Tuesday, November 24, 2015

State of the Industry, LuLa's going Paid

The Luminous Landscape is switching to a subscription model. $12/year. So what?

Well, it's an indication of the state of the industry, innit? Obviously the revenues are trending the wrong way. Ad revenue is surely in a crunch, for a couple of reasons: ad revenue is in general getting crushed on the internet, and the photographic enthusiast market is on a brisk downhill slope as well. I dare say it's getting ugly out there.

Michael tends to over-inflate Lula's place in the universe a bit, but it still seems to be in the top ten most visited photography web sites. 330,000 unique visitors a month, which probably translates to somewhat fewer actual people (I probably count as somewhere between 2 and 5, depending on how alexa.com's analytics are counting me), and still fewer regular visitors. I am comfortable with 10,000 to 100,000 as the count of humans who regularly visit.

They've made some missteps. Michael, as I read it, hired a friend of his, so now the payroll includes three guys, at a time when revenues were about beginning that inexorable slide. The content, frankly, has suffered. Most of the front page articles are terrible fluff pieces, and they did a site conversion which left the archives of useful historical stuff in a bit of a shambles. They have too many staff, and too little web site. With all due respect, I have no idea what on earth they do with three staffers. So, there's trouble in River City. They gotta do something.

A paywall is a Hail Mary pass, there's just no other way to put it. You either start an inexorable death spiral, or you don't. Most of the time, you do. There's a short interval in which things look good, it's a joyful private club, everyone feels smug, and now if we can just get another 2x or 3x signups we're in fat city, and then people stop renewing and the new signups slow down because things are kind of dead in there, and after a while it's time to turn off the lights.

It's entirely possible that they did some research, I don't know. I'm an active member, and they didn't reach me with any kind of market research, which certainly doesn't mean they didn't do any. It's a datum, though.

Also worth noting is that, based on a handful of comments in their forums, they're tweaking the model to make the forums free. If this is genuinely the basis for the change, they're insane. They have, at a bare minimum, 10,000 regular visitors, and those are the people they need to persuade to part with hard-earned lucre. Just because 4 or 5 or 10 of the self-selected cranky jerks (I include myself in that number) who infest their forums say something doesn't mean it's true or even relevant. In fact, it almost certainly is not relevant, these are by definition outliers. You've got to figure out how to reach that silent majority and find out what's going to make those people part with cold, hard, cash.

Anyways, it's tough out there.

If you're running a popular web site, and you're wondering what to do to solve your money problem, watch LuLa closely, it's gonna get interesting. While you're watching, think about these ideas a little:

  • Launch a Patreon. Running simply on donations with an organized approach is a lot like a friendlier paywall. It can work.
  • Launch a market research firm. Get some books out of the library, read up, and start gently leveraging your subscriber base. Work out a way to compensate them for their time, for their information, in a way that doesn't cost you much, Premium content. Negotiated discounts from useful vendors.
  • Sell T-shirts and other merch. This can produce surprising amounts of revenue.
  • Do you sell anything else? Workshops, prints, videos, whatever? Launch a business helping other people generate and sell similar content and services.
  • Own up to vendor relationships and leverage them. If you like Nikon, or Tamrac, or Lytro, or whatever, ask them if you can be a spokesman. There's no shame in being a paid pitch man for products you like. Just don't lie about it.
  • Etc. Just think a bit, you'll probably come up with more businesses.

None of them are going to be all wine and roses. The trouble is that the pundits and players in the web-o-sphere don't want to do the hard parts. They want to fool about with cameras and write uninformed blog posts (I know that's what motivates me anyways) and they would very much like to get paid handsomely for their goofing off (well, me too, but I'm more of a realist than that). If you just want to play around, you can't expect to get paid a lot for it.

Some people have gotten paid a lot for it, but that was an anomaly, in an anomalous time, which time is now over.

Time to get to work.


There's ideas that we stick into a piece of Art. I make a bunch of pictures, I pick some out, and shuffle them around thoughtfully, and I shovel them into some sort of portfolio or booklike thing. Then I give that away. And it's all intentional, there's ideas and meaning that I intend in there, usually quite a lot of stuff.

