by: Scott Goodson

Today's NY Times Magazine has a wonderful story about Flickr and the potential for very talented people to rise above the networking and nomenclature of the established photo schools. In her article, Virginia Heffernan points to an Icelandic amateur photographer named Rebekka Guoleifsdottir as one good example of the rise of talent over the Flickr photo-sharing site. And in my opinion, Guoleifsdottir is very good indeed. She would certainly catch my eye if her book crossed my desk at StrawberryFrog. It's a good article. Have a read here and have a look at Rebekka's photos if you have the chance.

Let’s face facts: the Web, after nearly 20 years, has failed to uncover new masters of noble art forms like poetry, sculpture and the airport thriller. But it has engendered — for good or ill — new forms of creative expression. Blogs and viral videos are only the most obvious. Fan fiction, wikis, Flash animation and Second Life avatars are a few more. People don’t upload to the Web words and images they had fashioned apart from the Web; they fashion their stuff specifically for online platforms and audiences.

Consider photography. As art-school photographers continue to shoot on film, embrace chiaroscuro and resist prettiness, a competing style of picture has been steadily refined online: the Flickr photograph. Flickr, the wildly popular photo-sharing site, was founded by the Canadian company Ludicorp in 2004. Four years later, amid the more than two billion images that currently circulate on the site, the most distinctive offerings, admired by the site’s members and talent scouts alike, are digital images that “pop” with the signature tulip colors of Canon digital cameras.

While pretty and even cute, these images are also often surreal and prurient, evoking the unsettling paintings of de Chirico and Balthus, in which individual parts are beautiful and formally rendered, but something is not quite right over all. Flickr’s creamy fantasy pictures, many of them “erotic” (rather than sexy) portraits that have been forcibly manipulated with digital tricks, stand in contrast to the rawer and grainier 35-millimeter photography that’s still canonized by august institutions like the International Center of Photography.

Rebekka Guoleifsdottir, one of Flickr’s most popular photographers, is the leading exponent of the site’s style. An art student from Iceland who turned to social networking to acquire commissions for her drawings, she came to photography relatively late. Tellingly, she learned to work Flickr before she became proficient with a camera. She discovered how to create the minicollections called “photostreams”; how to create images that would look good shrunk, in “thumbnail” form; and how to flirt with the site’s visitors in the comments area to keep them coming back. As perhaps is always the case with artists, Guoleifsdottir’s evolution as a photographer was bound up in the evolution of her modus operandi, a way of navigating the institutions and social systems that might gain her a following and a living.

Guoleifsdottir’s Flickr opus, and her notes on the site about it, supply a portrait of the artist. In 2005, she uploaded simple snapshots of some of her drawings to the site, mostly portraits of children. Some are cool with a storybook quaintness; others look like vanity speed portraits done at a street fair. The most striking is a pastel of Guoleifsdottir’s nephew, apparently a rendering of a single-source flash snapshot, in which the boy’s wholesome face appears stung with bright light and his tightly-constricted pupils are tinted with the red that some camera flashes impart.

Because Flickr is a site for photography, commenters tend to go easy on photos of paintings or drawings, which they don’t pretend to have expertise in. As a result, the minimal commentary on Guoleifsdottir’s early drawings was very forgiving — and even naïve. About the image of a young boy, one commenter gushed, “This is fabulous work, how long does it take you to do one of these?”

On the heels of this encouragement, Guoleifsdottir turned to photography in earnest. The first photos Guoleifsdottir posted to Flickr were shot with an analog camera: snapshots of her school-age sons and a portrait or two of herself. Commenters loved the way Guoleifsdottir looked — she’s a weight-trained, protean-looking woman with movie-star eyes — but Flickr members often deem analog photos unfocused. (“A mixture of melancholy and curiosity,” wrote a commenter on one image. “It’s a shame about the focus.”)

Guoleifsdottir shifted to a digital camera, first using a Canon Digital Ixus, and then a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT, one of the most popular cameras on Flickr. (Discussions of cameras, lenses and film pervade the site.) When she started uploading digital pictures, like her stony self-portrait “torso,” her photos starting breaking Flickr records for numbers of views, and comments turned to catcalls (“gosh . . . huge breasts,” someone noted astutely).

Guoleifsdottir learned how to title and tag photos so that they might readily come up in searches; how to police copyright transgressions (as when some of her photos were sold illegally on eBay); and how to push, push contrasts by processing her pictures with Photoshop software. These skills might not have advanced her with New York galleries, but they made for a charmed ride on Flickr. A photography blogger who posts under the name Thomas Hawk is a Flickr regular, and he told me in an e-mail conversation that there is not a single Flickr style. But he conceded that intense postproduction processing is necessary for popularity on the site.

Guoleifsdottir’s next step was to abandon realism. A few experiments in 10-second exposures led her to juvenile representations of specters and phantoms, which nonetheless drew praise. Playing with shutter speed, she caught an image of liquor splashing out of a glass; Flickr named it the most-interesting photo of the day on July 29, 2005. She started intensely manipulating and coloring her photos in postproduction, creating haunted interiors, doubled images, filtered landscapes and contrived composites. Comments shot up; her page-views hit the millions.

Read full story in the NY Times magazine

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