The New York Times on the New Art of Flickr

Lomo Aqui-Ali
Aqui-Ali, one of the Flickr photographer’s mentioned in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine article.

Virginia Heffernan – The Medium – Television – Internet Video – Media – Flickr – Photography – New York Times

The New York Times Magazine has an interesting article that will run in this weekend’s paper on the new art represented by Flickr and online photography.

The article contrasts the predominant popular styles on Flickr with the old fine art photography of the past. I was interviewed for the article.

Personally I believe that one of the greatest things that Flickr represents is a new democratization of fine art photography.

For the past 100 years, much of what the world considers fine art photography has been bestowed upon us by a very small handful of influential gatekeepers. Literally, at any given time, probably less than 100 people control 95% of what the world is told to consider fine art. These are a few major museum curators, select gallery owners, and other influencers. These individuals not only control the prices that fine art photography will fetch, they quite literally control what is considered the best fine art in the world today. They tell people what photography ought to be deemed great and what ought to be deemed amateurish.

With the advent of the web much of this is changing. In the past without the cooperation of the art elite most photographers saw their work fade into obscurity. Sure, they might win a bronze sticker at the local county fair for their photograph, but really nobody would ever see it.

Today the web is allowing a new breed of photographer as artist. An artist that is increasingly able to bypass the fine art elite and promote their work directly to the public. Although the fine art prices have not yet been attached to today’s new “Flickr Famous” photographer, this too will come in time. Step one is simply getting the exposure.

One of the stories that I conveyed to Virginia Heffernan, the reporter at the Times who wrote this article, was a story of a Cartier-Bresson photograph which a critique group of Flickr shouted down as inferior photography without knowing it was an actual Cartier-Bresson. While one take away from that story might be that the general Flickr community simply has poor taste in art, another take away might be to question the previously unquestionable. Was Cartier-Bresson actually that good? And would his work stand up today as it has in the past?

Many in the fine art and photography community would immediately label me as heretical for suggesting the possibility that Cartier-Bresson, regarded by many as the finest photographer the world’s ever known, might not be all that he’s made out to be.

And yet Cartier-Bresson prints sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, while my Flickr famous Pal Merkley sells his prints online himself for hundreds of dollars instead.

But the mainstream press is beginning to take notice of the new trends in fine art photography that are beginning to take form on Flickr. For some of the photographers mentioned in the NY Times article this is a whoo-hoo moment. The NEY YORK F***ING TIMES!

But mark my words. The naysayers will be here shortly. The fine art world has a lot to lose. Literally millions. But more significantly, control. Control over what is good fine art and what is not. Right now the the wealthy patrons that they advise still believe in what they push. But as the marketing of art by a talented new bunch of artists and photographers learn their very same promotional techniques — it won’t be long.

And this is what the internet does best. Tears down old ways of seeing the world and brings entirely new ones.

Don’t get what I’m saying wrong. I do believe that some of the photographers that the fine art world has historically bestowed as worthy are very much in fact worthy. But there are many new photographers that I believe are every bit as worthy. And I think that they too will begin to see the success that they equally deserve — even without an MFA, even without networking like hell with the fine art crowd, even without the right group shows or whatever that civ thing is that the fine art types tend to obsess over, and even without being 21 and beautiful and just the right type that just the right curator likes to sleep with.

Worthwhile reading: Merkley’s treatise, “I’m Not a Photographer.”

NY Times article on digg here.

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  1. j03 says:

    You believe people shouldn’t have to work to make their opinion matter. If someone likes something that’s good enough for them and good enough for you. The opinion of any idiot off the street or on the internet is equally valid to someone who has spent years in earnest studying fine art.

    But I say what’s popular isn’t necessarily good.

    Do Ashley Simpson and Fall Out Boy make the best music the world has ever known?

    Does McDonalds make the best hamburgers?

    Flickr’s interestingness is, and has been for years, exactly the same boring photos repeated thousands upon thousands of times:

    macro flowers, cute children, “gorgeous” sunsets, 22-year-old girls’ self-portraits, dogs in the grass, cats sniffing flowers, a solitary tree, and very little of visual interest to anybody who’s actually taken the time to study at photography as an art.

    You can take a snapshot of flickr “interestingness” from the last 7 days and compare it to “interestingness” a year ago, and the year before that. It never changes. I doubt very much you’d be able to tell the difference between an “interestingness” page from today or two years ago.

    They should rename it forever stale.

    I find it amusing that you’d actually say that some random internet morons that thought the HCB was inferior might have been right. If you really believe that, I guess you’ll have to take my critique seriously. Won’t you?