Then there's the ideas that we get out of a piece of Art. You find a booklike thing in a coffee shop, let's say in Bellingham, WA, USA, just as a sort of randomly selected for-instance kind of a deal. You crack it open and poke around. Some of you buggers probably read it back to front. Maybe you toss it aside, having gotten nothing. Maybe you see some stuff. Maybe some of the stuff you see overlaps with the stuff the artist put in there.

In an ideal world, I think kind of the best we can hope for is that you get a subset of whatever I put in there, and you get it at an angle I never imagined, and then you get some other stuff I never intended, and you put it together into something that pleases you. If it's one of mine, you might flip it over and read the note that says this is a free book and you can take it home if you want.

It might even occur to you to think "if I take it home, does this mean my visitors can take it away to their own homes if they like?" and I'm just gonna leave that as an open question.

Anyways, that's kind of a practical best case. If I don't write a detailed artist's statement, it's totally unreasonable to hope that we're going to communicate any better than this.

Now, I have a theory, an idea, a feeling. It is this: Even if what you get out does not overlap with what I put in, the fact that I did put things in, that I made this thing with ideas and intent, somehow translates into a more accessible and rich object, from which you are more able to draw your own, unrelated, result.

This is based on nothing much at all. It's basically sympathetic magic that I am proposing here. But I can't shake the feeling. I happen to feel like I see it in other work. Stieglitz' Equivalents have this for me -- I feel like he's getting at something, but I can't find it. It's well known that he shoved a lot of intention in there.

Possibly there is something about density of idea-fragments. You can imagine that if I just thoughtlessly chucked together a bunch of crucifixes, melting clocks, and watermelons, people would probably read some stuff into it simply because of the density of symbols. Perhaps if I put enough ideas of my own in, I produce something with a similar sort of density, albeit a less obvious one. Perhaps the pieces can be re-assembled into your own ideas.

This begs the question, then, of which am I doing? Am I simply larding it up with a jumble of symbolism and hoping for the best, or am I actually executing coherent ideas? Michele Sons pictures of pretty girls in gowns standing in the middle of nowhere could go either way. I can read a ton into it, if I want, but I have no idea if she's actually got an idea, or is just thoughtlessly chucking a girl into the frame to spice up the otherwise 100% social-media-compliant landscape. Who knows? Does it really matter, in the long run?

Ya got me!

Monday, November 23, 2015


There's a veritable cottage industry now in sending people to Antarctica. If you're got about $30 grand you can go tromp around on the edge of the continent. Some, possibly many, of these tourists are moderately wealthy pudgy white dudes with $50 grand worth of camera equipment.

I'm pretty sure these guys grew up with National Geographic. The magazine had these magical pictures of far of places, like, say, Antarctica. It was crazy hard to get there in the 60s and 70s, it was a major undertaking. Indeed, it still is, note the price tag. The Southern Ocean is not to be fucked with and, frankly, it's only a matter of time before a boat filled with well to do older white guys goes down with all hands. They've had some close calls already.

Anyways. National Geo. They had these photos, and they were really pretty great. What made them great, though, was that we'd never seen these things. These huge masses of eerily lit ice. A million penguins massed on a pure white landscape (except for the penguin shit all over, so, frame carefully!) It was amazing, it was other-worldly. So these guys, now they've made their pile and handed a great wad of it over to Phase One, are now ready to, essentially, make copies of the photos of their youth.

Sure, they've all got their own vision. This bloke likes to shoot into the sun. This chap likes starfields in the background. Whatever. It's all cheap knockoff National Geographic stuff. The novelty is now gone, and with it a tremendous amount of the magic. Plus, they never manage to make it look cold. But, whatever. They're having a blast, enjoying the adventure of a lifetime. Good on 'em.

Then there's the workshop situation. At least one outfit offers photographic workshop trips for astronomical prices and I assume that, like rats, if you see one there are more.

The outfit I have in mind generously gave away a Free Trip to a deserving photographer. I don't know what process the portly older white men used to select the deserving young talent, but this was the result:

Now here's the wonderful thing. She went. She took some pictures. And they're pretty great. They're leagues better than a fake National Geo. stuff. It's tremendous vistas with a pretty girl in a flowing gown, small in the frame. Ok, it's not exactly Steichen, it's kind of twee, but it's quite decent. She's got a visual idea and she's working it pretty hard. I'm not sure I "get it" as such, but I at least feel there's something there to not get.

