Monday, August 22, 2016

"Art" Blogs as a Business

Chris Gampat's ongoing quest to turn talking about black and white art photography into a business got me to thinking, is there a business here? Let's poke at a few numbers.

First, let's suppose that the language in question is English (if you're dealing with Mandarin Chinese the situation is a somewhat better). We've got about 1 billion people on the planet who speak English, and let us suppose that all of them read it fluently enough to follow an English-language blog. We're erring on the side of generosity.

Let us also assume that all these people have cell phones and internet access, again, a bit generous. They probably all also have a camera in their phone.

Suppose 1 in 100 of those people has some interest in Photography as a thing they might like to read about. That gives 10 million people who might read some English-language photography content, and let's say, I dunno, 20 percent of those are the sort of people to become regular readers of something other than facebook or whatever the major social media sites are. That leaves us 2 million people.

Given that sites like PetaPixel and DPReview and whatnot seem to clock in around (very vague estimates) 100,000-200,000 regular readers and probably roughly the same number of casual/occasionals, it feels like we're in the ballpark. Those 2 million are going to be spread around a bit over the half dozen or so majors, many of them will have found more niche-y homes, and so on. 2 million is at least a credible number.

Now, what percentage of those are going to be interested in Art & Culture? 10%? 1%? You're looking at a total global market of, estimating generously, 200,000 people. Of that population, let's say 1 in 4 finds your particular take on things interesting enough to read your output from time to time, you're down to 50,000 people. In total.

If you capture 100% of those generously estimated 50,000 readers you can not make a living. Let me re-phrase that. You cannot make a living as a pure media play. There's just not enough money there.

Google AdSense says they think I could make $12 a month on my blog, which has maybe 200-400 readers (in my 50,000 readers sense, so including the casual drive-bys as well as the regular/daily readers). Scaling up to those 50,000 readers (250x), AdSense clocks in at $3000 a month. To capture that market, you're probably spending some money on content, or at least on staff and infrastructure, so there's less money even than that. Maybe AdSense sucks and the real number ought to be more like $6000 a month, if you did the advertising right.

Now, if you chose to make the blog a marketing vehicle for selling something else, services or products, than there might be a business here. But nobody's making a living with a Photography Art E-Magazine, there is literally only a few thousand bucks a month -- globally -- on the table here.

And, to be honest, I think that the real number is more like 5,000 (1% are interested in Art and Culture, not 10%). I've been writing this blog for a while, and every now and then I place a piece somewhere else or get a high-visibility link. There's a spike in traffic, but in a week or two it backs off to the baseline. I think I've tapped my market out pretty completely. There's probably a bit of turnover, people get bored, new people discover photothunk, but I'm pretty sure this is it. Maybe I could quadruple my readership or something, with the right sort of push? That's generous, I think.

So, $48 a month. For, I admit, a pretty fringe blog. Go more mainstream, generate 10x the money! $500/month.

There's no business here. I'm not gonna monetize you guys, because there are easier ways to get $12/month, when you get right down to it.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Blackmon, Balthus, and Callahan

Here's a piece from ToP a while back. He's talking about Julie Blackmon and possible (almost certain) references to Balthus paintings in her work. Commenter S. Latkovic remarks that Harry Callahan (the photographer, although it's also perfectly possible that Dirty Harry did as well) also had a bit of a thing for Balthus.

Now look at this, from Callahan. Portugal, 1982:

For reference I'll include the Blackmon (2012):

And the Balthus (1954):

While I certainly agree that there appear to be references, the dates strike me as consistent with Blackmon referencing Callahan just as much as Balthus. There are specific elements in hers that appear to be borrowed from both pictures.

Interesting, huh? Sometimes the referents are tangled up more than seems at first obvious.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Grumpy Notes from Here and There

Over on PetaPixel we find a complaint that it's hard to make a living teaching photography, with, to the author's credit, some ideas about what to do about it. The elephant in the room here is that photography is easy, now. Those motivated, interested, students that are a joy to teach are motivated enough to figure out almost all this stuff on their own, or by spending a few bucks on a craftsy course, as needed.

The main impediment to new photographers is old photographers with their stupid advice. I am watching a tragic conversation unfold in which a guy wants to shoot product for his eBay store in which some doofuses on the internet are trying to teach him how to use strobes. He was using continuous light (totally appropriate, a 100x easier), but switched to some sort of strobed light. Probably because some old photographer suggested it.

