Monday, December 23, 2013

A conversation with Steve Bannos: actor, writer, and gargantuan photo dealer

Before I start with my long write-up up of a much longer conversation, let me give you a little background:

One Sunday night a couple of weeks ago, I decided to browse eBay for some old photobooth photos, for no particular reason. I came across listings with titles that cracked me up. I noticed that the funny ones were invariably from a seller named "Gargantua." Let me give you a few examples:



You get the idea. So, I started reading the photo captions from my iPad and showing them to my wife and kids. We must have been reading them for an hour. We were all dying of laughter. The next night, I was still thinking about the brilliant listings and I thought, "Hey. I should contact the seller. They really deserve to know that they have provided so much entertainment for my family."
So, in the "ask the seller a question" box on eBay, I told the seller that I thought the listings were pure genius. He wrote back and thanked me for the compliment, and included his name, Steve Bannos. Out of curiosity, I googled the name and was shocked to see that the first two hits were IMDB and Wikipedia. It turns out, Steve Bannos hadn't just entertained me for one evening; he had entertained me with his writing and acting on Freaks and Geeks (one of the best shows ever), and countless tv shows and movies (tons—just look at the imdb listing or check out this Youtube demo reel from 2009).

So I wrote back. I told him that my suspicions of his comedic genius were confirmed by my cyber-stalking. I asked if he would consider an interview for my blog. He obliged, and sent me his number. At this point, this was me:

(video of Ed Grimley, which apparently doesn't show up on iPads)

He was the Pat Sajak to my Ed Grimley. Not that I'm the "fan" type. I see tons of famous people every year at the Sundance Film Festival and I don't even bother to bring my camera (although I do have a bit of a crush on Lake Bell and would have had my picture taken with her at the premiere of her movie last year were it not for the brand new zit that had emerged on my nose that day. Later, I realized, oh yeah. I write Photoshop tutorials. duh.) But the thing with Steve Bannos was that I connected with the wit of his eBay listings before I knew who he was. And the more I researched about him in prep for the interview, the more I liked him.

Readers of my blog have "Gargantua's" keen eye for found photos (i.e. "vernacular photography"—but I don't like that term because it feels condescending) and his hilarious listings to thank for my return to this blog after a two-month hiatus (the demands of What The French?! loom large).

Steve Bannos, via imdb
The following is an excerpt from the conversation I had with Steve last week:
[quick note to readers whose genteel sensibilities are alarmed at profanity: I've scaled the interview down to a PG-rating thanks to an asterisk or two, but I'm not cutting out every single word that might offend, so just deal with it or don't read]

Which came first, acting or photography?

Oh, acting came way way before photography. Acting came in High School. I did school plays and we did what was called "contest plays" where you would put up a one act in one hour and you would take that one hour and you'd set it up, you'd do the play, and then you'd strike it—all within one hour. And if you went over the hour you were disqualified. I had the lead role my senior year, and there was a talent scout from a university. He offered a scholarship, and that's how it all began.

So then, when did the photography collecting start?

The photography collecting came in the early 90s. I was always a flea market kind of guy. I have the collector gene, definitely. My father was a collector, and it's just absolutely a gene.

Does that mean you collect other things?

Oh, I collect so much stuff. There's just something attractive about rummaging through old shit. I've just got the gene and I pursue it...And then I just happened to stumble upon a box of snapshots at one of the flea markets, and I bought the whole box, because I'm kind of obsessive that way...So that's how that started, just collecting.

Then around '97, someone told me about this new thing called eBay. And I went, let me take a look if there are snapshots on ebay. So, I started as a buyer, and then I thought, you know what, I can totally do this. And it was the early days of eBay, so I thought, I'm going to do something that no one else does. I'm going to do a persona, and I'm going to present myself as Gargantua the Gorilla and write titles that would really draw people in. You see, in 1997, there weren't thumbnails of the image—thumbnails came around, maybe 2000—so it was all about grabbing someone within however many characters.

So were your titles always pretty crazy?

My titles were originally designed for people to read them and go, "What the F***!" What is this guy talking about?" And they'd have to click through, and then once they've clicked through, I'm hoping I've got the hook in their cheeks. Because, originally, it was all about the text. It was like writing a tagline for a movie poster.

Yeah. So, when I cyber-stalked you, I read on Wikipedia that you write taglines?

