> Everything is an Experiment
> The 21st Century Digital Photography Discussion
> Creating Robust Online Photo Experiences
> Not all photographs are created equal
> Screen Experiences
> Adapting to the technological constraints of the day
> Shifting Photographies
> Connecting with not transmitting to…
> Transcending geographical boundaries
> Admiring scholarship and the Academy
> Legacy and perpetual visibility
> Partnerships and the Museum 2.0
> The potential for the digital-native producer
Andy Adams is an independent producer and publisher whose work blends aspects of digital communication, online audience engagement, and web-based creative collaboration to explore current ideas in photography and visual media.
He is the editor of FlakPhoto, a website that promotes the discovery of photographic image-makers from around the world. Recent projects include The Future of Photobooks, which considered the impact of internet culture on photographic production, exhibition and distribution and 100 Portraits-100 Photographers, an exhibition of contemporary portraiture shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Australian Centre for Photography and numerous festivals in the U.S. and beyond. In 2012, he was commissioned by the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design to produce Looking at the Land-21st Century American Views, a web-based survey exploring the evolving landscape photographic tradition. Last year, Adams partnered with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to produce Making Pictures of People, a mobile publication/exhibition of recent photographic portraiture designed for touchscreen tablets and handheld devices.
Everything is an Experiment
AA: Everything I do with FlakPhoto is an experiment – a way to understand new possibilities for how photography functions online. The whole thing started with wanting to learn how to blog and having an interest in photography. So I love the idea of treating newfotoscapes as a work in progress that can evolve. That’s very much the way that I think of everything I do – keeping things fluid. Hopefully that opens up some serendipity for something that you didn’t expect to happen to happen.
NFS: I think it is key and really exciting that your approach with initiatives such as FlakPhoto works with social media platforms in a way that provokes people to think, become interested, and ultimately engage.
AA: The audience always comes first. One of the aspects of the way that I work is that I do it here, in this room by myself, and I’m very interested in reaching out to learn from my peers. It’s a psychologically social experience, but it’s a new kind of social interaction, because I’m alone, not saying anything out loud most of the time. My social media projects are about creating a dialogue – asking and answering questions about photography via the Internet.
NFS: You’ve been doing this since 2006 with a particular kind of mind-set. You’ve offered things in such a way that very few people, especially early on, were actually thinking about or considering, never mind doing. How did that happen?
AA: To begin with, I live in a place where there isn’t much of a photography community happening offline. So my projects have always been rooted in a personal desire to connect with other people who love photography.
I come from a non-traditional photo background. I studied mass media communications with an emphasis on the aesthetics and history of cinema, broadcasting, television and radio. So I view everything I do and what the Internet provides us now as folding inside that broader picture. Movies are my first love. The Web reignited my passion for still photography.
In 2004 I discovered a web-based photoblog community that was very much focused on amateur photographers – people who published their digital camera photographs on personal blogs. It’s significant to note that these photoblogs were different from traditional photography blogs (text-based blogs with writing focused on photography). They were a kind of proto-Instagram experience where people published single jpeg images produced on digital cameras to personal websites. This was of course before smartphone/iPhoneography image-making, where we publish directly from our mobile devices.
I launched FlakPhoto.com in 2006. I was using digital tools but to a lesser and certainly more primitive degree. For example, I didn’t know the phrase ‘social media’ then. Like a lot of people at that time, I was fascinated with the Internet. It was becoming a new diversion for me and I was using it to feed my interests and my passions. I didn’t consciously recognize that I was participating in a social experience on the Internet. That came later.
The 21st Century Digital Photography Discussion
NFS: It sounds like, as it’s evolved, it’s almost clarified the particular roots that you’re interested in exploring.
AA: Definitely. Once I recognized the social aspect of my own online activities, I decided to provide a gathering place for people that care about photography to come together on the Internet to share that passion. Social media, and Facebook in particular, was a huge discovery that completely changed the way I think about what I do and the way my projects manifest themselves in the world. In addition to producing FlakPhoto.com I host two discussion groups on Facebook – the FlakPhoto Network and FlakPhoto Books.
NFS: You’ve been described as a leading figure in the 21st century digital photography discussion. TIME Magazine included you as one of the top 140 feeds in the world in terms of engaging with what you’re doing. When people see you in that light, how do you manage the level of expectation? Surely, it’s one thing being a community organiser, it’s another thing where people essentially beginning to see you as a leader?
AA: I definitely do a lot of public thinking on social media. I love promoting photographers and their work and use my Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram to do that every day. If I have a reputation as a leader in the online photography community it may be because I share personal ideas consistently and publicly on this particular topic. I suspect that as more of us turn to indie websites and personally curated social media newsfeeds to look for news, connect with colleagues, and satisfy our curiosities the people and institutions that influence us will evolve.
