By Howard W. French
A few months ago the subject of Flickr came up here and I was surprised by the amount of hostility and derision that mention of the online photo site drew.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised though, since as a regular reader of things like Rangefinder Forum and the Leica Users Forum, I'd actually heard the sniffing from serious photographers before. Flickr is a garbage heap. It's a space for the photographic equivalent of the greater unwashed. It's terribly organized. You have to wade through so much crap. And on and on.
Back then I promised Mike that I would offer my take on Flickr, one man's modest brief for the defense, as it were. Weeks passed, then months, and if Mike hadn't forgotten already, he would have been excused for thinking that I had.
What brought finally got me going was Mike's own recent essay, "Qualities and Properties," in which he neatly picked apart the fallacies that underpin extreme gear obsession. In a response signed "the editor," I wrote that "…in the end, I prefer to take, and when that's not possible, to look at, and talk about (when they're interesting) pictures."
On subsequent reflection it occurred to me that this inelegant sentence fragment is a pretty fair summation of what Flickr is all about, or at least, what it's been about for me.
Each time I've seen a sneering or dismissive comment by a photographer about Flickr and its faults, I've wanted to say, hang on a moment, Flickr is exactly what you make of it. Nothing more, nothing less.
I've entitled this quick essay as how to use Flickr, but what that really means is: how I use Flickr.
Flickr, for me, has been nothing short of a school for my eyes, and quite a good one, too. I probably shouldn't disclose how many hours I've spent looking at pictures there. I've done a bit less of it in recent months after a period of intense involvement, but still, putting a figure on it might bring alarm to a few people I know.
However shocked their reaction, for me as a photographer, and for someone who is constantly working at trying to see better this has mostly been time very well spent.
Yes, Flickr can be an ocean that one can easily drown in or drift upon aimlessly. It can be a dense forest, too, where it is hard to see path or pattern. Or it can be whatever other metaphor of vastness, impenetrability or of the unfathomable you'd care to substitute.
If you plunge in randomly, you will undoubtedly see more artistically unredeemable material than you'll find images worthy of a second glance, or of a moment's deep thought. Be prepared for endless photos of cats and snapshots of people's friends and undistinguished pictures of sunsets and of seagulls, and other such warm and fuzzy fare.
Be prepared, also, for lots of gee whiz bokeh experiments, for strange and whimsical online names, and for breathless exclamations of great capture (a phrase the still makes my skin crawl), and sometimes for gaudy, animated tags proclaiming fairly pedestrian work to be masterpiece quality.
The secret to Flickr is increasing the viewing ratio in favor of beauty, in favor of originality, in favor of strong composition, great eyes or flashes of exciting innovation, and I am here to tell you that the trick is as easy as it rewarding.
My Flickr routines are imbued with a sense of purpose: seeing as much good work each day as time allows. The most reliable way I know to do this involves building a stable of contacts, or "friends" in the language of Flickr.
To get going, one need only find a handful of people capable of producing more than the randomly good picture. Flickr allows you to add that person as a "contact," and your contacts' latest images are then made available to you each day at the click of a link.
If one is really judicious about choosing one's contacts, this alone could be enough. You will be assured of a flow of new and frequently interesting images to look at, to think about, and to comment on each day.
As nice as this arrangement is, though, over time even it proved too confining for me. At the suggestion of Rainer Jacob, a Flickr friend from Berlin, I struck upon a more leveraged approach.
This new method uses the power of the ability that Flickr offers each of its viewers to award a star to a particularly pleasing image, to declare it a "favorite."
Most of my Flickr surfing now consists of surfing favorites—the favorites of my esteemed "contacts." After a little more than a year using the service, I have hundreds of them and each day I navigate to a few of their pages to find out what their most recent "favorites" are.
The beauty of this approach is that it relies on other people's eyes, people whose work you have already had reason to admire, to help you sift through the morass and to find other promising work.
Needless to say, it greatly multiplies the chance of finding striking images, and find them I do, every day.
It also lends a whole new sense of purpose to the task of awarding stars to other people's work. I give away as many as I can without feeling like I'm succumbing to grade inflation. The idea is literally to enhance the visibility of work that I think deserves being seen.
