Blogs are not a new phenomenon. But I think in the photo world they have really only taken off this year, with a remarkably large number of new blogs appearing (if I tried to provide a list it would end up being incomplete). What is interesting is that more and more established photographers now have a blog presence. Alec Soth’s (relatively) new blog might have made the biggest splash recently, and since Alec and I have been talking about aspect of blogging occasionally, I thought we might as well talk about blogs and their impact in public.
Jörg Colberg: You started your blog about three months ago, and it has quickly become a major presence in the photo blog world. What experiences have you made so far with the blog? Did you anticipate the amount of feedback?
Alec Soth: These three months have been a real eye-opener. I had a couple of reasons for starting the blog, but when I made the leap it was really just a whim. I didn’t plan on taking it too seriously. I assumed I would only update it a few times a month. But things quickly changed. First of all, I suddenly had an audience. That was a huge surprise. But more importantly I discovered that I had a real hunger for the exchange of ideas. I’m extremely lucky to make my living as an artist, but the lifestyle isn’t very romantic. I spend the bulk of my time dealing with office work (printing, shipping, billing, pricing, etc). Since I have a family, I’m not hanging out in smoky lofts debating aesthetics. The blog has become my virtual smoky loft.
JC: As far as I can tell, there are basically two types of blogs, those that get started and then aborted after two or three weeks, and all the other ones that stay around and then often evolve, just like a photo project might evolve from an original idea into something that can be quite different. Have you noticed something like that happening with your blog? Are you still in control of your blog, or has it already claimed a life of its own (demanding to be fed every day)?
AS: Oh, yeah, it has definitely gotten out of control. I often describe it as another baby screaming to be fed. I love it, but jeez. A month ago I was in a bar in New York (not smoky) and I met the blogger and gallerist Edward Winkleman. He introduced me to his partner whom he called his ‘blog widow.’ I had never heard the term. But my wife understands it. I’m trying to work on strategies to solve this problem. I recently went on vacation in the Rockies and didn’t have an internet connection. It felt good to shut the whole thing down for a while.
The blog has also evolved. One change is that I’m mostly steering clear of negative commentary about other artists. I wrote one sort of playful post about an artist that ended up coming back to bite me. The artist was ticked off. And I understand him. I’m not a critic. And I wouldn’t be too happy reading about other artists ripping on my work. If that wasn’t bad enough, my snippy little comment was quoted in the Washington Post. That woke me up to the reality that I have an audience and that having an audience requires some degree of thoughtfulness.
JC: That’s something I’ve noticed about the internet, that unless you make it absolutely and completely clear what you mean someone will take offence (so irony is out unless you make it so extreme that it’s really no fun any longer) and will send you a nasty email. But in a sense, it’s a bit… how can I say itÂ… limiting if you can’t be just honest and say “well, I don’t like XXX’s work” or “YYY is really always shooting the same stuff, and I’m getting bored”. I can understand how you now want to stay clear of that, but on the other side, if we never get to see opinions like that on blogs we might end up in a bit of a weird world. Or is that something we should leave to the critics?
AS: There was recently an article in the New York Times about the death of literary feuds. There used to be a tradition of authors publicly criticizing each other. It still happens (Updike and Wolfe, Mailer and everyone), but has become increasingly rare. It is a shame, I suppose, because it is cause for passion and debate. And certainly blogs are a place for passion and debate. So I think it is fine for artists to engage in that kind of dialog. I would love to read it. I’ve just decided, for now, not to write it. I don’t need the headache.
JC: So if a photographer colleagues asked you about starting her or his own blog what would you say?
AS: Great question. Hard question. But I’d say if the photographer desires that kind of interaction it is a good thing to do. As a matter of fact, I sent a letter to all of the Magnum photographers recommending that we start a blog.
The one caveat is that blogging is probably bad for one’s reputation in the art world. The art world is built on exclusivity. Blogs are built on availability. Most art stars don’t even have websites for fear of appearing pedestrian. But photography, for me, is a pedestrian art. It is democratic and accessible. So I participate in the blogosphere knowing full well that it probably hurts my art-world reputation.
JC: This year (2006) might be the year when photo blogs or, more accurately, blogs about photography (to separate them from those blogs where people each day post a photo they took) became somewhat more accepted and noticed. There are lots of new blogs around now, and many photographers themselves have started a personal blog. Are we really seeing the emergence of something new that play a non-negligible role in the photo world? And if so, what could that “something new” be?
AS: Over time the Internet has made a profound shift toward content. In the beginning, we were all excited about Flash, bells and whistles. But content has become king. Photographers are content providers. The problem with traditional photography websites (like www.alecsoth.com) is that the same content sits there day after day. The emergence of blogs comes out of a desire to strip away flashy adornment and cut to the content.
JC: Â…And it’s tempting to show work during the process, so the audience might see photos that won’t make it into the book or gallery. It’s not obvious that that’s necessarily good, though. Any thoughts?
AS: Different strokes for different folks. I don’t even show my wife work-in-progress, much less thousands of strangers. But I appreciate artists who have that kind of transparency. I’m a fan of Zoe Strauss’s blog. She’ll post a few different exposures and ask which people think is the best. Zoe thrives on transparency. It is fabulous. But I could never imagine doing it myself.
JC: The internet certainly has brought about quite a few changes. One of them is the shortening of Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” to what feels like 15 seconds. One day, you’re a kid playing with your fake lightsaber in front of a video camera, the next morning, everybody watches you on Youtube, and that afternoon, you’re already more of less forgotten. Are you concerned that photo blogs might contribute to this kind of development?
AS: I would never be comfortable planting my flag entirely in digital soil. I’ve actually spent a lot of time on the blog discussing my frustrations with the transient nature of digital media. I’m a big believer in books and prints. And they are my priority. My website is more like a business card. My blog, as stated before, is my smoky loft.
JC: It might sound a bit weird to bring this up, but from my own experience it actually isn’t. It’s a variation of the “haves” versus the “have nots” - in this case, the photographers who have websites (that one can link to) and those that do not have a website. I sometimes see very interesting work somewhere in print, and then there’s no website to link to. I see this as a major concern, especially since it might introduce a generational problem, where lots of older photographers simply don’t even register on the radar screen because they don’t have websites. What do you think about this?
AS: I think it is a problem. It is an even bigger problem if photographers don’t have galleries or agents with websites. On my blog I discussed the recently deceased photographer Denis Cameron. He has neither a book nor a website. His archive exists on an agency website but is nearly impossible to find. In an article in a 1980 issue of Leica magazine, Cameron wrote, “Our work is to record our world and history will judge us from what we leave behind. Pictures will be our epitaph.” I worry that by being invisible on the web, Cameron’s epitaph will be invisible.