NFS: That’s true. It seems only recently that photographers have begun to see themselves as publishers. It sounds like very early on, you didn’t just see the blog as a diaristic tool. You understood it as an opportunity to publish, which continues to place you in quite a unique position.
AA: In the beginning, when I was finding my way around the blog culture, my original aim was to publish a web-based magazine. As I began to understand Facebook and Twitter I realized that all of these expressions on social networking sites are themselves acts of publishing. I use my social networks in a very public, personal way and I connect with anyone who is interested in connecting with me. I use Facebook like a blog and email photo colleagues all the time. I ask a lot of questions and do my best to facilitate discussions. I love conversations.
Creating Robust Online Photo Experiences
NFS: You talked earlier about promoting photography but I think you’ve just alluded to the idea that your approach has transitioned more towards curation. How do you go about selecting the work that you feature?
AA: I’m always looking. My approach to discovering photography is deeply connected to the online media ecosystem that surrounds me. For example, one of the things that’s extremely common now – and, in fact it’s a requirement, I think – is that every photographer has a website. So every photographer essentially has a public outpost on the Internet where you can find them. And, increasingly, photographers and other creative people have multiple touchpoints. They’re on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo; they publish a blog, they send email updates, they mail print postcards. They’re expressing themselves and their ideas across various digital media all the time – they’re mass communicators. I make it a point to connect to my colleagues as much as possible.
Another big part of this, to take it away from the photography conversation for a moment, is that before the Internet I watched a lot of TV and movies and I read a lot of magazines. Now I’ve shifted those habits completely over to the Web. Because I’m able to curate my newsfeeds to be meaningful to me, I’ve filled them full of independent videos, blogs, and photography. Since all of these people out there in the world are expressing themselves and publishing their material and showing their pictures and spreading their ideas in the newsfeed, I’m constantly aware of all the things that are happening out there. It’s wonderful.
NFS: Essentially, it’s become your own self-selected channel. A personal information and communication stream offering shared experiences and a direct dialogue with your peers. And it’s a two-way dialogue directly with your peers.
AA: Exactly. It’s a wonderful way to discover images because photography plays so well on the Web. I like helping photographers get their work seen. So, I see a picture that looks interesting on Facebook and I write to the photographer to say, “Can we show this? Here’s who I am; here’s what I do.” I ask photographers to tag me @FlakPhoto in their Twitter updates and retweet the ones that catch my eye. I highlight FlakPhoto Network member projects in the Facebook group. I show photography on my Instagram. It’s a lot of fun.
NFS: You sometimes talk about the digital archive of contemporary photographs that you have created with FlakPhoto. Have you actually gone back and looked at the things that you’ve selected to see how your thoughts or the work that you’re looking at has changed?
AA: Three years ago, we launched a FlakPhoto redesign. We built a new website and brought all of the earlier pictures into the new system. That was a fun exercise in seeing how my tastes have changed. In fact, we built a section into the website that randomly pulls pictures from the FlakPhoto Collection archive into the site. It’s good to see the images you’ve forgotten about.
One of the criticisms of the social news feed phenomenon is that something’s fresh for a day and then it disappears. That’s a valid criticism but I don’t think it’s unique to the digital environment. The online ‘drive by culture’ complaint is an idea I’m personally interested in pushing back on. There’s this idea that our inability to pay attention is an inherent flaw of the medium, and I don’t agree. That’s user error; that is inherently a flaw of the spectator. You choose to give something your full attention or you can choose to pay partial attention. Our job as photography publishers is to produce experiences that are entertaining and robust, designed to encourage thoughtful and extended reading by the spectator.
Not all photographs are created equal
NFS: You hosted a panel with Stephen Mayes and Miki Johnson exploring the ‘Future of Photobooks’ at the ‘Flash Forward Festival’ in Boston and Stephen put forward the idea that photographs are experiences in their own right.
AA: I agree. The ‘Making Pictures of People’ exhibition that we produced in collaboration with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art was a photography experience that focused entirely on the image as opposed to the object. We set out to make something incredibly robust and entirely on the Web so it would be accessible to anyone. It’s essentially a public art project, but entirely digital and full of stuff to look at and ideas to think about. You can’t get through it in one sitting; you’re expected to go back to it again and again. It’s an experience to be approached and consumed like you would a photography book, which actually demands a lot of attention.
NFS: Consideration for the experience is also true of photography in general and can be traced back to the early evolutions of photography. The idea of the picture show emerging with entrepreneurs and photographers like Eadweard Muybridge projecting images with a magic lantern to reanimate his infamous animal locomotion series.
