Essays

The Problem with Tumblr and Photography

by Jörg Colberg on March 6, 2013

From photographer Alec Soth's tumblelog "The LBM Dispatch" (used with the artist's permission)

From photographer Alec Soth’s tumblelog “The LBM Dispatch” (used with the artist’s permission)

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of commissioned essays for The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium on Saturday, March 9, 2013.

A little over ten years ago, when I started blogging about photography, most photoblogs were presenting a single photographer’s work, one photograph at a time, usually per day. They were maintained by the photographers themselves. The scene was very small, and there was maybe a slightly naive earnestness about how it was done, which made following those blogs an appealing experience.

… Tumblr is nothing but a variant of the very early photoblogs on steroids.

In the years since, for better or for worse, many of the ideas driving those early photoblogs have fallen by the wayside, with new formats and platforms replacing each other in a bewildering fashion. Many more photographers have come to embrace the web, in particular the social-networking bits.

Before looking at this in more detail, it might be worthwhile to point out that the internet seems made for photography. Photographs offer an immediacy that survives even under the most adverse, aka attention-deficit-disorder-plagued, circumstances.

Interestingly enough, Tumblr is nothing but a variant of the very early photoblogs on steroids. The basic format is the same: present usually one photograph (or another short snippet of information, like a video, an animated GIF, or a text) at a time. Following other Tumblrs then adds the steroids. While in the past one needed to visit one photoblog after another, Tumblr now offers a seemingly incessant stream of work, all in one place. What’s more, showcasing other people’s photographs appears to have overtaken showcasing one’s own.

This all sounds pretty great, except that there’s a multitude of problems, some of them well-known, others not so much. For starters, a large number of photographers are massively concerned about copyright. If everybody were to ask photographers for permission to showcase their work, Tumblr would grind to a halt in less time than it takes to say the word “copyright.”

This isn’t to say that concerns about copyright are invalid. But photographers worried about it might want to ask themselves what damage is done to their work (and income) if someone showcases their pictures to a possibly larger, possibly different audience, for noncommercial reasons. If a photographer is very concerned, a simple solution would be to not put photographs online. The moment they’re on the web, the medium’s properties kick in; the nature of the internet makes copyright violations incredibly simple. Then again, it also makes it easier to detect and go after those violations (as retailer DNKY just found out).

As far as I’m concerned, the bigger issue is the sloppy attribution of photographs, especially on Tumblr. Often, I find photographs where the source is not given at all, or where it is given in such a way that tracking down the photographer involves considerable work. This translates to a non-fair-use copyright violation, and unfortunately, many Tumblr users — often photographers themselves — are woefully uninformed or unconcerned about this.

Poorly attributed photographs are part of a larger, very Tumblr-specific problem, which actually brings me back to the earliest days of photoblogging.

The copyright issue aside, looking at a photograph without any additional information leaves me wanting. If I enjoy the picture, I probably want to see more, but I don’t have the chance to do that unless I turn to Google Image Search myself. Even if I don’t enjoy it, I don’t really know what I’m dealing with: who’s responsible for this?

Poorly attributed photographs are part of a larger, very Tumblr-specific problem, which actually brings me back to the earliest days of photoblogging. Back then, a viewer would know very well what s/he was dealing with; a view would have to visit each photoblog one after the other. Tumblelogs, by construction, breaks this experience up: Unless you visit individual blogs one after the other, you see them intermingled in your Tumblr Dashboard; As a consequence, photographs are reduced to snippets of information — one photo by some artist followed by another photo by another artist, etc. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with this, since many photographs are just that. But photography has come a long way since, let’s say, the 1970s, when a lot of what still constitutes the canon of writing about photography was created. For example, over the last ten years we have witnessed the evolution of the photobook into a massively complex form of art itself, with the role of individual photographs shrinking.

In a nutshell, Tumblr does away with the more complex ways in which photographs operate by reducing them all to single entities. Even if someone were to use a sequence of images on a Tumblr, unless a viewer only followed that specific blog (and who does that anymore?), the sequence would be broken up in the dashboard. Add to that selective reblogging, and you’re in trouble.

Tumblr was created by people whose idea of what photographs can do is stuck in the recent past: photographs as isolated images that stand on their own. If you rely on Tumblr to follow photography, it’s unlikely you’ll see much of anything that moves beyond this concept. This is a case of the medium (Tumblr) dictating the message (just like Twitter doesn’t exactly advocate complex thought, and Facebook doesn’t exactly convey the depth that social interactions can have).

Point this out, though, and you’re almost automatically labeled a Luddite, someone hostile to new technologies. But if technologies don’t serve us — or in this case, photography — well, only in very restricted/restrictive ways, then we’re much better off thinking about how we can improve things, instead of blindly accepting the medium’s shortcomings.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that artists can’t find ways to work with the format. Alec Soth, for example, has been publishing Dispatches, his work from a series of road trips taken with writer Brad Zellar, on Tumblr. Each trip visits a specific region in the US, and the connection between individual posts is loose enough for them to work well even if reblogged out of their original context. At the end of each trip, the work is published in physical form, on newsprint, while Soth has also found a way to explore the medium of Tumblr and its type of image dissemination.