Good for Michele! And good for LuLa after all, she was deserving.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Abstraction and Photography

A recent comment has inspired me to really think about this a bit, and work out what I like and what I don't like, and what I think about it all.

Abstract photography is Very Much a Thing. Macro photographs of stuff. Smoke and colored lights. Oil slicks. Intentional Camera Movement. Extreme architectural isolations. And so on and so forth. These things are quite fun to shoot, unless you're me, and they can generate very appealing pictures. Graphically powerful pictures. That sort of thing.

I think a strong case can be made, though, and I intend to make it, that abstract photography has very little to do with abstract painting.

What's going on with abstract painters? Well, there's more ideas than painters, generally, but in broad strokes when they claim to be doing is distilling things out. They're experimenting with processes, techniques, forms, which explicitly remove or alter aspects of reality specifically to distill, to emphasize something important. Perhaps they're revealing the essence of the thing they're painting. Perhaps they're summarizing emotion. Perhaps they're commenting on Art itself.

The point is that the abstraction is, as a general rule, supposed to reveal something or other. I'm sure you kind find some bloke who's gone the opposite way, but this is the commonly held idea.

Photography, in its very essence, is connected to the reality at which the camera is pointed. This is the point. That is what makes photography photography and not painting. Therefore you start out with a problem, right out of the chute. A painter is able to re-mold reality as he sees fit. This is arguably what painting is. A photographer can't, without becoming a painter. A photographer is stuck with techniques which boil down to "get close, and isolate bits and pieces" which removes reality by simply excluding it from the frame, or my blurring it into smears. It's a pretty weak-sauce version of what the painters do.

The second and really important thing is that abstract photography almost never reveals anything. In the first place its one and only technique is one of concealment. In the second place, the practitioners of abstract photographer are, for the most part, either clueless about revealing, or simply not interested in it.

Mondrian did a lot of stuff, but is famous for his primary color square things with the black lines. Whether or not he succeeded in distilling and revealing I am doubtful, but he gets full marks for giving it a shot. Notably, nobody else does this. It's not like Mondrian developed a new way of painting and now we have a whole school of painters working away with grids and stuff because it's so powerful. Nope. That's been done.

We do, however, have apparently millions of people shooting oil slicks in fish tanks with colored lights, millions of other people waving their cameras around to make smeary colorful blobs, and so on. These people have nothing to say, they just think it looks cool. If you hang about and listen to the Serious Practitioners, you'll find a lot of discussion of compositional formalism, balanced frames and so on, but they're still not trying to reveal anything.

It does look cool, and they're having a hell of a lot of fun, and that's great. But the relationship to abstract painting is non-existant.

What can you do with abstract photography?

Well, as mentioned, you can create visually interesting graphical things, eye catching pictures. You can give a new reading of something familiar, with a series of semi-abstract closeups. You could even create a new thing, I dare say. With a carefully shot series of architectural closeups of a wide, squat, building, you could build the impression of a soaring Art Deco tower. You can reveal, if you work at it.

I think it's absolutely inherent in the form that you need many photographs. Because the only technique available is to exclude, you can only get fragments. Unlike an abstract painting where you can represent, albeit in wildly compressed or modified for, the whole thing, the woman descending the staircase, or whatever, you can really only get tiny bits and pieces.

Therefore to show anything, to reveal, you really have to use collage. Literal collage, or figurative. Somehow, though, you have to give us many fragments, and help us to assemble them into the whole, revealing the whole in a new way (whether the whole is the real building, an imaginary building, or the artist's reaction to the tragedy in his life hardly matters).

A Tip. Or, A Fallacy

When you're measuring some quantity that originates with several different sources, do not assume that when the amount from one source exceeds another's, that the other's becomes irrelevant.

We see this constantly in camera land. Blah blah noise is greater than blip blip noise so we can ignore the latter. The lens is soft so there's no point using good filters. Etc.

This stuff mostly either adds together, or combines in counter intuitive ways. But it almost never vanishes.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Photographically Rich Environments

Here's a piece from Ming. For once I'm kind of neutral about it, and I didn't even look at the pictures, really.

