Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Future of


A Flickr member for several years, I've watched with interest as professional photo users have discovered the site (mostly to troll for freebie visuals). Lately, the press has been asking, What's next? Here are two recent takes: a reprint of an article in the May issue of Photo District News & a podcast with some observations on Flickr by British photographer Martin Parr.

PDN Reprint

Your Friend Flickr?
May 02, 2007
By Daryl Lang

Ryan Brenizer landed a job covering events for Paul Wilcock licensed his concert photos to a few newspapers. Hamad Darwish got an assignment to shoot desktop backgrounds for Microsoft Windows.

What did these photographers do to drum up work? Almost nothing. They uploaded their photos to Flickr and the work found them.

Flickr went online in 2004 as a powerful yet easy-to-use program for storing and sharing personal images. It was acquired by Yahoo! in 2005. Today it leads a double life as a hugely popular site for amateurs to share personal snapshots, and as a growing marketplace for licensing photo rights.With millions of keyworded pictures, the site resembles a big stock library. Photo buyers praise the quality of the photographs and the ease of the Flickr search engine. Professional shooters say the site's forums are a good source of tips and inspiration. Joining the site is free, and with so much traffic it seems like a logical place to set up shop.

But Flickr has done little if anything to welcome professionals. It offers no e-commerce features. It expressly forbids commercial uses of its site. "If we find you selling products, services, or yourself through your photostream, we will terminate your account," its guidelines read. Many of its users happily give their photos away for free.

Transactions that take place off the site are not forbidden, however. Flickr neither encourages nor discourages art buyers from e-mailing photographers to ask for photos, a spokesperson says.Members say such e-mails are on the rise. Flickr's forums bustle with discussions about requests users get for their images, and how much to charge.

Sherri Jackson, a Flickr member who says she shoots for fun and personal expression, noticed more people contacting her in the last few months asking to use her images."I get more requests every week and it's exciting to learn how people wish to use my images," she says. "I like the fact that my work can be out there and available and I really don't have to do anything to market myself."

Another Flickr member to notice this trend is Matthew Blake Powers, a graduate of architecture school who takes photographs as a hobby. "Many times, the e-mails I receive are very casual and get to the point. They simply state who they are, what image they are interested in, and how/why they would like to use it," Powers says.In one case, someone designing the annual report for the Milwaukee Art Museum e-mailed Powers seeking to use one of his photos on the cover. After researching how much to charge, and weighing the fact that he never had anything published before, Powers decided to ask $250. To Powers' disappointment, the museum selected another cover.

Paul Buckley, vice president and executive art director for Penguin, uses Flickr to find photographs, something he mentioned in a story about book publishing in PDN's March issue."I use Flickr as any other stock photo source with a search engine," Buckley says. "That may not be its intended purpose, but it works beautifully, and the site has a smart, powerful search engine." Penguin recently used a Flickr photograph on a book cover.

There is no way to know how much business is conducted through Flickr. One member claims a major ad agency paid him $2,500 to use a Flickr photo as a background in an unaired TV commercial. Darwish's job for Microsoft, shooting landscapes to be included with Windows Vista as desktop wallpaper, was almost certainly a multi-thousand-dollar job.At the other extreme, some blogs and small companies ask to use Flickr photos for free. Some don't even ask."I think a lot of companies are using it as kind of a fishing site for cheap stuff from people without a lot of experience," says Jim Hunter, a stock and assignment photographer and editor of But even Hunter posts work on Flickr, which he says drives a fair amount of traffic to his professional site. His wife also uses Flickr to share family photos.

Brenizer, who has been shooting events like the New York Comic Con for thanks to a Flickr connection, joined the site as a casual member a few years ago. Brenizer credits the site's message boards with teaching him to be a better photographer and jumpstarting his photo career."The passion just totally captured me," he says. "There's that positive reinforcement of all the people on there. . . . Then the people who contacted me started to be clients."A former newspaper editor, Brenizer now works in the publications office of the Columbia University Teachers College, where a large part of his job is shooting photographs. On his own time, he shoots weddings and events, and he spent a week as the photographer-in-residence at a biological research center—all jobs he got through Flickr. "I've never solicited, I've never done any advertising," he says.

Flickr has made some photographers into cult celebrities. David Hobby, a Baltimore Sun staff photographer, publishes a blog about lighting called Strobist. To complement the blog, he started a Flickr group so his readers could share advice and photos.The Strobist group spun out of control and now has more than 7,100 members, who post dozens of messages a day. Hobby doesn't have time to answer all the questions people send him. A lighting seminar he organized sold out weeks in advance. Hobby says he is impressed by how good Flickr photographers are, pointing to the Strobist photo pool. "Almost every one of those pictures has earning potential," he says.Like a lot of Flickr fans, Hobby thinks it's only a matter of time before the service finds a way to monetize this collection of talent. "You don't sit on a big oil well and not drill down eventually," he says.

