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Humble Origins

Viewing, sharing, editing, curating, and making photography online today is a magical, many-headed beast. In a little over a decade, now regarded as light years in internet time, photography’s online representation has evolved from a handful of academic bloggers, blogging communities, and bare-bones magazines to hundreds, if not thousands of applications and “content” engines for disseminating “shareable” photographic work to massive audiences.

Before 2003, the primary experience of viewing photography-as-art was largely confined to brick and mortar galleries and institutions, and the concept of mass exposure for one’s work was still often limited to those who could view it in print and in the gallery. As “the internet” changed nearly everything about how we experience the world virtually, photography’s viewership potential for wider engagement naturally evolved with it, expanding who could make and appreciate work originally destined for the walls while championing legions of “amateurs” to consider themselves serious practitioners.

At the roots of much of the early online conversation were Andy Adams (FlakPhoto) – and Jon Feinstein (Humble Arts Foundation), two online curators that established digital platforms for showing new photography. HCP asked them to reflect on ten years of their work and the evolving nature of the internet/photo experience.


Andy Adams: Tell me about Humble — how’d that begin?

JF: It actually started when [Humble Arts Foundation co-director] Amani Olu and I met while working at Shutterstock in early 2005. Shutterstock’s CEO, Jon Oringer introduced us — from the beginning, he was very supportive of our outside projects. The work we were doing at Shutterstock at that time focused on commercial, editorial and stock photography but we both had passions for “Art Photography” and put our heads together for this project.

AA: Art Photography!

JF: I can’t remember when I decided that saying Art Photography sounded more legit than Fine Art Photography… I still laugh at myself when I say it, but I stand by it. I may have Susan Bright to thank for that.

AA: I’ve always bristled at Fine Art Photography — I like the simple, keyword style of Art Photography. Sets it apart from everything else. I learned that from you two.

JF: Awesome. I’m flattered.

JF: Amani came at me with the idea of showing work online, mimicking the traditional brick and mortar gallery exhibition, but “virtually,” through a desire to create something accessible, with a longer shelf life that still had a certain rigor, without the distance we found in many physical galleries.

AA: So, your idea was always to do something like a traditional organization — but on the Internet. Was that motivated by budgetary constraints or something else?

JF: We both had growing networks of photographers who were mostly a few years out of school and still perplexed about how to get their work seen. During my senior year, in one of our crits, a team of professional gallerists came to visit and they painted a very grim picture of “the art world” — one where market forces dictated what was shown and one where photographers had no control over their destiny.

AA: And your idea was to do something different?Something purer? Motivated by a different ethos?

JF: We wanted to create an opportunity for work to be seen simply because it was strong, engaging, and challenging. So Amani learned HTML and we launched “Group Show.”

AA: How old were you then?

JF: I think I was 24 at the time.

AA: Young man! Group Show was huge for me—that was the first time I’d seen anything like it. How did it initially work?

JF: The premise was simple: 24 photographs, one per photographer, each month. No overarching theme, but finding ways to create relationships from images that on the surface might seem discordant. Ultimately, we wanted to elevate the work of our peers.

AA: One of the early realizations I made with FlakPhoto was that the Web was a global community with enormous possibilities for discovery. So, from the beginning, I put out open calls to the public and that’s how I sourced the work I showed on the site. Did you do the same with Humble?

JF: The first call came mostly from invites but actually also from Craigslist ads. We also took some chances and invited “famous” photographers to participate.

AA: Famous — like who?

JF: The biggest name was Alec Soth, who contributed to Group Show #2.

AA: Alec always seemed up for anything. He was an early FlakPhoto contributor too.

JF: Alec was the most approachable, the antithesis of the guarded “art world” I feared.

AA: It’s funny how the Internet flattens everything—it’s really as easy as sending someone an email. Most of the time, a passionate photographer will participate. I’ve always loved that about the Web.

JF: After a while, the photographers we featured shared the show with friends, word spread, and we started getting tons of emails and submissions.

AA: Wasn’t that fun?

JF: It was amazing!

AA: I’ll never forget the thrill of those first submissions — getting emails from strangers on the other side of the world. That was incredible then. I take it for granted these days, but it used to be really magical.

JF: I still think it’s got magic. I’m still floored when a stranger has “heard of” me, but when that first started happening, it was absolutely mind-boggling.

AA: Was anybody else doing this? Were you the first?

JF: There were a few online projects at the time… blogs like Joerg Colberg’s Conscientious and JPG magazine existed as a print zine/online magazine. I also really loved Tim Barber’s Tiny Vices and its no-frills approach: simple, straightforward, to the point, with a great eye.

AA: Yes! I remember JPG. Blueeyes Magazine was an early inspiration for me. And Photoblogs.org. Tiny Vices was fantastic. Tim had a vision. I learned a lot from that site.