From Ramon Haindl's tumblelog "Sketchbook" (used with permission of the artist)

From Ramon Haindl’s tumblelog “Sketchbook” (used with permission of the artist)

If, on the other hand, you wanted to show two or more pictures in relation to each other, the truly safest way to do so on Tumblr would be to make a single image (in Photoshop) that contains the individual parts in their intended configuration. Roman Haindl does this well, such as in this wonderful grouping. In a related fashion, Fette Sans often shows two images and writing all in a single post, creating her own juxtapositions instead of relying on chance encounters in people’s Tumblr streams.

Photography has made incredible progress as a way to tell stories and offer complex narratives. But combine the frequently shoddy attribution of photographic work with the incessant stream of single images on Tumblr, and you get a medium that is far removed from quite a lot of the potential of contemporary photography — the frequent noise of its proponents notwithstanding.

From Fette Sans' tumblelog

From Fette Sans’ tumblelog (used with permission of the artist)

It might be interesting to compare Tumblr to alternative websites. For a long time, Flickr was the go-to place for photography. Acquired by Yahoo a few years ago, the site has lost much of its original luster by failing to keep up with new developments (just like its corporate mother). But there is still a sizable community of photographers active on Flickr, posting mostly their own work. Flickr allows for the grouping of images into sets and offers much better ways to organize content than Tumblr. But the overall user interface is rather clunky, and given that the site was created before the social-networking craze, many of the features Tumblr offers are simply absent.

At the other end of the spectrum lies Instagram, a social-media platform centered exclusively on photography. Right now, Instagram is the latest craze in photoland (don’t expect this to last). Photographers have embraced taking pictures with their iPhones, adding filters on top (producing digital photographs that look like Polaroids or the results from older, often “toy” cameras), and sharing them with followers. Instagram is adamant about not allowing users to post other people’s photographs, which is seemingly great news for photographers. On the other hand, Instagram is owned by Facebook, a company infamous for changing its terms and conditions (TOS).

Tumblr was created by people whose idea of what photographs can do is stuck in the recent past: photographs as isolated images that stand on their own.

The irony here is that many of the photographers worried about copyright on Tumblr have no problem putting their images on an app owned by a site that has a very shaky history of respecting its users’ rights. A recent attempt by Instagram to change the TOS blew up in the company’s face. There have been reports that the site lost a fair amount of users, which the company — probably predictably — denies.

Given the rapid succession of websites featuring or working with photography, it’s unlikely that the story will end here. Whatever comes after Tumblr will have to deal with the issues discussed above. At the same time, many photographers will have to come to a better understanding of what it means to put photographs onto the web. I’ve long argued that probably the best site serving photographers would be one started by photographers, owned by photographers (in other words, not sold to some megacorporation), and used (and paid for!) by photographers who are aware of the possibilities and restrictions of the medium. It’s currently not clear whether such a site will materialize, but given how easy it is to start a new platform on the web we might see one by photographers, for photographers sooner than we might imagine.

Hyperallergic would like to thank Pernod Absinthe for their support of the World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium essay series.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • Alie

    With the photoset feature on tumblr, you can combine up to 10 images in a single post; I found that photosets are generally more prevalent (on the professionally-inclined art blogs I follow) than the single image format discussed in this article.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      That doesn’t work on mobile uploads, and even on the desktop the templates are limited.

      • http://clokaroundtherock.tumblr.com/ Clok_moitie

        Of course, photosets work on mobile.

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          You cannot upload a photo set on mobile. And there experience of viewing a photoset is not uniform on mobile/desktop/blog, at all.

          • http://www.facebook.com/jdeadbird Jay Weatherspoon

            actually, the tumblr app just got updated, so you can create photosets with mobile uploading.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            I just saw that but you can’t pick templates or moving the pics around, like the desktop version. Maybe we just have to wait.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ianaleksanderadams Ian Aleksander Adams

      yeah I feel like that’s a huge oversight in this article.

  • JosephYoung

    Analogous to the breaking apart of albums/CDs with the rise of mp3s, Itunes Shuffle, etc–the context and ordering of other songs is gone. I like how that randomized juxtapositioning can “wake up” a song I’ve heard a million times before, but something is lost in that too.

  • http://twitter.com/svenghali79 svenghali

    i generally agree, it is annoying (for viewer and artist alike) when you see something that catches your eye and there is no info or helpful link provided (i gave up on pinterest for this very reason). Personally I always try to find out who the artist is and link to their website or at least the gallery that represents them when i post something other than my own work.

  • http://twitter.com/alexteplitzky Alex Teplitzky

    I completely agree with the problem of sloppy attribution, if there is any at all. That is why I started my art tumblr a year ago, toutpetitlaplanete.tumblr.com. I follow a strict policy of attribution and links!

Previous post:

Next post: