NYC photoblogger exhibition

posted by Jason Kottke Feb 27, 2004

I went and checked out the NYC photoblogger event at the Apple Store in Soho last night. A huge crowd assembled to watch presentations by seven NYC photobloggers. Among the highlights:

- Khoi's presentation of Infrangible. A man after my own heart, he still hand-codes his site for each entry, nesting tables within tables and thumbing his nose at structured data. Databases are for suckers! He also does not resize large photos (like this one) to fit on the screen all at once, the idea being that the photo won't have the same impact at 400x600 that it does at 740 x 1113.

- Mike's photos of abandoned subway stations. I loved hearing Mike's story: he's got a cheapo camera and is a self-professed bad photographer, but he loves to shoot, is striving to improve, and, judging from the audience's delighted reaction to some of his photos, his approach to photography is definitely interesting.

- The topic of retouching photos in Photoshop came up several times. Most of the presenters adjust their photos in Photoshop for brightness, contrast, color correction, etc. Purists would argue that this is cheating. I liken the Photoshop retouching stage of the digital photography process to the darkroom stage in analog photography. Ansel Adams performed extensive manipulations of his photographs in the darkroom and few consider Adams a cheater. Khoi had an interesting comment along those lines, saying that the photo out of the camera has to have "it" regardless of any correction done after the fact in Photoshop. In my experience, good photos can be made great in Photoshop, but no amount of manipulation can turn a poor photo into a good one.

- Adam and Scott's description of the simplicity of fotolog.net. You upload photos, your friends upload photos, and the interface allows you to quickly jump from the photos of one friend to the next, keeping up with their visual lives. No need to call it social software or justify how useful the social network is. fotolog.net is elegant in its simplicity and it works. End of story.

- A tantalizingly short look at Eliot's photo management system.

- And across it all, the *barest* of impressions that photologging is an art form unto itself, that it's not just photography + blogging. I'm not sure yet what makes it a unique thing, but the combination of the relative inexpensiveness of producing digital images in mass quantities (with a digital camera, it costs as much to take and store 1000 photos as it does to take 1 photo) and cheap, easy methods of publishing them to the Web has a lot to do with it.

Most of the crowd stayed the whole two hours...which is amazing. After it was over, some of us moved along to a nearby bar to socialize which, according to Jake's introduction to the event, was the real reason for the whole thing in the first place. I only stayed for a bit before hunger and tiredness got the best of me, but it was nice to briefly meet and chat with some of the presenters before racing off to dinner.

Reader comments

MichaelFeb 27, 2004 at 2:01PM

Jason, I think that you're attacking a straw man w/r/t the use of Photoshop. I don't think anyone would argue that adjusting levels or color cast is cheating. Some people believ it's unethical to, say, remove a car from a photograph if it was there in the scene. That goes beyond darkroom manipulation and starts to enter a much more murky ground. But I didn't get the sense that the woman who kept harping on Photoshop was worried about ethics.

liaFeb 27, 2004 at 2:43PM

I don't think anyone would argue that adjusting levels or color cast is cheating.

I beg to disagree. I'm the last person to begrudge anyone their right to clean up their stuff up in Photoshop, but there's a big difference between fixing an image and making it something it never was, like pushing saturation so far that everything's in jewel tones, like the set of a Matthew Rolston music video. To me, the most compelling photos on photo blogs are almost always the ones that look spontaneous, taken while the person was out on a walk or out with friends; technical skill is much less important than an eye for the interesting and maybe even a knack for sequential visual storytelling. If I want something that looks studio slick, I can always browse through the sites of commercial photographers or pick up a magazine.

bbFeb 27, 2004 at 2:56PM

And then there's cross-processing - the ultimate analogue analagy to photoshop. I'm sure this guy would agree.