JF: Amani and I wanted to create a white-wall gallery aesthetic with a simple, clean way of viewing work and learning about new photographers. Ours was more online exhibition than online magazine.

AA: Did you both curate Group Show?

JF: We worked collaboratively. We both invited photographers; Amani designed the site and guided its aesthetic and I curated the images. We used to joke about the DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince album He’s the DJ, I’m The Rapper and how that was us.

AA: Did you think of yourself as a curator?

JF: I just looked back at my email to Soth from 2005, and had referred to myself as “curating an online gallery” so, yes. Initially Group Show was just going to be a monthly, theme-less online exhibition. But after we received such a flood of glowing responses and unsolicited submissions, we thought there was room for something wider reaching.

AA: That must have been encouraging. The audience helped you find your way?

JF: Very much so… Eventually we became a 501c3 non-profit offering grants and other opportunities.I should add this was before “branded content,” and viral features didn’t exist in the way they do today. Features Shoot, and Slate’s Behold blog — two of my favorite big-traffic online publications on photography — didn’t exist yet, and online magazines in general weren’t writing about photographers the way they are today.

AA: How have things changed?

JF: “Shareability” wasn’t something people talked about in the same way then.

AA: The concept of sharing, of social media didn’t enter my lexicon until 2008 or so. I have a distinct memory of reading about social media around that time. I’d been doing social things with FlakPhoto but didn’t realize that’s what was happening. For me, it was always about engaging with my peers online, which is an inherently social practice. It’s funny, how we’ve all embraced these technologies to do things differently, all of us learning together, simultaneously. Engaging the online audience has always been such a key part of my projects — it was only a matter of time before I embraced social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to promote the photographers I admired.


AA: These days, curate is a hot button word.

JF: I have a love/hate relationship with it. In the past 5-10 years, the overuse of the word has led to jokes about people “curating their meals”…”curating their socks…” and so on. Subway for a while was referring to their baristas as “Sandwich Artists”, and there was some joke going around about how they should be called Curators. I like to think that I’m a legitimate curator.

AA: There is a lot of vitriol out there for people who use the word incorrectly. Which is, of course, completely subjective. People are very, very protective of the concept of the curator. Why is that?

JF: I think many people coming from a specific place of academic privilege are the most protective. There’s a similar frustration that “serious photographers” have towards Instagram.

AA: It’s the amateur loathe the amateur.

JF: They do! I think for photographers, curators, art historians, etc. there is a need to feel that one’s practice is superior, better, more refined. And those coming from a less rigorous experience are in some way diluting or polluting, what worked so hard to accomplish. You see this in many fields.

AA: Seems to me, the more confident one is in what one does — and the more inquisitive one is — embrace anything new. If something presents possibility, it’s worth considering.

JF: In Humble’s early days many blue-chip gallerists dismissed the legitimacy of online curation. There was often the dismissive question of “is this online only?” like there was less value in something that wasn’t exhibited in physical printed form.

AA: Did online pose a threat to traditional institutions?

JF: I don’t know if it was a threat, but I think that many were just resistant to change. I hate to use a buzzword, but in every field, people fear that “disruptors” will steal their seat as opposed to expanding the medium. I think the attitudes many have towards overuse of the word curatorare in many ways grounded in that, but nowadays brick and mortar exhibitions almost always have an online component.

AA: There was a time when websites were considered an inferior platform for curatorial practice, for publication — and now all of the major traditional photography organizations use the Internet to get their work out into the world. There has been a lot of anxiety about that transition over the past decade things are leveling out. The Web has worked its way into every aspect of our lives so things are different now. Yet, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, traditional curators appear to be reticent to embrace technologies. That has changed in the last few years but, in my opinion, traditional curators are missing out on huge opportunities to do their work another way, to expand what curatorial practice means.

JF: Have you been following Charlotte Cotton’s Photography is Magic promotion?

AA: Yes! I’m a big fan of Charlotte’s work She’s one of the forward thinking curators inspiring. Words Without Pictures made a big impact on me. I always include Jason Evans “Online Photographic Thinking” essay (from that project) in my Photo 2.0 lectures. That was a groundbreaking effort for a museum to undertake — publishing essays online and engaging the community in web-based conversations.

JF: I mention Charlotte specifically because I think she’s actually using Facebook in way that is more innovative than most. Instead of doing interviews as blog posts, she’s publishing them directly as Facebook posts.

AA: Her Facebook posts are essentially Instant Articles. I’m especially pleased to see her embracing Instagram for PIM – That’s what I’m talking about: go where the audience is. Put photography experiences on a mobile device, in the stream, where we can engage with it wherever we happen to be. It’s a new kind of photographic experience.


JF: In the past decade since starting FlakPhoto, and evolving it into a heavily engaged online photographic community, throughout all that history you’ve shied away from referring to yourself as a curator.

