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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Photography, publishing and the internet

The words "photography" and "publishing" are natural bedfellows, intertwined for as long as anyone can remember. Historically speaking, the printed page was the ultimate venue for viewing a photographer's work but in recent years the internet has profoundly changed the way we look at and think about photography. So who's hogging the duvet now?

In a recent interview, Lesley Martin, publisher of the Aperture Foundation's book programme, ventured the following: "The mystery for me is that the photobook audience has become more educated, more interested, more connected to the idea of the photobook – yet for the most part, sales are not shooting through the roof to a corresponding degree."

Printing photobooks can be very expensive, meaning that print runs are usually small. Publishing online on the other hand is fast, fluid and flexible, costs a fraction of the price but offers an audience infinitely larger choice to boot. Yes, I understand the arguments; Photobooks are collectable. Photobooks offer an intimate and tactile viewing experience. Photobooks are the perfect "lap medium" as the great John Gossage famously said. And yes I am also fully aware that there is a certain stigma attached to the broad access to photography online from some fraternities of the photo world, although thankfully this is gradually fading. Image overload, viewing images on screen and the many things that can ping or pop up at you at once are just some of the common gripes from the digital naysayers. But I'm not arguing for one over the other. Frankly, I'm tired of the analogue versus digital debate. It is as inevitable as it tedious. I prefer to think that we are constantly moving, and that photographic debates and wider creative concerns provide opportunities for us to think on lateral terms, in other words, how can we arrive at a certain point from a different perspective.

What is true is that the sheer volume of images we digest on a daily basis not just on the internet but in the world around us is staggering, something that will only increase at exponential speeds in tandem with developments in technology. Camera phones, social media platforms and the Flickr ecosystem have in effect created a vast sprawling suburb of mediocrity.

So what to make of this slew of imagery? Now, more than ever, when instead of maybe going to galleries and museums we are finding ourselves more frequently viewing websites of photographers as way of discovering new work, there exists a very strong need to expose the meaningful images, promote, curate, share, and, most crucially, review and critique them intelligently.

Tiny Vices, an online gallery and image archive founded in 2005 by one time photo editor at Vice-cum-independent curator and photographer, Tim Barber, was probably the first to do its level best to respond to this challenge, and consequently helped to firmly establish the internet as a legitimate platform for disseminating photography. Offering an eclectic dip into hundreds of portfolios from artists such as Ryan McGinley and Dash Snow to Gus Powell and Craig Mammano, the website quickly become a wildly popular and accessible showcase with its well defined sensibility and thoughtful selection of work. Hundreds of new images were sent in for consideration every month in response to a continuous open call for submissions. By virtue of being web-based, Tiny Vices removed hurdles and facilitated genuine global dialogue and exchange of ideas for people who would never normally have the opportunity to interact in such a way. It fostered a great community. Such was its influence and reach that Barber was invited by Spencer Brownstone Gallery, New York to put on a physical exhibition during March, 2006. Reflecting the DIY, punk ethic of the website, it comprised a complex installation of photographs, drawings, and paintings by over sixty of the artists, well known and hitherto unknown, that had been featured online. Tiny Vices is a shining example of how two complimentary modes of production can be incorporated in an interesting and innovative way, whilst at the same time ushering in a radical rethinking of what constitutes a curator. Much could be said, much doubtless will be said about whether bloggers are the curators of the 21st Century.

Another website worthwhile bookmarking or better still saving as your home page is Jason Evans' visual diary, The Daily Nice. Presenting one image per day, his lo-fi website which first went live in 2004 consists of just one page, with just one picture on it. Familiar and spontaneous yet strangely compelling, the images taken by Evans are snapshots of commonplace situations, people, animals, objects, landscapes and the urban environment that convey a fragile, transient beauty. Evans has himself described The Daily Nice as "a retreat – a sheltered harbour, where you can rest for a minute."

Since June 2008 I have been publishing and editing 1000 Words, an independent, opinionated online magazine dedicated to contemporary photography. Released quarterly, each "issue" is loosely based on a theme, and features exhibition and photo book reviews, interviews, essays and multimedia. 1000 Words believes in merit and strives to feature works that represent creative skill, emotion, intelligence and that certain something that cannot be pinned down by words.

Whether we like it or not we are moving in an age where we will always be connected to the internet, and where the smart phone will become someone's digital identity. We are living in a time of accelerated consumption and shortened attention spans. In this information era we are allowed to – and even encouraged to – know very little but there has to be more to it than just an internet sugar rush. 1000 Words abides by the philosophy of the “slow web movement” and therefore requires you to take your time and savour what you consume.

The next issue of 1000 Words - Hidden - will hit the digital shelves 13 May.

This article was originally published by Raconteur Media and appeared in The Times, Saturday 23 April, 2011.