easily searchable, and instantly available.
For the past five years I’ve been publishing FlakPhoto.com, a website that promotes photography from within the online community. In December 2010, I co-produced The Future of Photobooks, a cross-blog conversation considering the question, What will photobooks become over the next decade? Our aim was to pool collective wisdom from a variety of photographic disciplines, so we invited practitioners from across the globe to nominate the most exciting contemporary photobooks. We summarized those ideas and hosted three blogger-moderated discussions that explored current innovations in photography book publication.2 The most inspiring part of the project was discovering the sheer volume of photographers utilizing online publishing and multimedia to independently create, promote, and fund their work. And, in many cases, the book was only one facet of a multidimensional photographic experience that blended aspects of traditional and new media publication and exhibition.
What these photographers realized was the unique opportunity the Internet provided for the online community to participate in their photography. Not surprisingly, many have appropriated social media for promotional purposes. But the savviest photographers are publishing blogs and multimedia journals that involve their fans in the creative process; some are mobilizing their communities to finance their efforts with online fundraising tools. What’s more, these photographers have instinctively developed website galleries, multimedia podcasts, and audio slideshows to complement their print publications and physical exhibitions. These formats don’t just present online alternatives to traditional photography; they’re meaningful photographic experiences with the potential to reach a widespread audience across the world.
In some circles, photography remains a predominantly printed medium. Books and prints are highly collectible and their physical presence is still essential for many photographers. But the Internet is transforming photography so it can flourish outside the constraints of traditional publication and exhibition. A thriving online community will most certainly play a vital role in the discovery and dissemination of new work produced by contemporary image-makers. And social media empowers each of us to shape the photographic conversation by participating in its ongoing creation and curation. The Web’s innovations promise important possibilities for photography’s evolution. And we’re only beginning to understand them.
1 Evans’ essay originally appeared in Words Without Pictures, an interactive online publication produced by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2007. Initially issued as a print-on-demand title, the complete collection of essays and responses is now available from Aperture. Find it at Aperture.org/words-without-pictures.html
2 My colleague Miki Johnson does a great job of summarizing our findings at FOPB.tumblr.com. The modes of production have obviously changed, but photobooks are as popular as ever (more so maybe) and with more indie publishers producing small press runs, contemporary print publications are valuable collectibles in their own right.