The Ramp At the End of the Driveway

It’s become fairly commonplace for one to put together a website or blog. Ask several questions of an artist by email, spellcheck and publish them. These two ingredients (along with whom the artist is) can immediately garner a reputation for the site and site publisher.

I also see this with a proliferation of online photography magazines. Before the age of the digital medium, magazines such as DoubleTake, Blind Spot and Aperture were one of the main sources to discover new and emerging work by artists. In fact much of my early education was spending hours in the basement of my local library carefully looking through every issue of Aperture they had on hand. This served to enlighten myself as the young-artist-in-training to the many possibilities being explored in the medium that were narrated by a critical discourse from some excellent and profound writers.

I was excited as any to have these tools put into my hands when i began publishing online in 2004. It was an exciting time. Many new blogs and websites devoted to the medium sprang from the nether regions giving voice and broadcast to new work and, like the printed versions, an exploration of conceptual paradigms at a crucial time for photography. Even then it was evident who could write out of curiosity and strong questions about the work done and being done.

Fast forward to 2010 and one can’t click without a new online magazine, blog or archive of photographs appearing on the browser page. The daily email calls-to-submit flood inboxes, some with themes, some without but all looking for you to submit your work on to our website so we can broadcast it unlike your website. The worst ones become all too formulaic and simply just publish a selection of work chosen by the artist (550×125 pixels pls.) along with an artist written statement. No curatorial concern other than selection, in many cases no different than the content on the artists website that is linked to somewhere in the article.

The ability to email an artist directly also provides the opportunity to interview them. I like that accessibility and clearly I believe in it through my own site/blog/facebook/twitter/whatevercomesnext. But an interview is not a questionnaire and all too many of these interviews are distilled down to a manufactured series of questions where it may even be obvious that the person asking the questions hasn’t even looked to see if those questions were answered somewhere else before. ‘What got you interested in photography?’, ‘tell me some of the inspiration behind your current project _____’, etc…. I hasten to say it but we would not stand for that sort of journalism in the printed press why should we stand for it online? I don’t mean to sound so condemning, it’s simply because I love interviews. There is so much to discover there about artistic character, nuance and the creative process. I recall reading the interviews in the small softbound Smithsonian Photographers At Work series. In the Lee Friedlander and Eggleston editions one discovers more about their character than I imagine one would in conversation (true dat!). Another favorite, the Paul Graham book published by Phaidon, Graham is interviewed by artist Gillian Wearing! It’s a real interview; giggles, off topic shared nostalgia about television and some intense conversation about process.

I feel we have a responsibility as publishers and broadcasters of media today. If we’re going to do it, let’s make it right, give us something we can learn from. I know the vague questions can be an opportunity to really speak my own agenda but there is plenty of places to do that. I also know there has been some interesting discussions regarding online curating, editing as of late. Some people are fantastic at simply editing the internet into fantastic cornucopias of ideas (Laurel, etc.) but others need to give us more than a repackaged version of what the artist presents to them. What ever happened to ‘never trust what an artist has to say about their own work?’.

These thoughts are not meant to condemn anyone but to challenge the idea of the discussions around the medium. We’re still in baby steps but I see a ramp at the end of the driveway. 😉

7 Comments

  1. Posted February 4, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Well said. There’s an interesting dynamic happening here, and I’m curious as to how the online “curation” trend evolves.

    While there are too many of these sites now to keep track of, it seems that as the novelty slowly wears out there are a few that are rising to the top as more respectable than the rest. The good sites gain popularity when they’re mentioned on other “reputable” sites, and this to some degree filters the rest out of the spotlight.

    I’m wondering if this problem will eventually solve itself by forcing the low quality sites into obscurity. Although, this would require a certain level of responsibility on the part of the consumer…

  2. Posted February 4, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    seriously – more researched interviews. oh man, they could build on each other and become more interesting. I’m always excited when I see a new interview with an artist I like and I’m often disappointed when I don’t learn anything new since the last one.

