AFTER ARLES: VISITING WEB SITES


As we do every year, Frances and I went to the opening week of the Rencontres in Arles in 2016. This is reputedly the biggest gathering of fine art photographers in the world: perhaps, the biggest gathering of photographers of any kind, with or without the label "fine art". Afterwards, we started visiting the web sites of some of the numerous photographers we had met. 


Photographica. Never mind "fine art": as well as exhibitions, there are numerous "pop up" bookshops and vendors of vintage prints. You can even find antique glass  plates for sale, without any guarantee as to whether they will still be usable.


If you are a photographer, and want to become known as a photographer, you pretty much have to have a web site. Otherwise people will see your pictures and then lose track of you. This may be true even if you are represented by a major gallery or agency, because on their site, your work has to compete with all the other photographers represented by them. The only way it works well if you are part of a bigger site is if you have your own exclusive part of the site, a sort of dedicated sub-site within the main site. 


Cards, fliers, etc. from Arles 2016. I picked up about 3 lb (call it 1.4 kg) of cards, fliers, etc., at the Rencontres.


The site need not be very grand, but it is generally best if it is your own site, even if it is one of those small, free sites that are so widely available. Galleries on Facebook and the like are often too crowded and too ill-organized to be of as much use as they should be. They don't have to be, but often, they are. Also, some people (me included) just don't like Facebook or anything that tracks its visitors too closely and then hits them with endless targeted advertising; for a given value of "targeted".

 If you want people to look at your pictures, make it easy for them. First, organize your pictures into conveniently-sized galleries on single themes. Do not mix themes, with "a bit of this and a bit of that". If a single theme gets too big, split it into two or more galleries, as I did with The Secret Life of Chairs. "Too big" is a matter of personal taste and subject matter, but 100 pictures is almost certainly too big. I prefer not to go above about twenty, and (for example) there are only nine pictures in Vehicles as Ruins. A single theme may however be tiny, as small as one picture or (for example) four, as in Andrey Kezzin's Four. This is about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which sets quite a firm limit on the size of the series. 

Don't use thumbnails that are too small to see, so that your visitors have to shunt through every single one in order to see anything meaningful, and make it so that they can get from one to the next with a simple scrolling movement or (better still) via the direction arrows: up, down, left, right. Having to hover over a barely visible thumbnail, or worse still, click onto it, is time consuming and boring. At worst, it will drive people off the site. Likewise, make it easy to get from one gallery to the next. Some sites make this so difficult that it is easier to leave the site, then come back and open the next gallery. 


Web sites are only part of the story. Throughout Arles, cards and fliers are scattered on every available horizontal surface and stuck to every available vertical surface. Use all the means you can find to publicize your work, and your web site.


Remember what the site is for. It is so that people can look at your pictures. It is not so that they can admire web-site designers trying (and almost invariably failing) to look clever. One site I visited had a awful oscillating logo: completely useless, and very distracting. Movement and indeed change of any kind (colour changes, size changes...) are extremely distracting, for good evolutionary reasons. A  million years ago, on the savannah or in the jungle, movement could mean predators, enemies or food. It is true that you are unlikely to be eaten by a tiger while visiting a web site, but your instincts don't know that. 

For similar reasons, music or any other kind of sound track is seldom a good idea. If your work is genuinely multi-media, and the sound is an essential part of it, fine. Otherwise, though, you run the risk of lulling your visitors into a comfortable stupor. The site is supposed to be entertaining, but it is not supposed to be mindless entertainment.

Avoid automatic slide shows, or at least, provide the option of switching them off. At the very least, make it easy to arrest them, so people can linger over pictures they particularly like. Not all pictures are created equal. A few seconds may be nothing like enough time to look at a picture you really like, but far too long to look at a picture that doesn't interest you. Scrolling back can be a hassle, especially if you can't then freeze the picture you've scrolled back to. If it's too much of a hassle, once again it may drive people off the site.

As well as your web-site, you need business cards. Lots of business cards. With the address of your web-site on them. In fact, if there is only the address of your web site, that's often all you'll need as long as there is contact information on the site. On that topic, give an e-mail address as well as having a contact form. That way, if someone wants to copy a letter to you and to an editor, as I do, or to a gallery owner or (best of all) to a prospective client, they can. Many of your cards will be thrown away, or never looked at again, but if the right people get just one or two cards, it can be life-changing. Improve the odds by handing them out like confetti. I get through a couple of hundred at Arles, and I'm not particularly trying to promote myself as a photographer.Frances gets through scores more. 


Multiple images. If your fliers aren't very big (these are A4) then just put up more of them: repetition can be more effective than sheer size. But whatever you do, make sure your web site url is on them.


This was written because one of the reasons we go to Arles, apart from the sheer pleasure of it, is to look for photographers whose work I can promote in my regular weekly column on the final page of Amateur Photographer magazine. This has been published continuously on real paper since 1884. Yes, I admit that I am normally looking at web sites for a very specific purpose. I also admit too that I am an old man who is not comfortable with jazzed-up sites. On the other hand, ask yourself who you want to look at your site, and why. A lot of gallery owners are no longer young either, and the people who may want to buy your pictures or to commission new work are likely to have more money if they are not young and struggling. Yes, it is possible that a frenetic site may lead to commissions for some kinds of work, and if that is your judgement, go for a more frenetic site. The advice above is only from one point of view; but it is from the point of view of someone who sees a lot of sites and who is, in a small way, in a position to help promote your work and make your name better known.

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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016