The line is too fine to draw, but I agree - you can digitally enhance an already good pic to make it look better, but you can't digitally enhance a bad pic to make it look good.

ericFeb 27, 2004 at 3:10PM

Simply hitting 'auto' on the levels dialogue tends to remove the washed-out look that most lower-end digitals produce, and I don't think I'd call that 'cheating'. It makes the photo a better representation of the scene it portrays.

clappstarFeb 27, 2004 at 3:15PM

Does anyone have any specifics on the "tantalizingly short look at Eliot's photo management system"? I like how the system brings an array of small thumbnails while focusing on the latest picture.

JonFeb 27, 2004 at 3:26PM

Jason, it is stuff like this that keeps me coming to your site. I'm not involved with anything graphical, design related, or artistic and have barely any involvement in technology. Yet, I am fascinated by the work that others do and the advancements that are made. Thanks for the insight.

clappstarFeb 27, 2004 at 3:32PM

Additionally, did anyone speak about the techniques for discreetly capturing candid shots of people while about town? How do people deal with the multitudes of people passing by on the street while they snap some photos? Any hints to remain unassuming yet position yourself to capture the shots you want.

I personally feel a bit awkward taking picture downtown during rush hour. How do I overcome my selfconsciousness?

Jason's last point is quite compelling. Photoblogging has allowed unprecedented access into the seemingly mundane but absolutely captivating daily scenes viewed by people in cities all over the world - while being a very inexpensive (as Jason said) way of sharing. Ten years ago you were limited to browsing the large format glossy photo books at the bookstore to see limited artists' views of New York. Now you can get many more perspectives, very diverse scenes and all for the price of a broadband connection (which is verging on the cost of a high quality photo book per month).

EliotFeb 27, 2004 at 3:46PM

clappstar - I think I'm going to try and beat my code into shape (that is not a euphamism) and release it in the next several months. Or maybe even offer a hosted service. Right now I need a good name for it... help there appreciated.

Speaking of which Jason, do you mind if I steal your "fillinhttp()" idea?

jkottkeFeb 27, 2004 at 4:15PM

Additionally, did anyone speak about the techniques for discreetly capturing candid shots of people while about town?

Thanks for the reminder...I meant to talk about this in the main post. Laura Holder talked a bit about that in relation to her photos. She started off using a pencam but now uses a small digital, no flash, sometimes shoots from the hip and around building corners. Someone from the audience asked her if she'd ever been caught (yes) and what happened (not too much). She said people sometimes notice the camera and smile a little.

I don't know how she does it...I try taking photos of people in public and fail miserably. I just don't have the chutzpah or personality...which is why most of the photos I take are of inanimate objects and myself (insert inanimate object joke here).

donald tettoFeb 27, 2004 at 5:03PM

I'd be interested to hear about the guts behind various websites myself. I've been meaning to streamline my own process, because right now it involves a Photoshop action, an Excel spreadsheet, FTPing, manual mySQL entries, and finally manually entering location info on a PHP page. It takes less time than it sounds like, but it wouldn't hurt to shave off a few sites. Were it not my obsession with getting the photo shot time and location down with every shot, I could have stuck with my old site, where all I had to do was FTP the files and the script indexed the file folders automatically.

As for "cheating," I feel pretty strongly that I oughtn't touch a photo -- I often run auto-contrast or auto-levels, but always end up fading them back. My rule of thumb is, "if the change is drastic, forget it" (although I often drastically crop images). That said, I'm often a bit envious of those photobloggers who applied just the right curves to get a stunning effect.

I've never had dark room experience, but when I do I want my photoblogging rule of thumb to be, "If you can do it in the dark room, do it." But for now I feel dishonest if my photos aren't pretty similar to the way they came off with the camera.

Todd W.Feb 27, 2004 at 5:32PM

The whole anti-Photoshop manipulation is based on a false presumption that the unmanipulated image is an unadulterated bit of frozen reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Manipulation of the captured image is as old as the medium, chemical-based or otherwise.