Ming Thein has a hilarious post in which he reveals to the world the shocking news that image stabilization technology is not perfect, and also makes some fascinating`accusations that I have not read elsewhere (IS components will wear and the image quality will degrade over time, and IS components may not lock in the right position when IS is turned off). It strikes me as almost certainly an apologia for Hasselblad. Whether written at their behest, or whether it's his own idea, I cannot guess, but I note that either is possible.

Also, he doesn't know anything about control systems. Sample rate and shutter speed? What?

Finally, Mike J over on ToP has this interesting post about little details. The obsession with little details is a fascinating study in the world of photography. You can generally sell your obsession with little details as simply being a super-awesome professional photographer, and sometimes it's even true. More commonly, though, it's about avoiding the big questions. If you fuss endlessly over tiny details, then you never have to worry about whether the picture is any good, if the project is any good, if your work is any good. Photography, being endlessly fiddly but ultimately pretty easy, lends itself especially well to this sort of thing.

You can't do this with ballet, because nobody is going to fail to notice that your feet are all over the place while you're fussing with finger positions. You can't do it with sculpture, or drawing, or architecture. It's actually pretty hard to get to a half-decent looking result at all so your obsession with chisel-work, line weight, or mullions, isn't going to distract people from the ugly lump you've made. As a camera user, though, once you figure out how to focus the damn thing, your rotten flower picture looks pretty much like a flower. You can start rattling on about tonal placement, light modifiers, or microcontrast, or something, and there's a chance people won't notice that you suck.

Friday, August 19, 2016

How Did We Get Here?

PetaPixel recently published a link to a youtube video breaking down the lighting in some photo made by some guy, Karl Taylor. For all I know Karl Taylor is some huge deal, but I've never heard of him and his web site suggests that mainly he teaches people how to Do Photography. Anyways, this picture is sort of typical of a low-rent wanna-bee fashion photographer.

This is, of course, receiving accolades, and people totally wanted to know how he did it etcetera and so forth. And I dare say the breakdown is a good teaching tool for how to spot the light sources. But just look at this stupid thing.

There are three obvious light sources here, with three completely different characters (but all the same color), two of them are on the floor and yet, somehow, the result is still kind of muddy and indistinct.

It's time to come out and say it. Having light sources all over the goddamned place just looks stupid. Yes, yes, I get that you want to show off every little detail of the girl, or the chair, or the car, whatever. Figure out how to do it without looking like you just shoved lights in all over the place because, let us review, it just looks stupid.

How the hell did we get here? Is this just a plot by the lighting companies to sell more crap? Is it some sort of weird technical challenge to see how many lights you can stick in there? Are photographers too lazy to figure out how to show off the object without simply hitting it with light from every angle? Is it basically an easy way to make the picture look expensive and "done"? How the hell did we get here?

For the record, actual fashion photography looks nothing whatsoever like this except that it has hot girls in it. Car photography looks a little like this, possibly because it is very hard to show off both the lines and the wheels without lights all over the place, if you want that nighttime look, which sometimes you do.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


Chris Gampat is at it again, trying to figure out how to turn an almost total lack of ability and a bunch of enthusiasm into a business. He really really really wants to do some kind of magazine based around black&white photography, which is a worthy goal. It just happens to be beyond his skills, and is in fact a very very high wall to climb.

Don Quixote here got me to thinking, though. How would I do it?

The concept I arrived at very suddenly but after quite a lot of noodling on it, is a 'zine called "Gesture", stealing from Jay Maisel. His recent book Light, Gesture, & Color defines his rather personal and idiosyncratic notion of "Gesture" as, roughly, the essence of the thing itself. Maisel tries to do it one frame at a time, with varying success.

This is something I am interested in, the uncharitable might say that I harp on it endlessly. My opinion, oft-repeated, is that the essence of the thing is best got at photographically with multiple pictures, a photo essay, a portfolio.

So this mythical "Gesture" magazine would feature one photo-essay per issue, which gets at the essence of the thing in some way. The artist gets a few column inches of text. I get a few column inches of text. And then there are pictures. Black and white, it's called "Gesture", not "Gesture & Color". Artists selected by me, edited by me, judged by me.

Online and print, funded by a Patreon and whatever sales of the print edition happen. Shoot for once a month. Published on the 1st of the month, every month, every other month, every sixth month, as time and available content permit. Pay the artists.. something. Maybe not much, but always something. "Corporate structure" to be determined. Print edition delivery model to be determined.