The comments as currently trending flow with the piece, reiterating the point I am about to make, so they might be worth a skim.

The whole enterprise in which these people are engaged has the cart before the horse, or possibly they've actually got a cat in the harness backwards.

They're taking about locations, cities, and how photographically interesting or not this city is, or that, and the relative advantages to being a visitor versus a native. Ming talks about how infrequently the light is good in Kuala Lumpur.

The essential problem throughout is that these people are all shooting things. And, since they have read on the internet about The Light! They know they want 'good light'.

Who the hell wants a flattering picture of a building? There are various reasons the building's architect or owner might want some flattering pictures of it, but I certainly don't want to hang one on my wall.

If instead of photographing things, you photograph ideas, then the only quality of a location that matters is whether or not you have ideas there. I am amused that Ming finds it hard to photograph Kuala Lumpur because, basically, it looks wrong.

Nothing looks wrong. Everything looks just like itself. Why on earth would you want to shoot Kuala Lumpur like it's Chicago? Shoot it like itself and you might get something worth keeping. Shoot it like some low rent Chicago and its gonna look like a low rent Chicago.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Booklike Objects

Keith Smith makes the very reasonable point that the standard photography monograph is essentially an archive of the greatest hits. There may be some relationships between the pictures, but that is, in general, secondary to the central idea that "these are the best pictures" from whatever context you have in mind. The best ones from last year, the best ones from such and such a project, the best ones from a lifetime of labor. I've made these things myself.

You pick the best ones out, more or less, and then you put them in some kind of order, and then you press Print.

This is somewhat akin to an Greatest Hits Album (remember those?). The Eagles Greatest Hits, or whatever.

In the 1960s and 1970s, more or less, the Greatest Hits Album was kind of pooh-poohed by people like, well, by people like me. The Concept Album generally meant something poncy and overwrought, but we anyways liked albums built around some sort of an idea, where the songs went together. Ziggy Stardust, The Wall. Now, I'm sure that the artists did their best to make each song excellent, but in the end the songs had to work. They had to serve the concept, the narrative, or whatever overall thing was going on. I'm sure that hook-laden top-40 friendly songs got dropped because they wouldn't work (don't worry, there's always another album, until there isn't!)

One could argue that you ought to simply shoot a Great Picture for that one spot, instead of plugging in an inferior one just to make the structure work, but I submit that there are cases in which what is wanted is specifically not a great picture. Perhaps you want a neutral picture, or a picture that does not jump out, or a silly picture. It might, in short, be necessary for the structure that you plug in a lesser photograph, in the same way that an album composed entirely of top-40 fodder is probably going to lose structure, shape.

What do we see in these kinds of albums?

We see a lot of repetition, interestingly. Earlier numbers are reprised, usually somewhat differently, but clearly recognizable. We see a lot of quotation, but then, we see that in popular music regardless, so that's not much help here.

My favorite example here is Rod Stewart relating how he wrote one of his hits, Mandy, I think. He'd been warming up at the piano with a bit of Chopin, and then started in to work. Pretty quickly he had the bones of the song, and was feeling very smug "that harmonic progression is bloody brilliant, I am a genius" and then a little while later "bugger, actually, Chopin was a genuis."

We see songs deliberately created to fill holes in the narrative, in the idea. We see new arrangements of a prior song intended to serve a narrative which is proceeding forwards (the same song, redone in a minor key because our protagonist is now sad, that sort of thing).

We see the same ideas hammered over and over. If we haven't figured out that Pink is pretty screwed up by the end of The Wall, we're being willfully inattentive. Novelty from song-to-song is actually an impediment. A strong degree, albeit not too much, of sameness is desirable.

All of this has obvious parallels in the making of photography books and booklike objects. I can't actually just write them down, because the parallels, to my eye, explode out in 100 directions at once. I might be able to write a book about it, but it would just be a brain dump.

Two questions, to which I do not know the answers, come to mind:

  • What happens when you give someone a portfolio and say "this is a book" versus "this is a portfolio"?
  • Can you apply any of this to commercial work? Can we usefully conceive of an ad campaign, a catalog, an annual report, as a booklike object?