As to whether photoblogging is, or will become, an independent art form, I have my doubts. I think the lack of an editor, which it shares with "textblogging", is more important than the cheapness of producing images in quantity. Kodak's Brownie probably had a similar effect in comparison to the time and money required to take view camera images in the 19th century.

laura holderFeb 27, 2004 at 5:42PM

In response to Donald Tetto: Hi. In the spirit of discourse, one might ask why your (digital?) camera results represent the 'honest' version of documentation and altering them too much feels like 'cheating'. My own camera skews towards cyan in sunlight. Subway shots come out overly yellow. Color correction (i'm in love with Photoshop's "selective colors" tool: alt+I+A+S on PC) allows me to bring up the heavy darks where there wasn't enough light, to brighten whites, and to equalize some of the skewing towards cyan; the results are what i think make a photo, well, more true-to-life than it did just fresh from the camera. The digital camera alone produces an image which is a result of so much technology in itself. Add to the mix the computer, a web-browser.... when does using Photoshop become additional technology which has gone overboard?
It’s ultimately a personal decision of course, how far to go in Photoshop. Setting rules-of-thumb for yourself is just fine -- it is just an interesting topic for discussion, for sure.

NikFeb 27, 2004 at 6:04PM

Does retouching in photoshop even matter? Why is it a big deal? A photo conveys the beauty of the animation and sense of 'existence'... "I am here" says the subject or the scene in a slice of time.

When it is meant to instill in you a certain (sometimes esoteric) set of emotions or thoughts which the photographer wanted to share with you and thought that retouching the photo would bring these out in you better, why worry about it?

dowingbaFeb 27, 2004 at 6:18PM

"Darkroom" printers always manipulate. Literally. They choose how long to put it in the developer chemical, for one thing. There's no way around that.

ericFeb 27, 2004 at 6:24PM

Here's a question for the hardware tech end of the spectrum... I've got a cheapo Nikon 775 that really seems to show a lot of compression artifacts in deeper, solid chunks of color (and probably everywhere else, too).

Is there any way to smooth this out in the camera settings or with photoshop?

DaveFeb 27, 2004 at 6:27PM


If you're interested, I could share my codebase with you for your inspection or use (I use it on davecell.com).

I wrote my system to use email as the posting mechanism. For example, I take a picture with my cell phone, attach it to an email (using the phone's email app), put some info in the subject line (location, description, etc) and send it to myself.

My software then checks my email box every few minutes and looks for photos from a certain email address (along with other criteria, like size, image format, etc). It then takes that photo, resizes it to large and thumbnail sizes, saves it to disk, makes the entries in the database, and updates blog-tracking sites.

This also lets me bluetooth the picture to my laptop and send it via my email client, or post a picture that was taken with a stand-alone camera.

Administrating the site (removing entries, editing descriptions, etc) is done via a web app. And adding features like used on slower.net is relatively easy (not that automating posting is difficult either).

990000Feb 27, 2004 at 8:38PM

was Khoi's beach photo excellent to see on that big screen or what?
I kinda wish that screen was even bigger.
and it occurred to me that maybe digital photography should be seen on big projection screens like that, more often. (and in higher res)

rebeccaFeb 27, 2004 at 9:54PM

i only wish i was on that side of the country last night. aside from being inspiring it's great to read all the converage and see what everyone is up to. i love that technology is such that there is instant visual access to life elsewhere (day to day, not tv).

thanks for the creative kick in the ass.

donald tettoFeb 28, 2004 at 2:05AM

Laura, et al:

My aversion to heavy editing of a photo lies more in a personal feeling than anything else. It is not even a matter of my own taste -- for I enjoy many-a-photoblog despite and because of the photo manipulation -- but is really more a matter of my artistic goal.

If your goal is photography in general, certainly there is much room for manipulation. Surely, however, there becomes a point when a photograph is so heavily manipulated that it is no longer simply a photograph but instead a different art form (that may very well have equal or greater artistic merit than the unedited photo). Just as there is an ultimate to editing to which all photographers adhere (for if they crossed this line they would no longer be simply photographers but "photographer/collagists" and "photographer/digital artists"), so also there is a line to which I adhere. You can consider this line a subset of photography -- perhaps a sort of strict photojournalism of everyday minutiae.