It's just a concept. I'm not going to do it this year. I have no time and too many projects already. I'm probably never going to do it. Feel free to steal it and go for it. Let me know if you do, I might buy a copy. Indeed, we could all of us do this 'zine, and every one would be different, every one would probably be worth something.

See MagCloud and its competitors as a starting point.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Sally Mann, What Remains

I've been living pretty continuously with this book for, I dunno, a month or something. I've seen many of the pictures from it before, I watched the movie, but this is the first time I've had the book in my hands. It's not an easy book. Unless you are new here, you know I am a certified fanboy, and you will likely guess that my reaction is positive. That is an accurate guess. I think I have more to say, however.

I'm going to refer to the artist here as Sally, because she's been rubbing my nose in some pretty intimate stuff for the last month, and I feel like at least in this narrow little region we might as well be on a first name basis. After this we're straight back to Mrs. Mann, though.

First the particulars, a catalog of what we're looking at. Four sections, three of them shot wet plate, one on large format sheet film.

The first section, "Matter Lent" is wet plate, and comes in two pieces. Pictures of Sally's dog Eva after disinterment, and of Eva's dressed pelt, removed before interment. This is followed by pictures of human corpses on the body farm in Tennessee. This bit is about the flesh itself after the organism dies. (notice how I wrote that, "the organism dies") It is frequently stomach-churning, and always very hard to look at.

Next up is "December 8, 2000", sepia toned, quite pale, sheet film photographs of the site of a suicide on Sally's farm in Virginia, together with one color snapshot of the police cars and so forth surrounding the area of the suicide. The pictures look a bit like salt prints, or possibly albumen. Possibly they are, or possibly it's just a look that felt right. With a bit of melodrama, one might imagine they are, somehow, printed with blood. They certainly stand out from the collodion work. Thematically, this is the land where death occurs. The earth to which the flesh returns.

Then we have "Antietam" featuring wet plate photos of civil war battlefields (or, for all I know, just one), following the theme of the land where death occurred into the past. These are lyrical landscapes, printed very dark, demanding and rewarding close inspection. This section emphasizes a trend from the ugly/grotesque to the beautiful.

The book wraps up with "What Remains", close-up long exposures, also wet plate, of Sally's impossibly beautiful children, now impossibly beautiful adults. This is a little spot of affirmation and life, perhaps. The title suggests that these are what remain behind, but I think there might reasonably be seen a little more in these pictures.

The phrase "What Remains" in the English language is pretty marvelously ambiguous, a point which was surely not lost on the infernally erudite Sally Mann. You can read it as "That which is left behind." or "How wonderful are these things left behind!" or "What are the the things that are left behind?" or "Things left behind? There's nothing left behind, what are you talking about?" and probably several others. The phrase is applied both to the pictures of the children, and the book itself. Make of it what you will, but I assume that all apply.

The book is most assuredly sequenced. This isn't some greatest hits monograph, every picture has its place, its reason. There is real flow to these things.

We see progressions toward increasingly ruinous failures of the the collodion process, along with other progressions of light to dark, or increasing degrees abstraction. The "Antietam" section ends with pictures that could be abstract charcoal sketches, "What Remains" ends with milky white pictures with fragments of faces, lips and eyes. There's a plan here, many plans, really. Echoed forms, progressions, references forward and backward. This wasn't tossed together, this was carefully constructed from what I suspect is an enormous body of material. The sheer amount of labor involved here is staggering. Wet plate ain't for sissies.

There is a progression in time, from the decay of flesh, to the land, and back around to the living, which carries with it a progression from the ugly to the beautiful. There's a stick on the Mann farm that I swear shows up on a battlefield.

Now. Onwards to the important part. Time to wake back up.

And now I could dig in to the material, and go on about the bravery of the artist to confront these difficult issues, of death and dying. I could prance around the edges and talk about the artistry and skill she brings to depicting these things, how amazing it is that she found beauty in these dreadful things, blah blah blah. Alternatively I could rattle on about how awful the subject matter is, and rail against the artist, how dare she, etc and so on.

I'm not going to. You can find plenty of this crap out there if you look. (actually, if you look, it's much worse. most reviewers were clearly afraid to talk about the work itself at all.)

What Sally is up to here is something quite different. Sally is a fucking heard-headed cuss who does not dabble in bullshit. There are really only two ways to cope with this material. The first is to ignore it, which you can do perfectly well by talking endlessly about everything except the work and what it might mean. I did it above, blathering about "the organism," it's extremely hard not to.