I do, and it's just completely independent of eBay, but it's so similar. I write taglines for movie posters, and it's the greatest job in the world.

Do you have any favorites that you've written?

I've written thousands and thousands of them, and to have three or four picked out of thousands, you're doing good. There are tens of thousands written for any one movie, because they go around to different agencies, and everyone in house is writing them, so if yours gets picked you're doing pretty good. The last one I did that got picked was about five years ago for a movie called Ghost Town, about a guy with the ability to see dead people...

Uh-huh. [laughing] Sounds really original.

Do you remember that movie?

No, I don't know why I don't know it.

Greg Kinnear, Téa Leoni, and Ricky Gervais were in it. Ricky Gervais plays this mean-spirited dentist, and so, anyway, the tagline was He sees dead people...And they annoy him.

via Imdb
That's good. I like that.

And I found out by driving past a bus stop and seeing the poster.

You did? They didn't feel like telling you that it had been chosen?

No... So, I saw the poster and I said, I think...I think I wrote that. And it was probably a month later, that I actually went and opened the document and did a search, and it came up, and I was like, I did write it!

I also heard that you guest wrote for Saturday Night Live?

Yeah, I did in 1999-2000, I wrote on four different episodes.

How'd that happen?

It was an interesting experience. I was writing on Freaks & Geeks at the time, so I was kind of in the spotlight, and I had a little bit of a wave going with NBC, as well as, I am friends with Steve Higgins, who was the producer of SNL right beneath Lorne Michaels. That was a brief period of time when they were just flooded with money and they were hiring guest writers left and right. I had the opportunity of being hired as a staff writer, but it just wasn't possible because I lived in L.A., and I had just gotten married...But it was really interesting, and I'm glad I did it. It was just another weird little feather in my cap. I'm glad I pursued something and did well and then moved on. That's kind of what I do. I like to do stuff and then say, ok, I did it, and then move on.

I totally get that. I do that too, but with completely useless accomplishments like becoming 10th in the world in Fruit Ninja.

I'm sure you, like me, could never ever have a 9-to-5 job where you're sitting at a desk looking at a clock—

Right. [laughing] That's why I'm on the phone in my pajamas at noon. So, anyway...when I first read your eBay listings, I thought, These are genius! And then when I found out who you were it made more sense. So I wanted to ask you, how do you write your listings? How long does it take?

What I do is, every week I put up about 70 auctions, so I pick 70 snapshots and it's not just random. My listings are in a certain order. Like, the first group of photos is couples, and they're 1930s and then 1950s, and then men, and then women, and then children, so my regular buyers know exactly what they're going to see every week.

First, I pick the 70 photos and put them in order. And then when it's time to write the descriptions, I really, really have to psyche up for it.


Yes, because it's a grind. I know that if I sit down and don't do anything else, it's going to take an hour and a half—but it's just an hour and a half of, like, beating my head against my desk because I'm not only writing titles, I'm also measuring the photos and typing in the condition, and making sure everything is perfect, and it's a f@#king grind. [...] I usually end up doing it at about 1 a.m., when everyone's asleep.

In fact, you were kind of a catalyst, when you wrote me that complimentary email about my titles, I thought, I gotta get back on my game, I gotta write funnier titles. It takes just a tiny bit more effort. I wrote one a week ago specifically thinking about you and it sold immediately. It was a photobooth photo of a gangster guy from 1930s—totally Al Capone era—and there were spots all over it, like bubbles in a cartoon, and the description was "Insane Gangster Is Seeing Syphilitic Hallucination Spots." It sold immediately. The title sold that, I mean, come on.

Insane Gangster Is Seeing Syphilitic Hallucination Spots

I have a lot of really long term, steady, loyal customers that really dig it [the listings]. I've made so many friends on eBay that have become almost as close as family.

I noticed that you have a Facebook page called Found Photo Room. Are those people that you met through eBay or people that you've met when you're out buying photos or what?

Mostly they're eBay people. Four of the five of us who started the page are all eBay sellers, and we've communicated over the years. I knew a lot of these people for almost 10 years before I ever met them in person, which just happened in New York about a year ago. So that's kind of cool. I've had these long term relationships with people I'd never even met. And they sent me gifts when my child was's come out of eBay is really wonderful in that respect. Just wonderful.

Nobody would think that eBay would be a social network, but I guess when you have a niche market...