With collaborations like Making Pictures of People you are clearly forging positive relationships between the analogue and the digital. In the NEWFOTOSCAPES conversation with Stephen Mayes, he suggested, “Archive? Who cares about archives?” In other words, if a stream of photographs is ephemeral and momentary then we should just be fine with that.
AA: That makes sense. But one of the distinctions that I think we’ve got to make is that not all photographs are created equal. I’m not even sure we should be calling some of this photography anymore, since the great majority of it isn’t technically photography at all. Many of these pictures are photographic images. Sometimes images are merely expressions of the self. Photography has become a real-time way to say, “I did this,” or, “I’m here,” or, “Look at this,” or something else and the sharing is as important as the making. That’s a different kind of picture than one that’s designed to be experienced as a fine art print.
NFS: There’s been so much anxiety about that dematerialisation of the analogue photograph, which seems to miss the potential of this new ecology. For instance you constructed multiple connections and layers for Making Pictures of People. As such this online platform amplifies the message of the show and acts as a mechanism which significantly increases the size and reach of its audience.
In essence you are fusing the experiences offered by both the physical and digital to explore new narratives.
AA: To use Stephen Mayes’ example of the news feed, and my example of ‘The Making Pictures of People’ show – they’re both inherently digital. Neither is a physical photographic object. They convey specific ideas using pictures. Images are not inherently intended to be objects. They’re visuals that reflect the people who made them. They depict something that (may have) existed in the world and an idea that a photographer aims to convey to a spectator. And context is crucial. There are some people that will tell you, “A picture should speak a thousand words. If I have to talk about a picture, it hasn’t done its job.” I disagree. Like any cultural text, an image is influenced by its maker. Why did they do this? Why are they compelled to go out in the world and make this happen? Understanding the maker is key to understanding the work.
NFS: Yes, it enables the audience to see them as real people.
AA: That’s the thing; they are real people. It matters that we communicate some kind of human experience.
NFS: You’re keen on exploring the web browser as an exhibition space. How do you plan and create an experience through the screen?
AA: I stumbled upon the idea of creating ‘experiences’ a number of years ago, when I started to struggle with how to describe the things that I make. I produce photographic experiences that blur the lines of traditional production, exhibition, and distribution. Most are manifest online via the Web and are inherently mediated through a screen. A new language is emerging.
The browser as an exhibition space… that concept pushes back on the notion that you can’t find anything meaningful on the Internet or that a jpeg is somehow inferior to a print. Perhaps my background in cinema, where the entire experience has always been presented to the audience on a screen, frees me from these sorts of concerns. We witness a film on a screen. It’s not a physical object.
NFS: It was fascinating in conversation with Katrina Sluis, the curator of Digital at the Photographers’ Gallery in the UK, to hear how this establishment, entrenched in the analogue is exploring ideas presented by digital native environments. She has also written a lot about the idea of the networked image; an individual relationship mediated through the screen, in perpetual ‘motion’. So when the gallery during their major refurbishment decided to ‘fix’ a screen, dominant in scale on an interior wall, it has been an almost impossible task to try and fuse together those concepts. When, in essence, this screen is almost replicating a typical photographic display.
Adapting to the technological constraints of the day
AA: That’s a smart distinction about the spectator’s experience, because it’s a big part of my approach. With ‘Looking at the Land’ and Making Pictures of People we designed and optimized these projects for touchscreen tablets. When we consume the Internet on handheld devices we behaviourally engage these digital experiences with a similar intimacy as we do a book. We hold them in our hands or on our lap; we’re comfortable, at home on the couch, in our own environment. Those conditions put the mind in a completely different situation for engaging with photography. It’s why we love books ñ we can take them with us. They’re portable and private. With mobile media and specifically mobile photography, we engage with the material through our sense of touch. That creates a uniquely personal connection. These experiences are distinctly different from viewing photography in a public museum or gallery space.
I call these projects digital exhibitions but they’re essentially media experiences like traditional books, films and record albums. We’re adapting the possibilities for photography to the technological constraints of the day. One of the reasons photography is more popular than ever is because people can share and view pictures like never before. But it’s also because the Web is more perfectly suited for photographic consumption than any other technology in the history of broadcast publishing media.
NFS: I think you are right, the screen as a digitally mediated experience, has changed the function of the photograph. Not just in terms of its physical form, but its ability to generate new connections, experiences and interpretations that engage with its audience. In an attempt to navigate and understand this difference there seems to be a tendency to use the term ‘image’ rather than ‘photograph’. Do you see a shift in the different types of work being produced that you receive or consume?