AA: Sure. I always thought of the work I was doing with FlakPhoto as a kind of editorial production. In the beginning, I set out to publish an online magazine so the editor title fit. And I hadn’t yet come to the realization that curators can exist independently, outside the framework of traditional institutions. Plus, I never formally trained as a curator and that level of scholarship means something to me. I was happy to experiment with FlakPhoto — to expand what it might become — without getting hung up on the title.

JF: In the past couple years, specifically with your brick and mortar exhibitions and your development of FlakPhoto Digest, you’ve embraced the curator title with much more enthusiasm. What do you think prompted that evolution and your original hesitancy?

AA: I created FlakPhoto out of a curiosity for photography and to teach myself how I could use the Web to promote the image-makers I admired. And, to burden that practice — a genuine, personal, creative practice — with this loaded word was problematic for me. I’m not sure the titles matter. Am I an editor? A curator? A producer? A publisher? What matters is that I’m a person who cares about photography — about its past, present and future — and that I’m engaging with it on daily basis.

JF: But isn’t the level of energy and self-education you’ve put into it worthy of the same respect? Haven’t you earned it despite not having a PhD or MFA?

AA: At this point, I consider myself an independent curator. My projects are born of my own energies, mostly inspired by the creative impulses that drive me. I have curated a handful of exhibitions, large-scale projects, some of them commissioned by museums. Those projects taught me a lot about how exhibition photography functions. There’s substantially more involved in producing an exhibition experience than there is in publishing a blog. Digital exhibitions are unique experiences and they’re as significant as analog exhibitions. I’m doing photography differently than it’s been done previously so I sometimes wonder if the old terms apply. Maybe we need a new title.

JF: I think so much of the backlash/negative associations also come from a feeling of defending one’s territory.

AA: That might be true. And I’ve never been particularly compelled to claim ownership over what I do as being official or significant or important. Edit, organize, curate, present—each of these activities is related. But, and here’s where it’s interesting—because we’ve spent the past decade experimenting with the Internet, publishing on the Web, participating in the online photo community experience—we’ve developed a new way of doing things. We’re part of moving photography forward.

JF: What is the most substantial contribution online publishing has added to how people experience and engage with photography?

AA: Twenty first-century digital literacy enables anyone who understands the Web to express themselves publicly on a global level, and that changes the hierarchical structure of photographic communication. So each of us, independent of our place in the photo world, has the potential to connect our work to an online audience. That’s huge.

JF: Do you think it’s eliminated the concept of the gatekeeper?

AA: It depends how we define that Gatekeeper, but, sure. Because you and I and our online colleagues have developed platforms that, to my mind, didn’t exist prior to 2000. Of course, I’ve been called a gatekeeper. And I’ve been taken to task for not recognizing the impact my online decision-making represents. Which is… nuts.Everything is relative.

JF: I think online curation has opened up who those audiences are, how they can engage with art/photography, and in many ways, can help to shape it.

AA: If you think of it this way, that engaging with photographic peers online using social media is a kind of creative, communicative exchange, then it’s not so much an act of curation or marketing or promotion, as an act of human expression. My expression manifests itself in a variety of ways: my website, on Instagram, my tweets, in the FlakPhoto Network, in my weekly email newsletter. They’re all creative outlets for exploring and understanding the photo/visual culture that surrounds us. Because of how the Web works, my personal experience is a public experience. And that publicness means it can impact other people. And that’s wonderful.

Jon Feinstein is a Seattle and New York City based curator, photographer, the co-founder of Humble Arts Foundation, and Strategic Partnerships Manager at Shutterstock. Jon has curated numerous exhibitions, including Radical Color at Newspace Center for Photography, in Portland, Oregon; Another New York for Art-Bridge at The Barclays Arena in Brooklyn, NY; the internet-acclaimed New Cats in Art Photography; Aneta Bartos’ Boys at the Carlton Arms Hotel in NYC, and 31 Women in Art Photography at Hasted Kraetleur in NYC. His various projects have received high praise by The New York Times, The New Republic, BBC, VICE, Huffington Post, Hyperallergic, American Photo, Art Info, and FoxNews; and his writing has appeared in TIME, Slate, Daylight, GOOD, and Whitewall Magazines. Find him shamelessly on Instagram and Twitter @jonfeinstein

Andy Adams is an experienced producer with a passion for visual media and digital culture. Since 2004, he has consulted cultural institutions that use the Internet to engage, inspire, and educate the public. Adams is a pioneer in the field of online arts exhibition and has collaborated with the RISD Museum of Art, the Australian Centre for Photography, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and numerous other organizations. He is an evangelist for the Web’s potential to inspire communities and regularly speaks about the opportunities digital media provide creators to connect with their audiences and each other online. In his spare time, he hosts the FlakPhoto Network, a 13,000-member online community focused on conversations about visual culture. Find him on Twitter @FlakPhoto.