Totally, because us oddballs attract each other. It's like we get each other. We'll sit in a room and talk about why a photo's cool. Geeks. We get each other.

[ed. note: lest the reader should think this all rosy about eBay, it's not. In fact, another thing people seem to have in common is a shared dislike of eBay's practices such as forced use of Paypal, a lopsided feedback system, and other things too long to transcribe here.]

I noticed you've got 100% positive ratings out of nearly 19,000 ratings. How do you manage that?

If someone doesn't like something, I'm like, f***ing send it back, no problem.


This is what happened a couple of times: "1960s Photo: Green Army Men Engaged in Battle on Red Shag Carpet"—You probably already know what it looks like. It's a little square photo from the 60s, up close, a fun abstract thing. Well, the person bought it and a week later I get an email from the buyer and he's incensed, and he writes "This is NOT what I bought!!! I bought army men! Where are my army men?!" And I'm like, Actually, this IS what you bought! You didn't buy army men. You thought you were buying army men...So when there's that kind of insane people, I back away slowly with my back to the door. I send back the money. Keep the f***ing photo, I don't even care. I'll even put disclaimers on stuff, often, in red text, like, "Again. you're buying a PHOTO, not the item in the photo"

[laughter] ha! 
So, I remember the listing "supremely bored expressionless black woman"...


I know, and that's going to sell it. I mean, this is the most boring photo in the world.

That was brilliant. When I read that title—I never would have looked at the photo, it was the title that made me look at it—I thought, This needs to be a book. And to me, that's the title of the book. It draws you in. It reminded me of John Baldessari who worked with found photos. I have already created your book in my mind. In my mind, the book has your found photos with the listing titles, and I decided that Martin Parr needs to write the preface and that it would be published with either a little press like Alec Soth's Little Brown Mushroom, or with Steidl or with Chronicle Books if you wanted the mass distribution. Have you ever actually thought about making a book out of your collection?

I've been asked so many times...


I have so many different categories of snapshots that I collect that I could do probably four or five or six different books of specific things or concepts, but I've never really pursued it for a couple of reasons: It's not going to be money at the end of the rainbow. It would be a fun way to share my stuff, yes, but I don't have the time to do it, and I don't have the passion to pursue it, unless someone comes to me and goes "Here's the deal" and I'll go, "OK. Here are the photos."

I've got a couple of different concepts, and one of them is "repeating scenes." Because I look through literally hundreds of thousands of different images in a flea market in a week...and my brain can process these images and remember specific images—I even dream images, like I'm looking through photos in my dreams—and I remember them. And I'll remember that I have in my collection an image that looks almost exactly like another, that's there's another image with a woman doing the exact same thing in a similar mood, and I'll put those photos together, and you look them and go "That's cool." So I've made these couplings of images like that, and then, I could see that the book goes further, like, oh, now, here's a page with four...holy shit! there's four of them! And as it goes on and on, by the back page, I have a collection of people in rowboats and they're at the bow of the rowboat and they're rowing, and the snap is taken by the perspective of the person facing them in the rowboat, and I might have 300 of these!


And your eyeballs start spinning in your head. There's every variation, including a dog! Or a woman passed out. Or a couple kissing. Or a guy with his legs open and you can see one of his nuts...


Having these repeating images is what really fascinates me, and as an obsessive collector, that's what fuels my furnace. I look through so many photos that I start to categorize them. Like, another one is photos of people taken at the apex of a house. For some reason, my brain goes oh, that's cool, and now I have twenty of those. So, repeating images, that's one thing.

And then another is snowmen. I could do a whole book on snapshots of snowmen that are just so wonderful and beautiful—

See. That's so great! I want to see these books. If I could make that happen, I would.
Conceptually, it's more interesting than what a lot of art photographers are doing. [...]
The caption, for me, completely changes how you think of the photo. For example, a lot of them are humorous. That's what really drew me in. But there are also ones where first you laugh, and then you start to wonder. I pulled a few last night off of eBay, like "Shell Shock Army Man and American Flag Backdrop" from 1940. Do you remember that one?


Totally. You can read me any of them, and they'll come back to me. And I can dissect that one for you, too. I'll explain the dynamic of the title and how it's changed through the evolution of eBay. It started out with the title, and not as many characters as they have now. I'd have to suck people in and get them to click through. That's how it started. Then, we got the thumbnail, so the heat was off a little bit because they could see the cool image in the thumbnail. But the search words are really important. I don't want to beat up too many sellers, but a lot of them don't even have the word "photo" in their title, so good luck!

