Wednesday, 30 July 2014

15 minutes of fame

Andy Warhol once famously commented that one day everyone will have 15 minutes of fame. Today his prediction has come true except in one important respect. It's nowhere nearly as long as 15 minutes

I recently read this article by the photographer Kris J B in which he discusses the after effects of reaching the number one photo spot on a Reddit forum and it gave me much food for thought about the issues of sending your images on-line.

In my own (very small) way I can appreciate Kris's feelings about achieving his Reddit status. I'm in the habit of depositing what I judge as my best photos onto the 500px site and I still get a frisson of excitement watching their score rise and with it the chance of attaining the 'popular' ranking.

However I never expect to sell any of my photos.There have only been two occasions where my pictures were purchased, both at a local photo exhibition . I still remember my shock and panic when I was asked how much they were and I was so unprepared for the idea that my work had any value, that I gave a totally ridiculous figure that would not even cover my printing costs. I seriously doubt that anyone has ever looked at my photos on 500px with the thought that they would make a nice present for their aunt Edna.

So why then do I put them on-line?

I think like most photographers I feel the need for the praise and respect of others.  I need something that confirms that my effort is not in vain and there is enough of a spark of talent to be worth  blowing into a flame. Its all a bit sad really and I wish that I could be confident enough to put two fingers up to the world, but in this I am pretty sure I am not alone. If it were otherwise sites like Reddit and 500px would not exist.

The main problem today however is getting noticed at all. With photographs, there is such a low signal-to-noise ratio that standing out from the crowd is a real problem. Look on 500px on any given day and you will see 100's of really great photographs, so either you need a lot of skill or luck(or a combination of both).

On that basis I have to admit I read Kris's piece with a hint of jealousy (and not just because he had the opportunity to go to Japan, a place that has long held a fascination for me) . He has had a moment of fame and then he had the temerity to complain about it (and it is not without irony that it seems his article bemoaning the fact probably did more to drive traffic to his website than his original photo).

In the end the point of sharing our work is to show the world what you can do and in doing so increase your reputation, since it is your reputation that allows you to make your living in your art and not the selling of your work.

Which brings us back to the biggest issue raised by Kris in his article. If your reputation is based on your on-line work, how do you ensure that your work is properly attributed and others cannot appropriate your work?

Personally I am not sure how I would feel if one of my photo's got used elsewhere without my permission. I guess my emotions would range from being initially pleased that someone found my photo worthy enough to be used, followed closely by annoyance that I was not gaining the credit that would increase my reputation.

After reading Kris's article, I did something I have never done before. I was going to donate a bunch of photos I had taken at the local bird park in case they could use them in anyway. But for the first time I added a watermark. My reasoning at the time was that since I was giving away my work to other, the minimum payment I could expect was that I gain some credit from them.

However I hate watermarking photos. For a start, even if done subtly, it means you are deliberately defacing something you have spent ages getting to the point of perfection. It would be like Leonardo Da Vinci writing "Leo was 'ere" in red paint at the bottom of the Mona Lisa. Secondly it smacks of pomposity. It says "This photo is so great, it will surely be nicked". It goes against my in-grained inferiority complex that says my work is not worthy. Anyway as a theft deterrent it is relatively pointless, since anyone determined enough can probably remove the watermark

However there is an important point here. How do you ensure your photo can be properly attributed back to you?

Unfortunately there appears to be no foolproof way of achieving this and maybe this is a problem that needs solving. One possible way would be some sort of central photo registration service. But what I think is really needed is a new picture format specifically for the publishing of photos.

Such a format needs to have the following characteristics.
  • It needs to display on websites in the normal way(including scaling)
  • It needs to contain photographers details
  • Any changes to the photo will corrupt the photo.
I don't know whether this is even possible, but perhaps techniques like steganography could be used to uniquely distribute photo data such that any small changes will make it impossible to reconstruct the image. I could certainly see the advantages for sites like Getty Images would gain from such a format. However such a format would need wide ranging industry consensus from both the producers and the publishers, including companies like Google.

Today, images generally have little intrinsic value since they can be easily copied and downloaded. The real value comes not from the copyright of the image, but the increase in reputation and standing of the photographer who took it. This is new modern digital world, where the product itself has no value, but ability and skill to produce becomes the new currency.

Therefore the real question is not how we get our 15 minutes of fame, but how we ensure we get our due compensation for it?

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