AA: The constraints of the screen definitely influence the images I show. Pictures that work best on a computer monitor – those of a certain size, horizontal in shape, backlit, and illuminated – are always going to work better than those that don’t. There are all kinds of photographs that will never function successfully on the Internet and that’s just fine. In time, the history books will explain how these new screen environments impacted the style of images produced in the early 21st century. People are making pictures that are only ever expected to be seen on a screen. There’s room for everything.
NFS: In the context of today’s distributed knowledge, the way that you operate, connecting people and ideas, matched with your background within the moving image; potentially you’re as informed a curator within photography at this moment as those who have studied it in the academy.
AA: I do my best to stay current. I make myself very available online and I constantly ask photographers and filmmakers to tell me what they’re working on. If there’s one shortcoming of FlakPhoto it’s that I cannot keep up with the email correspondence. There are literally thousands of submissions that I haven’t reviewed yet.
NFS: But that’s the point you seek to open up a dialogue, rather than seek to make a judgement.
AA: I assume my objectives are very different than a curator of a traditional institution. I’m fascinated with photography and my projects are an extension of my personal interests. The interviews in my exhibition projects satisfy my own curiosity at the same time they add impact to the act of looking at these photographs. Perhaps, for the institutional curator, there is a detachment and distance from the photographers they showcase. I want to surround myself with people that love photography as much as I do, because it’s something I’m extremely passionate about. These projects are very personal for me.
Connecting with not transmitting to…
NFS: The social media reach of FlakPhoto today has an impact comparable to mainstream media. You seem to have an ability to connect with your audience, how has your approach evolved from those early experiments?
AA: I ask a lot of questions and I’m genuinely interested in hearing and responding to the answers. Many of the people that follow FlakPhoto know I’m the guy behind the wheel. I assume that adds a personal dimension to my projects. I come from the blogger community so I usually write in the first person. Audience engagement figures into everything I do.
I’m interested in co-creating and collaborating with people online. As the early photography blog culture evolved, I recognised that the best ones had lots and lots of comments. But many times the author of the blog wasn’t actively engaged in the comments. It was just the people that were out there in the world commenting with each other. One of the reasons I launched the FlakPhoto Network (FPN) was because I realised the comments are frequently the most interesting part of a blog. The FPN is focused on asking and answering questions about photography ñ the entire thing is predicated on comment conversations so the emphasis is always on listening to each other.
Transcending geographical boundaries
NFS: So your role within the community is one focused on facilitating and producing collective, participatory, shared experiences and knowledge as opposed to being an authoritative figure.
AA: I’ve never claimed to be an authority. I ask a lot of questions because I’m interested in learning. I’m also clarifying my own opinions. The Web creates this global, photographic hive-mind and I do my best to tap into it. My social media projects engage photo people wherever they are in the world. We create these conversations together which helps the group to learn more about photography, this thing we all care so much about. That’s very rewarding. In the best-case scenario, we transcend geographical boundaries with digital technologies to crowdsource knowledge and aggregate ideas.
The problem I’m running into is that I only speak English. So language barriers are still a significant constraint. There are all kinds of nationalities not represented in my projects, and they should be. There are still lots and lots of excluded voices, and that’s a problem.
NFS: Which is why initiatives such as World Press Photo’s ‘Multimedia Research Project’ led by David Campbell should be seen as really important. Although, as he admits the input wasn’t as vast and wide as desired it did at least set out to actively draw together a more globalised perspective.
AA: What should probably happen is that one of the establishment institutions, or maybe a coalition of institutions, needs to champion that conversation and invest time and resources to strategically connect all corners of the photographic world from around the globe. Because for the most part, I think, America and Western Europe dominate the online photography scene. It will expand as digital literacy flourishes. There’s a lot that needs doing still.
Admiring scholarship and the Academy
NFS: Which again raises the question of authority, today image production and distribution has escalated beyond our perception which has contributed to the “democratization of photography” meme but do you see this as a shift away from the photographer as the authority?
AA: I guess the question really is who’s the authority, for what purpose? I’ve always considered the true authorities to be the scholars, institutional curators and the academics ñ those with expert knowledge in the field. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the academy and photographic scholarship. I continue to bring that into my projects. But I’m not sure if the great majority of the world that consumes photography through the Internet shares that view.
NFS: Equally, the academy is facing huge disruptions. Is a walled and closed institution still appropriate for the digital world, at a time when knowledge is distributed, rather than performed from a single book? However, it is vital that we learn and acquire the skills for critical thinking and making. David Campbell positively cites his ability to locate and construct his perspectives because of the critical framework his academic life provided.