So, words like "American Flag Backdrop" will attract people who are doing searches for "American Flag" and "Photo" or "Backdrop" and "Photo." In the old days, if you didn't get enough search words in your title, you could buy a subtitle for 50 cents, and throw in extra words, for example, "Civil War" or "Union" or "Swords" or whatever. But a couple years ago, they gave me the gift of like, twenty more characters in every title. That's like, What? They just doubled the amount of room I can write bullshit in my titles? Now it's really over the top, so now I can write whole complete non-sequiturs, so you get to read these long, extended, crazy titles. Originally, it was a little shorter, but now I go over the top. Like "syphilitic hallucination" would have taken up half the title in the old days.

So that allows you to add this part that isn't about people finding it, right? Like, with the "Shell Shock Army Man and American Flag Backdrop," maybe they're looking for "American flag" or maybe they're looking for "Army man," but they're probably not looking up "Shell shock," right?

Yeah. That's the bonus. The bonus characters.

Or, another one I saw last night was "Age-inappropriate woman in teen girl poodle skirt," which I thought was really funny. First, it made me laugh, and then it came across as a little tragic, like, I start to make up the story, like, is this a daughter who is trying to make her mother keep up with the times by giving her a poodle skirt? or is this the woman's sad attempt to remain relevant to her husband who's got wandering eyes, or....Do you create stories in your mind when you see these photos?

"Age-inappropriate woman in teen girl poodle skirt"

Sometimes I do, but generally, if I get too emotional about a photo, I keep it. I will keep it. I collect obsessively. No, really, when I'm cranking out titles, I just shoot from the hip and move on to the next one, and measure the next photo, and keep churning them out.

I'm curious, how many photos do you keep? Because I'd want to keep a lot of them.

I have one box that I call my "primo primo" and it's not any categories, it's just images, and there might be 2,000 of those—so no one's buying those. And then I have different categories that I wouldn't sell either, so I have maybe 10,000 or more that I don't want to sell. But if someone offers me $2,000 for a photo that I really adore, I'm like, "Cash please." There are a couple I would absolutely never sell, but I guess there's always a price. My all time favorite snapshot is of Bela Lugosi and his son and a waitress at a Hollywood diner. If you look at it closely, Bela and his son are sitting at the table and his son is, like, six years old, and the waitress is standing there—it's a square black and white snapshot—and if you look at the table it tells a story. And if you look at the back of it, there's narrative. "Bela is sitting with Junior, who just upset his milk." And then you have to turn it over again and look at the table and you go, Oh shit, you can see where he spilled his milk. And then you go, Well, let's look at what's on the table: There's a milk, Bela's got a cigar in his hand, there's a cup of coffee, there's a beer, there's a water, and there's something else, there's a little case, who knows what, maybe a syringe case, I have no idea, but that's just the story of what's on the table...and then there's Bela, and Junior, and the waitress...It's my number one, all-time favorite. I have reproduced it and blown it up into a pretty nice sized little poster and had Bela Junior autograph it, I showed it to him.

No way!

Yeah. At a horror show. At Monsterpalooza. First I showed him the snapshot and he was like "Yeah. I was always spilling stuff"—He said something like that. Just a casual throwaway, and I had the big poster, and I said, "Could you make it out to the Bannos family?" —Of course! I....I couldn't think of a price tag. I could go, Oh, you can have it for ten grand, but then I'd think, I'd really miss that. You know, I could make ten grand somewhere else. So it's hard to put a price tag on that thing. And I bought it in New York! I didn't even buy it out here, which is kind of bizarre because it was taken at a diner in Hollywood.

I don't know if this is a taboo subject, but how do you price your photos? There's one called "Cracked image goth horror" that you're selling for $150. Is it the cracked surface? Is it that vintage arcade photos are hard to find?

That one hits a bunch of different ones. People think that arcade photos are cool. People love photos of black people because black people photograph beautifully. And then the crackle of the emulsion on the surface—I've only seen it one or two times, ever. And so, then I factor in the rarity value. You're not going to see this object again for a long, long, long time, so if you want it, you're going to have to dig deeper. And I like it. I'm in no hurry to sell it. So that one is based on the rarity. Others are based on—and I'm not saying that I want to take advantage of people—but it's based on what I think buyers like and what their pain threshold might be.

Something I thought was funny—and this probably isn't really a question—is that in the Navy I.D. photos, "Sexy Gumby Hair Punk" goes for $80, but "Swarthy Thick Italian" is $50. I thought it was funny that basically, poor "Swarthy Thick Italian" is like a "5" and "Sexy Gumby Hair Punk" is like an "8." [...] Anyway, one photo that I never would have looked at if it hadn't been for the title was "Satanic Goat Head On Fence Post Wants To Swallow Your Soul."


I was dying of laughter.


Do you get the reference in that? There's a movie reference.

No. I mean, there are Satanic goat heads all over the place in horror, which one—

It's from The Evil Dead, "Swallow your soul"

Oh. yes. That's one of my favorite movies.

[and on that truly embarrassing note for a horror fan, I stopped recording the interview, but continued the conversation for at least another half hour.]

A final note:
I started a pinboard (titled "supremely bored expressionless black woman", of course) devoted to "Gargantua's" listings. I strongly suggest that you visit Gargantua's store, his listings, and his website. Be warned. It's very addictive. I've already purchased several photos.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Just Get It: The Street Collective Vol. 1

The Street Collective Vol. 1 is a beautiful, content-rich, 60-page downloadable (free for a "limited time"—I don't know how limited, so I'd suggest getting it right away. I mean, you can't beat free.) book full of inspiration from a variety of street photographers.

I love to hear photographers talk about their work. I know that some people feel that their work should speak for itself—and I get that from a viewer's perspective—but photographer-to-photographer, c'mon, give me something. And that's what this volume does. You get ten very different photographers, each interviewed about their own work. Ideally, I would have like to see even more photos, but I guess that's what the links are for. You definitely get enough to get a clear idea of each photographer's unique style.

Bryan Formhals talks about stumbling into street photography as a cure for writer's block. His thoughtful and unassuming answers to the interview questions are like having a coffee house chat with someone, rather than a lecture. When he says, "I'm very suspicious of my own photographic motivations, though. It's my belief these days that I don't necessarily know what I'm doing" you feel like he's working through questions with you. He's not putting on a show. For me, the underlying message is that we're all just making this up as we go along, and that we should be honest with ourselves about it.

There's an expression "douze Français, treize opinions" (actually, I'm not sure that people other than me say that, but it sounds right: "12 French people, 13 opinions") that probably applies just as well to photographers. For me, finding a variety of opinions helps me better figure out my own beliefs. For example, in an interview with Julian Berman, the photographer gives the well-worn advice that you need to find your personal style so that you stand out from the rest and get jobs. Clearly, that approach has worked for Berman. That doesn't stop the contrarian in me from disagreeing. I have seen the "style-seeking" anxiety in a lot of photographers, but I think that if you take the long view, that's all just misdirected energy.

From the interview with Lee Jeffries
Denied. Sometimes photographers draw the line at certain questions like "Could you give us a quick breakdown of your post-processing workflow?" Although I would always prefer transparency over the trade-secret mentality, I like that the question and answer are there. It gives you a better idea of how the photographer sees their work. ("I have never and will never purport to be a Scott Kelby or the like." Snap.)

In short, there is a lot of good advice. And free—at least for now, so get going. And if I hadn't recently fallen down the stairs and sprained my ankle in a cookie-related accident (yeah, you heard me right. The cookies of doom that my wife made on Monday. I was mesmerized by their scent and lost my footing. As I lay in pain on the ground, broken cookie tragically in pieces around me, my wife came running and the first thing I said was "Can you get me another cookie?") I would get my butt out there and do some street photography. My favorite. But hey, for now, I can read inspiring interviews while elevating my leg. And eat cookies.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What The French?! or Why I haven't been posting much

This is not about photography, but it explains why I've been doing fewer posts this year. When Apple announced the iAuthor program for developing iBooks for iPad (that's a lot of "i"s) and launched the textbook section of the iBookstore back in January, I decided to write a French grammar review textbook that would cover everything from your first course in High School through at least four semesters of college French—but with attitude you don't get from the typical textbook. 

I've written for textbooks before (when I was desperate for the money) and I've written a distance-learning French literature course that got a national award, but I pretty much hate the textbook industry. My oldest son starts his freshman year of college next week and most of his textbooks cost more than a gorgeous multi-volume Steidl set of photobooks, which makes absolutely no sense. 

So I teamed up with Andrew Livingston (a grad student in linguistics and author of the daily web comic and we have spent the past 8 months writing What The French?! It just went on sale on the iBookstore today (for only $9.99).

I'm kind of annoyed that Apple listed it under "language reference" (where it will be buried amid tons of books)  instead of "textbook" (where it would have been one of two French textbooks), but maybe our un-textbook-like approach contributed to that problem. Anyway, we're not trying to get schools to adopt us as their textbook; we want the students to adopt us as the perfect way to undermine the annoying $200 textbook that they are forced to use. You can buy the book on iTunes (for iPad only right now) or learn more at our site,

So that's what I've been up to. If you have any friends who are taking (or want to brush up on) French, spread the word. I'm obviously biased, but I think it pretty great. I promise to have a photo-related post soon. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

My review of the new Smugmug

A screen shot of my new Smugmug homepage

I'm glad I was too lazy to switch to Zenfolio, because the new Smugmug has most of the features I was hoping for. I'm happy enough, in fact, that I'm shamelessly linking with a referral link just in case somebody out there decides to join (it gets you a discount and me some credit). But don't take the referral link as bias—I recently dumped all affiliates on my site. 

My number one complaint about the old Smugmug was the look. Well, the look and the sudden major price hike with no new features. But after nearly a year, they finally launched a huge overhaul. When I first learned about the price hike on Smugmug, I decided that the ideal way to offset costs would be to dump my web hosting for my regular photography site and customize Smugmug (which previously I had only used for proofing and orders). In other words, merge it all into one. So I went about trying to customize the site. I had planned to do a post about it, but I was never satisfied with the results and the post would have been nothing but a string of swear words. If you had a lot of expertise on code and/or were patient enough to comb through all of the various forum posts looking for weird workarounds, you could eventually get something that looked pretty good.

Now, you just have to choose a template and tweak it as much or as little as you want. You can change templates at any time. Or, if you're good at web design, you can go crazy and customize all you like. Here's a screenshot of a few of the templates:

See the one with the snowboarding dude? That's the first one I chose. I had swapped out the background photo, put in a logo, added my own menu, and set up galleries in less than an hour. It was amazingly easy. And as long as you don't click "unveil," other people don't get to see the mess you're making of your site.

Once I had it set up, I decided that I was tired of full screen templates (even though—or maybe because— I have used one for years). It looks good for wedding photography, but my priorities have changed. I just want something clean and functional that works really well on tablets and phones (i.e. a "responsive" site).  So I took the "Octavia" template, changed to square, fairly large thumbnails on the home page (each of which takes you to the corresponding gallery where you can buy prints). I adjusted the spacing, selected photos, etc. I added a link directly to the abc paris galleries, and just checked a box that let me include the hover-over menu you see in the screen shot below (normally, I hate those, so it's the only one I put on the site).

The "buy art prints" menu item goes to all of the other galleries (and I'm still working on populating them). Here's the fairly no-frills (by choice, you can go crazy on your own site if so inclined) page with the galleries (I plan on getting rid of the label "Galleries.")

One of the great things about the mostly intuitive new templates is that you can tweak an existing template and then save it as your own theme. You can build up different themes and easily switch whenever you please. The only confusing part about switching was that when I clicked "done," it would revert to the first theme I chose. It drove me crazy. Finally, I broke my vow to not bother the poor customer service people (and in case you didn't know, Smugmug pretty much has the best customer service ever. true.) and of course, they solved my problem.

In case it happens to you: there's "done" there's "publish now," "publish later," and then there's "unveil." I was clicking "done" and then "publish later" because I didn't want the site to go live. Turns out, you need to click "done" and then "publish now." It doesn't go live until you hit "unveil." Problem solved.

The old smugmug galleries drove me crazy because:
1. I just didn't like the look
2. They did not help sell prints at all. The "add to cart" button was really hard to find. It did nothing to entice customers.

Problem 1 is solved by giving you seven gallery style choices. You just choose which one you like from a pull-down menu:

There's plain old "journal" style (sort of a basic tumblr-esque scrolling of photos):

Or, maybe collage is more your thing:
(partial screenshot)
You can do horizontal or vertical collage styles, with or without captions.