This subset is where my own personal artistic and aesthetic purpose lies. I enjoy all manner of photography and art, but with my photos I am less concerned with creating the ultimate work of art than I am with creating a report of something that I've encountered. Lia said it better above: she shares my taste for "the ones that look spontaneous, taken while the person was out on a walk or out with friends."

In way of needlessly elaborating consider this: the same sense of "dishonesty" (for lack of a better word) that averts me from digital manipulation also prevents me from moving or otherwise interacting with the subjects of my photographs -- whether this soda bottle or that piece of barbed wire might make or break my composition, I will not touch them. At the same time, though, I constantly admire photographers whose entire composition is carefully "staged" (so to speak) -- that subgenre is just not for me.

mptFeb 28, 2004 at 4:32AM

the idea being that the photo won't have the same impact at 400x600 that it does at 740 x 1113

Well of course it won't. At 740 × 1113 we'll be too busy scrolling to notice any impact.

Todd W.Feb 28, 2004 at 11:25AM

This list of comments is a great example of all that is wrong with photoblogging, and maybe blogging in general. Lots and lots of discussion of the pros and cons of Photoshop, what blogging tool is best, the finer points of handcoding your blog, the best resolution to post images -- and precious little talk about photography. More photo and less blog, please. Maybe the art side is too personal to discuss with strangers or its all just opinions and what can be said about that, but the tech talk leaves me with one thought - blech.

Now I'm going to go outside and confiscate the neighbor kids' football that just landed in my yard.

JackFeb 28, 2004 at 12:10PM

The underlying assumption that any really meaningful information results from the random blog mentality is clearly mistaken. Todd has hit the nail on the head by noting that a list a comments really results in no informational meaning.

It's clear that the photoblogger exhibition was not entertained by a 'hugh crowd' as stated but also the noted photographer's works are just 'ok' but not great. The mindset behind this is a closed loop of artists who blog with no real external input - an intoxicating, self-promotion that leads to misperception.

HeifermanFeb 28, 2004 at 3:52PM

Thanks for the fine report & kind word JK.

okphotographerFeb 28, 2004 at 4:10PM

ok, now this is interesting.
I wonder who this "Jack" is and what he considers "real external input?"
what could he possibly mean by the word "real?"
by "real external" does Jack mean people who don't use the internet?

anyway, one topic I wish I had time to bring up and get feedback on is the notion that there is this distinct possibility that any of our photos could end up on some other site out there in the internet. already several of my own photos have been hijacked and displayed on other sites, completely outside the world of "blogs." and I'd wished that I could've embedded more of a statement in them, since all these other random eyes are getting to see them anyway. it's a potential roaming billboard.

also see: photologging and found photography

Scott JohnsonFeb 28, 2004 at 6:39PM

I've just spent a good part of my Saturday afternoon looking at all of the photoblogs that were featured at the exhibition. Great stuff! I've got several new items for my blogroll now.

Todd W.Feb 28, 2004 at 10:26PM


To turn your errant photos into the micro-billboard you describe, follow in the footsteps of those kleptophobic photobloggers who insist on slapping their copyright/name/url into the corner of their pics, though that's easily cropped out. Better yet, an embossed watermark over the whole enchilada. But, wait, here I am contributing to the very sort of annoying claptrap I denounced earlier! AAARGH.

So let's bring it back to something interesting. You pointed out that your pictures sometimes find themselves on other sites, unbeknownst to their owner (you.) What sort of oddness must that create for the theives' friends? Your vision, your eye, your art is now put in the context of some stranger, undoubtedly an ill fit. If the theft goes undetected, how does that change how the thief is regarded by his/her acquaintances? His parents? "My word, I never realized our son made clandestine trips to New York to photograph the street scene."

JohnnyFeb 28, 2004 at 11:05PM

Who's to define what photoblogging should or shouldn't be. The same goes for photography. It is different things to different people. Some think photographs should be an accurate representation of what was there. My goal is different. I just want to produce an image that is visually pleasing or interesting to me. I'm happy if it comes out of the camera that way. But I really don't care if I have to adjust and manipulate it to death to get what I want. Many times, before I even take the picture, I look at the scene and see what it could be, not what it is.