AA: I agree. I’m keenly interested in understanding how media culture is evolving. The Photo 2.0 lectures I give take a somewhat scholarly approach to evaluating media culture. I talk about Marshall McLuhan and how media is an extension of the mind and how photography’s role changes as the media framework it functions in changes. I don’t spend so much time thinking about who the authority is. But I do spend an awful lot of time, and I am personally influenced by, people who are consistently interesting and insightful in their areas of interest. And, even more so, if they’re actively engaged online.
One of the defining factors of the social media news feed, the social Web, and the current state of digital media publication is that anyone who has the tools can publically think and share ideas in the public sphere. At one point, someone like David Campbell would have been reliant on institution funding to get those ideas out into in the world. Now, as an individual, he can make those ideas circulate in the world on his own. And because he’s savvy he’s become an influential thought leader. So I can subscribe to his blog feed, I can follow him on Twitter, I can engage with him on Facebook, which is exciting and fun. It adds a unique new dimension to my learning from him.
NFS: This does perhaps mean we adopt an alternative mind-set, one which accepts open and accessible forms of communication. Which isn’t advocating the simplification to the lowest common denominator, but a mind-set that does consider audience offering transparency in the production of knowledge and simplicity for inclusion in the evolution of this.
AA: I like the concept of open accessibility. That’s a core ideology for me.
Legacy and perpetual visibility
NFS: With your projects being primarily being located in the online world, how do you plan and consider their duration and ultimately the aspirations for their legacy?
AA: Good question. This is greater than online and photography, though, right? Everything has constraints. It’s a problem. For example, the ‘Words Without Pictures’ project you discussed with Charlotte Cotton; putting a time constraint on those discussions made a lot of sense. But I was disappointed when the ‘Words Without Pictures’ website went offline. It’s crucial that these projects leave footprints on the Internet – so future generations can find them. That project was very innovative. In my talks I always mention Jason Evans’ ‘Online Photographic Thinking’ essay, because that made a huge impact on me when I first read it in 2007. Ideally that project would live online, even within its fixed constraints, because it’s a great resource. Of course, it is available as a book, so the information is available for a fee.
When you impose limits, in part it’s so you can move along to the next thing and try something new. It’s great when you stumble upon a blog post from 2004, because it feels like ancient history. But it’s good that it’s still out there. Certainly that’s one of the concerns about the Web, how nothing ever disappears. I don’t feel like everything I make needs to last forever, but in the case of my digital exhibitions I definitely intend for those websites to stay online in perpetuity. I fully expect and hope that educators will reference them and share them with students. Teachers use FlakPhoto.com in the classroom – I’m always hearing from photographers who assign students to mine the website and write about photos they see there.
Partnerships and the Museum 2.0
NFS: Did you find early on that you had to invent ways to motivate people to become engaged with and talk about the work?
AA: Five years ago, I took a job with an arts organization whose primary role is to present arts/culture programming for the public. That gave me insights about how FlakPhoto could do similar things for the photography community. In time I realized that my projects aligned with the philosophies of the Museum 2.0 movementñengaging online audiences using social media to celebrate arts, ideas, and knowledge. I consider FlakPhoto a public photography project.
NFS: Are institutions now approaching FlakPhoto to help them transition into a community led landscape? Are you looking to develop more partnerships with organisations?
AA: Definitely. In the past five years I’ve produced digital collaborations at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Center for Creative Photography. I coordinate live stream broadcasts and panel discussions for photography festivals. I support community photo organizations and photobook publishers with digital marketing. I love photography and I use my skills to champion the culture of photography on the Internet.
The potential for the digital-native producer
NFS: Which brings us to the other really important part of your project; photographers are acquiring new skills as these digital technologies become native to them.
AA: Young photographers know how to blog. Many photographers use social media for promotional purposes. They can, to a certain extent, bypass traditional gatekeepers and directly champion the causes they believe in. I gave a lecture once and someone called FlakPhoto a “new gatekeeper” and insisted on the responsibility that comes with that. That may be true, but it’s just not the way I think about what I do. There will always be influencers but things have changed. Gatekeeping is an unfortunate outcome of the system.
NFS: But equally, this new landscape does afford us the opportunity to challenge and question the old systems, rather than introduce new governance. In many ways, the openness and transparency that you operate with FlakPhoto will be key.
AA: I really appreciate that point of view, because the new systems can easily fall into the routines of the old. Social media and the Internet in general are great tools for marketing things. But what I’m actually more interested in, and I would like more people to do, is to use social media not to market, promote and sell things but instead to connect with each other and learn from each other; to share ideas and develop new approaches to pushing the medium forward. This is our time and it’s filled with enormous potential.