A Flickr spokesperson would not comment on future plans. For now, Flickr makes money off advertising and by selling upgraded memberships for a small annual fee. It has some direct competitors (including Zoomr, SmugMug and Photobucket) but none with the kind of popularity and goodwill Flickr has achieved.Flickr allows members to set free usage terms by attaching Creative Commons tags to images, so a logical next step might be to let users set prices for certain kinds of usage. Another strategy could be to partner with an existing stock photography site, perhaps one of the royalty-free micropayment sites that also appeal to semi-professional shooters.

Or it could do nothing.

To better understand Flickr's future, it may be helpful to step back and look at how Yahoo! and its investors view the site.In earnings calls and media interviews, no one asks Yahoo! executives how they're going to make money off photographs. Instead, the buzz is all about "Web 2.0," the user-generated, community-focused sites that have attracted huge audiences. Sites like Flickr, MySpace and YouTube are hot because they engage people in a way that traditional media increasingly cannot.Yahoo! recently began requiring Flickr members to use the same ID to log in to Flickr as they use for other services like Yahoo! Mail. As a result, the company can collect more information about users and their online behavior.

To Yahoo!, Flickr's value is not its photography, but rather the desirable audience it attracts for advertisers and marketers. This may explain Flickr's failure to embrace, denounce, or even officially care about the pro community.Somehow, Flickr has created a marketplace for professional photography and made it look like an accident.

Note on Martin Parr Interview

You may find the Parr interview (above link) very slow to load. See transcripted excerpts about Flickr at Michael David Murphy's 2point8 blog.


Chris Bonney said...

I was quite surprised by PDN's take on Flickr. But given their commercial perspective, perhaps it shouldn't have been such a surprise. It's like when someone born long after you on the other side of town describes your hometown as a very different place than what you know. We each have our own realities. The late Gordon McKenzie used to say we each live in our own "thin slice of infinity."

The beauty of networks like Flickr and Fotolog is that so much of how one experiences them is determined by the user. As such, it's completely possible to particpate in them without being smothered by the kind of commercial interests described in the PDN piece. The person who wants that kind of engagement can find it, too. But those who just enjoy posting and sharing slices of their world and their artistic expressions, and further enjoy interacting with others who share these interests can also do so without pressure.

All that having been said, I believe the real point of Flickr and Fotolog is indeed community. Yes, we can learn from what we see on these sites. We can be inspired by what we see. We can even sell a little on these sites. But at the bottom of all this activity, the root explanation is that we're in search of community. Can there be anyone who posts at at Flickr or any of the other photo sharing communities who doesn't at some level just want to be acknowledged or validated?

We've joked over the years about the burden of "feeding the monster." But when I go offiline I find what I miss more than the visual feast and creative inspiration is the community of friends, many of who I know only as a collection of pixels on the screen.

The scary thing about PDN's story for me is that it suggests that this peaceful community may wake up some day soon and have to recognize that our little playground--actually our millions of self-selected and occasionally interlocking playgrounds--is actually a business owned by people with goals that are more commercial than social.

Tim Connor said...

Chris said: "The scary thing about PDN's story for me is that it suggests that this peaceful community may wake up some day soon and have to recognize that our little playground--actually our millions of self-selected and occasionally interlocking playgrounds--is actually a business owned by people with goals that are more commercial than social."

Isn't that exactly what happened with

Chris Bonney said...

No, I don't feel Fotolog was ruined by money. It fell from favor among many of us because we found something else that better suited our needs. If money had anything to do with Fotolog's fall from grace, it's because Fotolog was undercapitalized and managerially unprepared to handle the rapid growth it experienced. (A sadly common experience for many start-ups that find success beyond their planning.)

I don't really have a problem with someone making money from "our" community. They're enabling the community and as long as they don't throw too many obstacles in its way, why shouldn't they be entitled to profit from it?

terri lynn said...

hmmm, nobody seems to be beating down my door?? maybe they'll come by wordpress and want my poetry...
I won't hold my breath. :)

Tim Connor said...

Chris, I have a different memory of the end of the old Fotolog. For most floggers, switching to Flickr wasn't so much a coolheaded consumer decision as frustration that their community (much like the one you describe in your 1st post) had melted down over basic technical isues that had gone unadressed for many months. As I recall, in many cases this frustration was actually quite anguished. Meanwhile, the people in charge were putting out happy talk while they blithely executed their business plan.

It all worked out of course. Classic tempest in a teapot, looking back. But in all honesty -- & I don't mean this as a reproach to your comment -- I'm mystified why so many Americans now are ready to forgive almost anything if the doer just claims, I was only trying to make a buck...Guess now the Berlin Wall's down, capitalism truly is the one true universal religion. I feel (again) like a blasphemer.