  3. Posted February 4, 2010 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Oh, this kind of thing is also another reason that I keep my blog as just under my personal website and name. I basically didn’t want to lose the ability to just post personal stuff whenever I wanted and just post work I like without worrying about some kind of curatorial ethic or quality responsibility. I don’t pretend that my blog is really anything different than the livejournal I kept in 2002. Just a bit better content, but I’m a little older now, maybe.

  4. Posted February 5, 2010 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    Well said. I recently started to email a photographer and publisher who interests me, to see if they would be answer some questions – really, more for my own benefit than for making a “highly bloggable” post. I suggested talking to this person on Skype, because I felt that it would be better to participate in the flow of a real-time conversation rather than the (sometimes) stilted email “interview.” As it turned out, they just wanted to answer questions over email, which was still fine, but I thought it would have been more interesting the other way. I have the responses sitting in my inbox but I haven’t been moved to do anything with them…

  5. Posted February 5, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Brian. Well said.

    I think some bloggers work without agenda and in isolation – to those people you don’t speak.

    I think others have thought about these issues a long time ago and act accordingly and quietly.

    Unfortunately, there is a growing body of bloggers who could do to just slow it down a little and spend the time – they’d win the subject would win and the audience would definitely win.

    As you said, we should all consider ourselves responsible for the new territory we publish into and demand a conversation and thusly higher standards.

  6. Posted February 15, 2010 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Quite agree with you here, Brian. I’m one of ‘those guys’; part of the recent crop of photo blogs (I am part of my own problem), but I’m really quite specific with what I do: I have a rigid schedule, try to ask unique questions or at least questions I’m interested in… but sometimes it gets difficult.

    Occasionally I know I can ask a photographer probing questions by reading other interviews they’ve done with others, or with how clear their intellect is through their own site or work… but sometimes it’s not totally visible whether or not the photographer may have the answers to what I’m asking through the questions. Ergo, with many, I ask variations of these broad questions you talk about.

    And a lot of the time I’ll get the same answer: “I try to photograph what I see around me bla bla bla” but sometimes it can lead to really original answers, like with Bobby Doherty. I asked the broadest question imaginable, and his answer was beautiful-

    MOSSLESS: What is a photograph?
    BOBBY DOHERTY: I think a photograph is this strange hesitation. At least that’s how I feel about the photographs I look for. When I witness a scene so outside of what I think of as reality, I hesitate to accept it as such. That is when I press the shutter. Maybe it is more complicated than that? Or simpler. I think words and photographs are very similar, but a photograph should never be easy to explain. They are just two completely different gut feelings.

    Ergo, it is my opinion that although having default questions is entirely nonsensical and boring, having broad questions can lead to dull answers only to the fault of the interviewed. Having said that, I do love asking very specific questions, and prefer it even, but with my format of 4 questions per interview it does not always permit to just details.

    The actual printed Mossless magazine (coming soon!) is almost entirely comprised of face-to-face interviews. I’d do this for the blog, but I feel like doing it every now and then would break my format, as the feel of them (like you said!) is entirely different.

    I’ve rambled on far too long now. Thanks for the good read!

  7. Posted February 15, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Romke, great points and yes sometimes the simplest question leads to the most eloquent answer. Reminds me of Studs Terkel who was the master of creating a space where the subject could reveal themselves. Not easy online but possible.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] February 5, 2010 in Opinion, Words | Tags: blogging, Brian Ulrich, Interview, standards While much recent debate has been about if bloggers, indie-writers and stopgap-journos can find ways to make money, Brian Ulrich asks if many of us actually deserve to: […]

  2. […] photography on the web since the day I started la pura vida.  So I was very much interested in Brian Ulrich’s post about blogs and publishing photography. He makes several good points and hit upon some ideas I think have been swirling around for awhile […]

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