International Herald Tribune> Imagine Walker Evans and Nan Goldin rolled together on your computer screen. In the 1930s and ’40s Evans secretly photographed people on New York City subways. The result was a book titled “Many Are Called.”
In the 1980s Nan Goldin turned her camera on herself and her friends, spilling the intimate details of her life to complete strangers. She described the resulting book, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” as “a diary I let people read.” Now thousands of people get onto the Internet everyday to post their photographs, hoping that total strangers will come look at them and comment. They are photo bloggers.
Photo blogs are the colorful offspring of blogs, or Web logs, written diaries posted and updated regularly on the Internet. For a half-dozen years people have been posting text blogs to rant and to ponder the events of the day and the dust beneath their feet. Photo blogs often are posted with no text at all, and there are thousands of them.
These days you can get onto the Internet and see a pet bunny in Japan that balances pancakes and teacups on its head. You can gaze at what someone ate for breakfast in New York or Montana, follow a person through the streets of Chicago, see the bottom of a Brazilian swimming pool, travel to the center of an ice crystal.
Click enough and you will be rewarded. On www.slower.net, Eliot Shepard’s site, you can find a glowing red portrait of Porky Pig in a fire hat and an abstract shot of a red, white and blue floor. At www.fotolog.net/alphabet can be found alphabets, objects resembling letters; it shows a toilet roll and holder that looks like a Q. On www.hirmes.com/ice, the photographer travels to the center of spherical ice forms and sends back pictures that look like new galaxies.
I started my adventures in the land of the photo blogs at a Web site announcing the winners of an online contest: the 2003 Photobloggies, sponsored by www.photojunkie.org. The 14 winners in 14 categories had all posted photo diaries on a regular basis in 2002. The prize for best pet photo blog went to www.textism.com/oliver, which features the photographer’s adorable pet Weimaraner in various poses and landscapes. One of the losers was devoted to Oolong, the balancing bunny from Japan.
The Photobloggie for the best photo essay – a photo blog documenting a specific day, event or theme – went to www.jeff-phillips.com/baby. His pictures and text told the tale of a 33-year-old man, Phillips himself, thinking (with his camera) about having a child and wondering, “Could I resist the temptation to push on that weird soft spot on the top of his head?” He decided to borrow his sister’s child for a day and find out.
On his home page Phillips lists his influences (among them the photographers Jerry Uelsmann and Keith Carter), his equipment (an assortment of Holgas, Nikons and Minoltas) and his awards (a sixth-grade graduation certificate from 1977).
What distinguishes a photo blog like this from a Web site set up by someone who just wants to organize his personal travel photos, family albums and pet pictures?
Most bloggers are hobbyists when it comes to photography. Todd Gross, a blogger who posts www.quarlo.com, a collection of quirky nondigital photographs of everything from hot dogs to manhole covers, said in an e-mail that he set up his blog because he simply got tired of filing his pictures away in a drawer.
David Gallagher, one of the earliest photo bloggers (he posted his first photo in November 2000), noted in an e-mail interview that before he started www.lightningfield.com, his digital photos were just moldering on the hard drive of his computer. Besides, he said, he had wanted to start a Web log but didn’t have the time or energy to do it every day.
A photo Web log is also a way to get other people to look at your pictures. Mike Clarke, an American in Tokyo whose Web site, www.hunkabutta.com, is devoted to “A Stranger’s Life in Pictures,” said the advantages of photo blogs are the ease of posting, the global exposure, the criticism, the affordability and “the motivation to take pictures constantly.” The downside? Photo blogs, he said, “can suck up a lot of time.”
And not just the photo blogger’s time. A good blog is hard to find. Some photo bloggers helpfully include a list of their other favorite bloggers. Thus, although there isn’t exactly a unified group of bloggers out there, a community of sorts is forming. And it seems to be made up largely of people between the ages of 25 and 45 who have digital cameras and lots of time on their hands. In this world, Clarke said, “The people who have been around the longest have an advantage.” Why? Not necessarily because they are best but “because their readership continues to grow as more and more people link to them.”
When I poked around, a few names kept cropping up, and it turned out that many of them posted from New York City and had won a prize or two in the Photobloggies. Had I found myself in a blogger’s cul-de-sac?
Yes. The problem was the keyword: photo blog. An article in the online journal Salon pointed me to a new site, www.fotolog.net, and to a new term, fotolog. When I Googled fotolog, I found a new cache of sites, posted from places as far-flung as Singapore, Lyon, France, and Cramerton, North Carolina.
Fotolog.net is a clearinghouse of more than 6,000 photo blogs run by Scott Heiferman, Adam Seifer and someone who simply calls himself Spike. These men will set up a site for you where you can post your photos and the addresses of other sites you like under “Friends/Favorites.” But don’t think you’re getting a free online photo album.
This is not the sort of place where you go to “dump your photos” of babies, puppies and vacations so your family and friends can look and order prints, Seifer said. (For that there’s ofoto.com, snapfish.com, shutterfly.com and others.) Nor is it simply software for you to create a photo blog on your own. (For that there are sites like www.blogger.com and www.livejournal.com.)
Rather, fotolog.net is a culture of its own, a place where you record “the interesting ephemeral moments of life,” Seifer said. It is a community of strangers, from Brazil to Iran, who gather every day to look at the minutiae of one another’s lives – the meals that were eaten, the peace rallies attended, the subway rides taken – and to respond to it all. (Every individual blogger gets a guest book for people to weigh in.)
How does one get noticed among the thousands of bloggers? Seifer said: “Anybody can be famous.” The new sites are highlighted. “So, if you’re new and you’re good, you’ll quickly get an audience.” And even if you’re not good, there are ways to get attention. For instance, Seifer said, “you can visit anybody’s log and post a comment with your link on it.” Most likely that person will want to see the site of the person who wrote to him. Seifer called it “Web karma.”
Seifer’s own site, www.fotolog.net/cypher has a motto: “Get in My Belly: Cypher.” There he posts pictures of his daily bread. Like Sophie Calle, who has photographed a number of her monochromatic meals (white meals, green meals, yellow meals), Seifer shoots and posts what he eats. Unlike her, he mixes his colors. A recent meal included broccoli, carrots, mashed potatoes and Gatorade. One person responded: “This looks very appetizing. Was it Parmesan cheese? My favorite!” Another asked: “Will you let us see your baby pictures?” Seifer likes the attention: “I have 10,000 people looking at my food every week,” he said.
There is something touching but also appalling about so much global attention focused on such mundane stuff. More than one photo blogger has cited Walker Evans as the inspiration for photo blogging. But it seemed to me that they have just as much in common with Robert Frank, Allen Ginsberg and Goldin, photographers who have chronicled the intimate lives of their friends and families for total strangers to look at.
On the Internet, I clicked my way through site after site: here was an old picture of a someone’s friend’s grandmother as a young woman on the beach. There was a little white dog with a chew toy in its mouth. Here was a picture of a young woman at a baby shower with ribbons and bows on her head. And there was a picture of the curtains in a hotel room where one blogger was staying.
After a while all this intimacy got a little alienating. I needed some fresh air, air that hadn’t been photographed and posted. I clicked my mouse three times and recited: there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.
(c) International Herald Tribune