  2. Thomas Hawk says:

    Flickr’s interestingness is, and has been for years, exactly the same boring photos repeated thousands upon thousands of times:

    Personally I don’t think that Flickr’s algorithm is any better at presenting fine art than the gatekeepers that largely present it today.

    But also certainly fine art exists on Flickr, even if not chosen by Flickr’s own algorithm.

  3. j03 says:

    Well then I’m confused about what you mean by “democratization of fine art photography.”

    If your “democratization” isn’t popularity as voted on by the population of flickr users, what is it?

    Flickr’s interestingness algorithm isn’t looking at the photos, it’s looking at votes: favorites, comments and views. Interestingness is, for all intents and purposes, a popularity contest… aka “democracy.”

    I agree that fine art exists on flickr.. but I’ve never seen what I would consider fine art gain any popularity on flickr… for a variety of reasons, but chief among them: artists don’t care what anyone else thinks of what they’re doing.

    They’re using flickr to share with their friends, colleagues and other trusted people.

    But aside from all that, my main gripe with your apparent position is that you seem to think the work someone puts in towards an MFA or even as an independent artist doesn’t make them any better than any average joe on the street at making aesthetic choices.

    If that’s true, designers are a lie and have nothing to offer. Anyone can layout a magazine. Anyone can design a sky scraper. Anyone can take a fine art photo.

    I’m not saying they can’t. I’m saying it takes hard work and dedication to a craft.

  4. Thomas Hawk says:

    Well then I’m confused about what you mean by “democratization of fine art photography.”

    The ability to cheaply showcase your work to hundreds, if not thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and in some cases millions of people.

    At no point has distribution of fine art photography been easier or cheaper than it is today.

    This opens up photography in ways that it has never been opened up before.

    I agree that fine art exists on flickr.. but I’ve never seen what I would consider fine art gain any popularity on flickr..

    Vicky Slater just got 23 favorites on this photo:

    That’s pretty popular.

    I also consider it fine art.

    But aside from all that, my main gripe with your apparent position is that you seem to think the work someone puts in towards an MFA or even as an independent artist doesn’t make them any better than any average joe on the street at making aesthetic choices.

    Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I think that vision trumps training in art 99% of the time.

    Anyone can layout a magazine.


    Anyone can design a sky scraper.

    Yes. But it would need to pass engineering standards which are more science than art to actually be built.

    Anyone can take a fine art photo.

    Assuming they have vision, yes.

  5. vicky says:

    I agree that much of ‘interestingness’ on Flickr is very similar and does tend to favour the over processed digital image but part of the reason why is because it doesn’t accept pictures without exif data and when you use film then you’re excluded from this added exposure.

    I also agree that most ‘fine art’ (quotation marks because I’m never really sure how to define this term) artists are doing it for themselves, they’re not trying to please anyone and it’s irrelevant whether what they do is approved of or not (though it’s truly appreciated when it is :).

    I see Flickr as primarily a site for people to share pictures with family and friends, but it also gives everyone the space and encouragement to experiment in their own way….
    Whilst I belong to a relatively small number of groups, primarily film based, and avoid all award giving, gif loving groups, there really is something for everyone, and I’ve met some truly inspiring artists during my time here.
    And maybe one day I’ll get into digital and start with the kittens and macro flowers 🙂

  6. Ade says:

    Hey, well said, Thomas.

  7. Chris says:

    Ah, the ‘fine art’ debate…as with all ‘art’ one man’s meat is another man’s poison!

    Amongst the masses there are some wonderful photographers on Flickr, and if this platform gives just one of them the chance to make it big then good luck to them. Thanks for another interesting article Thomas.

  8. j03 says:

    I think that vision trumps training in art 99% of the time.

    “vision trumps training”

    How does one get this “vision” you speak of if not work at it? Just born with it?

    I think that if you actually reasearched any of these people you think were born with this “vision” you’d find they’d been working on their “vision” for years.

    Vicky Slater says on her blog:
    Two rolls of film back, with nothing on them that I like except this…..funny how you can so easily lose your way sometimes.

    For me it happens when I stop thinking about what I’m doing and shoot because I can’t not, (it is an obsession) and not because I have something to say.

    Sounds to me like this vision thing is something she works at.

    Even child prodigies have to work hard. People think that Beethoven was just this child genius that could just brilliantly play piano from such an early age! Must he have had vision?

    From Wikipedia:
    Beethoven’s first music teacher was his father, who was a tenor in the service of the Electoral court at Bonn. He was reportedly a harsh instructor. Johann later engaged a friend, Tobias Pfeiffer, to preside over his son’s musical training, and it is said Johann and his friend would at times come home late from a night of drinking to pull young Ludwig out of bed to practice until morning.