Here is the yield from a 15 minute foray at the end of the workday today as I began to think about writing this article:
Tastes will vary, of course, and not everyone will agree with my decision to award stars to these images. No problem. The point is that with even a little bit of strategy and discipline, one can use Flickr to find vast amounts of strong material to fit one's taste.
Now and then I'll find a photographer whose work seems strong enough to warrant watching closely, and I feel I've profited from studying their work. The styles and subject matter varies greatly from young ingénues who grew up in an era whose sensibilities are driven to a large extent by video games and computer use to fellows whose work drips with the values of the Old Masters.
Here are a few of them:
Go ahead, please, and explore their work. I've never met a single soul among them. Few if any are destined for museums or for photographic fame—even fleeting—but I find real strength here. They're scattered far and wide, too, which is an added benefit. If there are other places online to explore images with such variety and such ease, the more the merrier. I don't know of anywhere offline where one can sample so much material, and that's nothing to sniff at, if you ask me.
I fear I've gone on too long already, but I wanted to come back to Mike's Qualities and Properties essay. Look at this work and that of many other shooters on Flickr and ask yourself how often the gear was the critical factor, whether it was the latest, capability-packed DSLR, or some ne plus ultra lens. I've spent a pretty penny on my own equipment and have nothing against fine gear, but an honest look compels you to conclude: not often.
It's the photographer, stupid, and once one knows how to use it, Flickr is a great place to see what photographers all over the place are actually doing with their gear.
You can find all of my favorites on my Flickr page.
Photographer Howard W. French, a.k.a. A Glimpse of the World, is a Senior Writer at the New York Times. Mike would like to thank Rui Palha and Brett Walker for their permission to reproduce their pictures in this article. To encourage readers to explore Howard's Flickr recommendations, T.O.P. will take a brief hiatus from new postings—we will be back on Wednesday or Thursday with a new column from Ctein and The T.O.P. Ten Recommended New Cameras. —MJ
Featured Comment by Huw Morgan: "Flickr is a marvel of the 21st century for several reasons—many covered in the post and ensuing comments. However, the one thing that has not been discussed is that flickr is itself a medium. An image that is popular or that works on flickr is not necessarily an image that will reproduce well as a print or in a book.
"Flickr is a world of miniatures. The photos are displayed in fairly low resolution on computer monitors in the 1024x768 pixel range (plus or minus). That means that the actual size of the photos is quite small—smaller than a 6x4 print for example.
"Photographers that excel at producing miniatures excel on flickr. Strong colour saturation, strong geometric patterns and eye-catching moments are the elements of success in this medium. Images that are designed for reproduction on large canvasses may not catch the eye of the flickr viewer. For example, it is hard to imagine an Ed Burtynsky landscape catching our attention as a miniature on flickr.
"Nevertheless, flickr provides a strong feedback loop to the image maker and encourages certain styles that may scale to large images and other media.
"My own fave photographer on flickr is a woman in Australia called Omnia who creates fabulous geometric arrangements of plant life, shells and sand. Her images would stand out in any collection.
"I don't think anyone would promote a steady diet of flickr as the only photographic medium of consequence, but the challenge of producing miniatures for mass consumption does strengthen many parts of your photographic "game." To use a sports analogy, it would be like a golfer practicing his/her short game."
Featured Comment by Katie: "I've been around on flickr for a couple of years now, and for all its aggravations (blinky GIFs and great captures and instant fads and all) I keep going back. I keep going back because I keep finding pictures that are worth looking at. It does favour those who make instant-appeal pictures of bright sharp bold colours, but there's also space for quieter images which require thought and careful eyes. There are rich seams to mine.
"In among the kittens and sunsets and birthday parties and gimmicks there's an incredible array of photographers sharing their images, one picture at a time as they work. In this giant flood of images there's something that proves that it's entirely possible for originality and truly personal vision. And there's a willingness to connect on a level ground—all these people learning in public, playing and exploring, and bouncing ideas off each other. I like that people are prepared to learn in public, and show the unfolding of ideas and projects as they are built, and not just the final, edited, polished product. (That said, I wish that some people edited a little more, rather than just pouring thousands of pictures onto the 'net.)
"I've been fortunate to build some valued friendships from a starting point of quick comments and mutual admiration of images on flickr, or from those itchy little questions that turn into really interesting conversations that make you think hard about the hows and whys of making pictures."