This is old news: a lot of creatives are worried about the internet. They’re worried that they are losing control over their work and that they will lose control over their income. They should be worried, of course, the same old business models might not work anymore. At the same time, there are so many opportunities out there that didn’t exist before, and just like putting in a little time in a local community based arts initiative, putting in some time on the internet can net some serious gains.
Every artist knows about fighting to get by. We don’t have an employer health care system and we don’t have an hourly wage. Sometimes it’s easy to be cynical and bottom line everything to the mouths you have to feed (now or in the future.) It’s important to remember that most other people in your field have similar problems, and a little intelligent cooperation can benefit everyone. If we get past the fear associated with competition and see the strength in working with others, there’s a lot to gain.
I’m going to have to deal with this from the perspective of a photographer, though I know a lot of the concerns are applicable to different types of art. Much of this fear is specific to our times – there are those that tell us that they could take the same digital photo with their new camera or think they are a digital artist just because they know some photoshop filters. It’s that fear that usually would stop us from helping a newcomer to town set up a photo store right next door. We then think it extends to helping someone set up a website. Except it doesn’t – artists are very rarely direct competition online.
Just because someone has a website does not mean they’re going to take traffic away from you (unless they unfortunately share your first and last name.) In fact, setting up a community of websites can do a lot to further the causes of an artist. This can be seen particularly in the photographic community where bloggers constantly support each other’s projects. Zoe Strauss, for example, released a book this week called America: We Love Having You Here, and it’s already been featured in several blogs. Just by linking back and forth with periodic posts to each other’s projects, photographers drive traffic around the web in surprising numbers.
It could take less than a minute to make a post of work you like and it’s easy for the recipient to see where the traffic is coming from. Getting involved with discussions, sending a few jpgs in emails, and continuously linking to good work can help you as much as it helps the community as a whole. Everyone loves getting featured and everyone loves seeing new art.
Personal websites and blogs are only the first step. Once you’ve got a good personal presence, then it’s a good time to make sure you’ve got a bit of a social networking presence as well. A lot of people do this backwards – they get a MySpace and put it on their business card “temporarily.” This is a mistake, as that business card is a physical object – there is nothing temporary about it. Domains can cost less than ten dollars. Buy an easy to remember one that you probably won’t change – yourname.com is always a classic – and stick with it. Then build your Facebook or Myspace profiles, with a prominent link to your domain.
The objective here is to participate in community while driving traffic back to your website – not compete with your website for attention. You can use these profiles to communicate with other professionals and fans, but it’s not the place for your portfolio. It’s great to have – a lot of galleries, contests, and art fans have them and you can get a steady stream of invites to art functions and competitions while sending out invites to your own events. Some speakers I’ve heard have said they’re always unprofessional – but if it’s good for MOMA and Jen Bekman, I’d say it’s good for you too.
For a lot of people, this is probably going to be the extent of online community building. For some, it’s just the start. If you’re comfortable with your small corner of the web – your personal website, blog, and social networking pages – you might want to start branching out and run some community projects. It isn’t for everyone, but some donated time can help a lot of fellow artists, be a really educational experience, and have some visible benefit for yourself as well.
One person who has talked about how free projects can help revitalize the photographic community is the prominent photography industry blogger Rob Haggart. He started his tell all blog A Photo Editor (APE) while working for Men’s Journal and Outside Magazine. The blog often discussed the changes in the industry caused by online distribution. He put his money (well, time in this case) where his mouth was when he decided to create and curate a free folio of work online.
The goal of this project was to create a Blackbook like database of work without the work displayed being based on the money put in – his theory was that the editorial industry was losing out by looking at books controlled by the amount of money the creatives had to advertise themselves instead of the quality of the work. The final selection is now up at FolioBrowser.com.
I contacted Rob to ask him how the project turned out for him. He told me that he saw the free projects as “experiments.” He continues, “I wanted to see how difficult it would be to assemble and if it would work. It’s interesting though because when you’re thinking free you know it’s not going to be perfect…” Since he didn’t want the design to look cheap and unprofessional – “That’s a huge mistake” – he says he ended up getting a business partner involved to bring it together. “Ultimately I proved that something like that can be very useful. Lots of people found photographers and lots of photographers got jobs because of it.” There was a business benefit for Rob as well: his partnership evolved into a new company at APhotoFolio.com that builds portfolio websites for photographers.
Since I’ve participated in his FolioBrowser project, I’ve seen a few good hits from the site myself – visitors that stayed longer on the site compared to visitors from many other sources. We talked a bit about how it benefits photographers to have their images available to browse through on such projects: “Yeah, the idea is that the photographers are vetted first so you know the results are good. Then there’s a preview image so you know when you visit it’s because you’re interested in the photographer to give them a job and that leads to an extended visit.”
The FolioBrowser project succeeded in part because of Rob’s prior success as a photo editor and blogger. You don’t have to be well known, though, to start a community based project. Lindley Warren is a young photographer currently located in the Netherlands and her project started mainly as a collaboration between herself and other young photographers she knew on Flickr.
It was called The Ones We Love, and had a simple guideline on a simple website: “Each artist contributed six photographs of the person(s) who is most important to them, taken outdoors in a natural setting.” The work was beautiful and people passed the website around the internet, crashing it a few times, and many more photographers submitted images through the email on the website.
After being featured on Wired.com and with JPG magazine possibly doing a print feature, a little time spent putting together some community images seems to have gone a long way. I asked Lindley what she learned from the project and how it’s benefited her personally. She tells me “One thing I’ve learned about myself though is that I’m obsessed with how text and images relate. I love having people say things through their photos — with some way of words. I’ve found I want these people’s image to actually speak and say something– to somehow be valuable.”
However, she says “it has been annoying at times” because she’s so overwhelmed with emails trying to submit – “I became really jaded for a while, but I just had to take a break for a bit and just ignore emails more or less for about a month.”
She mentions “As far as my own publicity, I’m not really sure … It was funny to see my name in Elle magazine, it was the first time anyone here where I lived seemed interested in my project or thought it was something cool.” She may be underselling herself, as TheOnesWeLove.org is the top result for the phrase on Google, outperforming album names, and several more We Projects are currently underway, including Where We’re From already online.
These two free-entrepreneurs are the tip of the iceberg, of course. The beauty of the internet is that your project doesn’t need to take any particular form. FlakPhoto.com is a complex rotating gallery showcase created by Andy Adams. Women in Photography (at wipnyc.org), started by Cara Phillips and Amy Elkins, uses a simple one post per page blog format to feature curated solo shows of work. Noel Rodo-Vankeulen’s photography blog We Can’t Paint recently expanded to include an online photography magazine, Wassenaar and a gallery where he features other photographers work along with his own.
These people, all photographers themselves, are prominent members in an online community dedicated to supporting the art by supporting each other. There are no fees to submit to their websites and no fees to view them – but growing the community as a whole benefits everyone involved.
It all comes back to a philosophy described by Rob Haggart in our interview, one about sharing your images as much as possible instead of restricting them to one specific physical gallery or internet site: “[The internet is] massive and you need to place yourself for casual encounters.” You could try and email a link to your website to everyone who you think might be interested, but it’s not as effective.
He continues, “Everyone knows how to get into someone’s face with their work but how do you get someone to run into you? Because that’s a more powerful experience. The only way is to do projects that will be distributed and participate in all manner of sites that are right for your work because in this day and age you never know where a client may come from and sometimes consumers can turn into clients.”
Posted, along with full text from interviews, at CMYK Magazine Blog