    Hmm. Sound’s like you don’t get something for nothing after all.

  9. Daniel says:

    I can’t say I agree with TH that vision is 99%, I think that determination and connections is what makes people successful in life… but I also think that a lot of fine art is nonsense.

    I used to think I loved Jeff Wall because he had really amazing photos that had placed on boxes and were backlit.. but when I bought one of his books and tried to read about the “art” behind his work I totally fell asleep studying it. And I thought all this photos were really not that interesting to me. He has one or two good one’s but it was more about the presentation of it for me.

    As successful he has been, I think it has to do with being in with the right crowd and being one of the few chosen by the “gatekeepers” as TH calls them.

    I think there are 100 photographers more interesting on flickr than some of the stuff I’ve seen in NYC galleries and museums.

    But of course this is just my opinion, and we’re all entitled to one.

    I have several pieces of art hanging in my home right now:

    and they’ve all been bought from flickr people, not framed prints from people I have no connection to.


  10. Rajiv Das says:

    So very true.The old order changeth yeilding place to new. Let it crumble. If you need a push I will, do 50 photographs more per day.

  11. Reading your post reminded me on an article I once read on the Washington Post where they took one of the most world-reknowned violinists and had him play in a subway station to see if a crowd would gather and how much money he would make. The results were interesting, as when he plays in fine art venues he makes $1,000/minute, but that day in the subway he made $32 over the course of 45 minutes. Only a few people stopped to listen.

    To me, what the Internet is doing is creating a “middle class” of art professionals that never existed before. Most forms of art, be it photography, film or music, traditionally had either highly paid superstars or ones that were dirt poor, regardless of talent. It was very similar to the pre-industrial revolution system of have and have-nots in the world of production. But now, there’s a new middle class of artists emerging that can actually make a decent living with their art without being superstars made by the corporate machine. It’s the artists’ version of that same revolution: Technology is enabling people.

    Here’s a couple articles for further reading:
    Pearls Before Breakfast
    The Hit Factory

  12. Alex says:

    Wonder how many other Flickrites Vanessa contacted when writing this article? The whole piece has TH all over it. The lineup of les photos des supercuties is the icing on the cake.

    j03 suggested that you believe people shouldn’t have to work to make their opinion matter. Seems funny to say that to you considering the work you put into making your opinion matter.

    Nothing much has changed about who becomes a success and how. A different vehicle from obscurity perhaps.

  13. TranceMist says:

    It’s a good thing any time the status quo is challenged.

  14. Lydia says:

    j03- I understand where you are coming from but I don’t necessarily agree. Sure people need to work to become good at what they do and to make their vision come to life, but who says that they need to work by going to school? To be in the position to even afford art school or a masters either means you are very well off or willing to rack up a ridiculous loan and hope maybe you can pay it off with a creative career. Other people prefer to teach themselves or work at it their own way. I have a BA in Communication Arts (fine art photography, graphic design, marketing) but I can tell you that most of what I know I didn’t learn in school. I can also tell you that most people I watch on flickr are doing way more interesting work than my peers were. Keep in mind there are other paths to cultivating a vision and fine art sense than the traditional. Even schools, which are notoriously behind the times when it comes to new technology, are starting to close down all the color labs and closing some of the B&W; labs. The craft is changing, period. I think it’s great that digital cameras and flickr let everyone have a voice, an audience, and that photography is more accessible. Ignore what you don’t like and encourage what you love.

    While I agreed with some of the biting criticism in the NYT article, I think it completely missed the mark overall. Change is never easy I suppose.

  15. j03 says:

    Lydia –

    I never meant to imply that school was the only place to learn. Far from it. I never went to school for photography. I do it out of love of learning.

    That said, photography is something I work at.. I work hard at it. I learn from other people on flickr and other photo blogs more than anywhere else. But it’s still a challenge to develop my aesthetic sensibilities.

    Yet, Thomas seems to think that this “vision” thing just comes out of nowhere and you just “have it” or you don’t.

    I think that’s a load of BS.

    I don’t really care if someone with a relatively undeveloped sense of aesthetics doesn’t like my photos. They’re not for them.

    But photographers that I respect and that I can see the work they put into their photos.. their opinions are the ones I care about.

    I would love it if art was an intensive and required subject from grade school through college. The world would be a much more beautiful place.

    Instead, The only aesthetic decisions made by the average person on the street is whether to get a red car or a blue car… or maybe whether this stunning over-saturated sunset on the beach is a flickr favorite or not.