The second way is to confront it, and see your own mortality, and deal with that as best you can.

This book is about death. Not dying, not the beautiful imagery of the soul departing for more pleasant climes, not the celebration of life lived, not the tragic and beautiful reaction of society to death, none of the usual stuff. This is about death and decay, the essentials of the thing. The soil, the worms, the return to dust (a surprisingly gummy, liquid, sticky journey, it turns out). And then Sally does something remarkable, if you are open she will grab you by the scruff of the neck and insist:

This. Is. Beautiful.

Sally has used her substantial powers to build a collection which echoes the decay and destruction she's interested in, and which is also beautiful, meaningful. Here it all is, no window dressing, no artifice. No attempt to conceal the stickiest, the most grotesque, the most appalling elements, and yet... and yet there is beauty here. Sally is right. This thing, this death business, is many things, but one of those things is beautiful.

This book has the potential to change you deeply, if you are open. Because she's right. It is horrifying to contemplate, it is ugly, sticky, grotesque. And it is beautiful. It is the most natural and normal thing in the world, to return to the soil, to return our matter to nature for her reuse.

The book gains a dimension now with Emmett's death. The "What Remains" section is cast, for us, in a new light. The photographs of the children finish the book with life. These pictures remind us that the decayed flesh, becoming soil, comes back around eventually as new life. Now we are reminded that these too will pass away, and begin anew. Sally was perfectly aware of this, of course. You can see it in the progression of pictures, as the end with the barest traces of ghostly faces lightly impressed on a milky surface.

Emmett's death is surely a tremendous loss and source of sorrow for those near him. For most of us, though, we out here who don't know the Mann family, it is something else. A faraway loss. We can do the usual thank goodness it's not me or mine or however we generally take these things. But we are also granted a new view of this work, to understand and maybe to accept a little better this inevitable end that awaits us.

I thought for a little while that perhaps the present book might be viewed in opposition to the Dylan Thomas poem, "Do not go gentle into that good night" but upon contemplation I think they are simply talking about different things. Nature, the land, the soil, they care nothing if you rage or no against the dying of the light. Rage or no, they will wait. The land has all the time in the world. Where Thomas's poem leaves off is where Sally's pictures start, really, after the rage is burned out, at a point of serenity and a kind of calm.

Sally starts the book out with these lines penned by Jacques-BĂ©nigne Bossuet, from his "On Death, a Sermon". One supposes that they're appropriate, and they certainly seem to relate to the pictures:

All things summon us to death;
Nature, almost envious of the good she has given us,
Tells us often and gives us notice that she cannot
For long allow us that scrap of matter she has lent...
She has need of it for other forms,
She claims it back for other works.

And is that not, in its own dreadful way, beautiful?

The land, the soil, nature, they're going to take care of you. It's OK.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Ultimate Counter-Example?

Take a look at this picture:

I can't think of a single rule of composition that this thing doesn't violate. Rule of Thirds? Dynamic Symmetry? Golden Anything? Clean Edges? Don't lead the eye out of the frame? Subject isolation? Point of highest contrast "draws the eye"? Level the horizon? Everything. Try your own favorites out to see if this thing passes them. I'm not even sure he's got the focus on his subjects.

What is it? Robert Frank. "US 90, Texas, 1955". It's better than any photograph I've ever taken. How 'bout you?

Why does it work? Because of the things in it. The people we find after a moment and inspect are wonderfully interesting and sympathetic. We find them without any trouble, we don't need leading lines. The bright headlight which, in amateur critique parlance would no doubt "totally kill it" is in fact a total non-issue in terms of finding the subject, and is vital to the life of the frame. The junk around the edge of the frame doesn't matter, because we find the people instantly, and everything else is less important.

Frank framed it to include the antenna and the headlight, and to give his subjects breathing room in the frame (the antenna and the headlight don't need it), and maybe to eliminate other people in the car. That's why the horizon is cattywumpus, but I bet you didn't even notice that until I pointed it out to you.

It's a terrific photo, which nails a certain time and place, and a feeling. That sensation of being pulled over out in the middle of noplace, USA, is distinctive and instantly recognizable. Because Frank got the right things into the frame, "composition" be damned. (To be fair, and to toot my own horn a little, I think one could argue that Ruskin might find some things to approve of, but he wasn't really a "rules" guy and he also sort of actually knew a few things.)

Next time you see some maroon going on about some sort of rule or method of composition, pull this one out and see what you think.