My goal in photoblogging is also a personal one. It is simply to share my images. And if 'Jack' isn't a photoblogger, how would he know what kind of external input I get? Perhaps he's the only one assuming that 'really meaningful information' is the end-all be-all of a photoblog. Jack...ever heard of something called self-expression?

cosmicrayFeb 29, 2004 at 3:21PM

I'm not much of a designer - I almost failed graphic design in J-school, but did pretty well in photography classes. Why I'm into the photoblogging thing is at least 98 percent photography. It's not a job, but a creative outlet, and gets the job more than done for me in that respect.

It's not that I'm totally incomptent here. I think I can judge quality in page design well enough, but I don't have the skills or the patience to get it totally right myself, at least not easily. I've had to ask for lots of help in that area, and I still have many quirks to work out in a recent page redesign. (I'll work it all out eventually.) People have been mostly very helpful here. Sometimes, however, people have been kinda snobby about it, and unfortunately snobbiness tends to stick with most people longer.

A solution: I'd love to see some more and better templates for photoblogs in MT. I'd gladly pay a reasonable price for a handsome one, if they weren't *too* hard to slightly customize. Having more choices in this area would, I'm sure, make the hobby more attractive to a more diverse demographic.

I've recently grown to really enjoy photo manipulation, by the way. It's fun. If you come up with an aesthetically pleasing piece of art or craftsmanship, how you came about it shouldn't matter in the slightest.

jakeFeb 29, 2004 at 3:53PM

jack has posted a bunch of times on my site, and on gothamist- he has yet to say anything insightful or constructive- his main interest seems to be tearing people down and insulting the work other people create. it's sad really- if he put even 1/4th of the energy he puts into dissing people into creating something, he might have a better website, or a better life.

my feeling is that photoblogging is great, and that the people who photoblog are some of the most open, inquisitive, and interesting people i've ever met.

just another OK photgrapherFeb 29, 2004 at 5:04PM

i for one can say that i have no idea what this statement is trying to mean:

"The underlying assumption that any really meaningful information results from the random blog mentality is clearly mistaken."

it's actually almost poetic how meaningless it is.

i think i'm with jake on jack.

markMar 01, 2004 at 9:31AM

What about the work of someone like Man Ray? Does the "over-manipulation" make him not a photographer?

What about manipulating the event itself through choice of shot angle? For example, you take a shot of a person running down the street and it appears to be telling one narrative. If you can get someone else in the shot with their back turned to the runner, you get another narrative possibility, even though the two people may have no connection?

Does the photographer have to understand the truth of a scene to make a great photograph? Is there ever a truth to a scene? Why do we assume that photographs have some inherent truth to impart? If three people see a chain of events, it's quite probable that they will interpret what they see in three different ways, surely that also happens if they are looking through a camera too?

Untouched, retouched, photoshopped to within an inch of its life, surely it's just about the creation of a compelling image as much as it is the search for verite?

Just like there are hundreds of different styles of painting that are inherently no better than each other (merely preferences about those styles in the mind of the viewer), does not the same thing apply to photography?


Forgive me for not looking up the page to find a name, but on the question of gathering the nerve to take photos on the street, just give it time. I've been taking photos as I wander around for 25 years now and it took a long time before I felt comfortable taking shots of/among crowds of people. In the end, you just get over it.

Trolls aside, this is a good discussion so far?

DavidMar 01, 2004 at 11:11AM

On the taking-photos-of-strangers issue: I've noticed that the people who are best at this (like Laura and Kdunk) tend to be women. Perhaps they can be a little more fearless in pursuit of these shots because if they get spotted, the strangers are less likely to suspect that a woman with a camera has evil/creepy intentions. I could be wrong on this so let me know if I'm full of crap. There is of course a large dose of photographic talent involved too.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.