Or maybe thumbnails (which you can adjust in various ways):

Problem 2—the "add to cart" button is only partially solved, in my opinion. This is one area where I think Smugmug could still use improvement. On the "journal" style (look at the pink umbrella shot above) you see "add to cart" underneath every photo. With the other styles, it's less visible. If you're trying to sell prints, you want to remind people that those pretty photos are not only nice to pin, they're also for sale. For that reason, I chose the rather plain Jane looking "journal" style.

There are still a lot of things I want to do to customize my site—including, finally, dumping my old host and porting my .com over to smugmug—but I'm impulsive, so I couldn't wait to "unveil" the new version.

There are also other big improvements (in managing content especially) that I won't go over in this post. For now, I just wanted to report on the positive experience I've had. I was pissed at Smugmug when they had their price hike. I wanted to switch out of spite, but the alternatives were just as expensive and didn't have the labs I like to use. Also, I have never been happier with customer service than with Smugmug. Now that they've done something big, I feel great about sticking with them.

And in case I didn't sound like enough of an infomercial already, here's my last shameless plug to sign up using my referral link

Anyone else out there have a similar experience? Or a negative one? Maybe you switched and are happy you did? Maybe you're having regrets? Let me know.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The New Smugmug

Thank heavens! This is the feature I had been hoping for. Once I've experimented with it, I'll do a post about the experience. Finally, a smugmug that doesn't look clunky and outdated.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

TED talk: Becci Manson: (Re)touching lives through photos

This TED talk from about a year ago is an interesting example of service through photography. Becci Manson, a professional retoucher, helped organize efforts to restore damaged photos of victims of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan.  I suppose you could argue that the damaged photo is somehow more authentic and adds memory (although a negative one) to the ephemeral object, but I doubt that any of the recipients of the retouching services indulged that kind of academic perspective.

Photo restoration is a lot more complicated that beauty retouching, and my own experience in it has mainly been with old photos retouched for family or friends. A good (although a bit dated—2006) book for learning restoration techniques is Katrin Eisman's Photoshop Restoration & Retouching, which it looks like you can get used for as cheap as $5.55 on Amazon.  There's a more recent restoration and retouching book (2010) that seems to have good reviews, but I haven't read it. I had the opportunity to help with some photos for a woman in our neighborhood who was doing a book of her family history. She had been working for at least a year on it when she first showed it to my son and I. When I saw the scans of photos she was using, I knew I could make them so much better (of course I think that pretty much every time I see a photo—I'm sure it's like hair stylists looking at people's hair or dentists looking at their teeth). In some cases, I rephotographed the originals and worked from there. In others, I worked from the scan. My son even helped with some of the easier retouching. There were old family photos that were torn or had a big chunk missing from the middle of the photo. Where I could, I restored the missing parts.  When I get a chance, maybe I'll give a tutorial of some basics.

Have any of you had the chance to use your retouching skills for service?  If not, maybe you will think of someone you could help out.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

New Smugmug "unveiling" on July 30

After Smugmug announced its massive price increase for pro users, I investigated some alternatives. A lot of users jumped ship, from what I can tell, and Zenfolio was the most popular choice for dissatisfied Smugmug customers. I waited it out, knowing that I still had months left before I would have to renew. At that point, I thought, I would leave Smugmug unless they made some major improvements. They didn't. Out of laziness, I stuck with Smugmug, but like many pro users, I downgraded my account to the version ("portfolio"I think it's called) that doesn't let me set different price lists for different galleries, or offer coupons and boutique packaging, but that does still let me use the pro labs for orders). Finally, nearly a year after the maddening price hike, it looks like Smugmug is going to do something big. Will it be enough to make people return to Smugmug? Will it be worth the wait? I guess we'll see...

Monday, July 22, 2013

Moving out of the wedding business

bridal photo from a popular tutorial about using curves in Photoshop

It's been almost a year that I've quietly been transitioning out of the wedding photography business. It's not that I don't enjoy weddings. I've actually been extremely lucky to have had great clients (no bridezillas ever. no obnoxious parents. yep. that lucky). But even with chronic insomnia there are only so many hours in a day (and I'm also a full-time professor, so that eats up most of my time). It got to the point where I dreaded getting jobs because of all the post-shoot work. The better I got at retouching, the more picky I would get, and the more time I would spend fixing things that no one but another photographer would notice. In that way, digital is really a curse (at least if you have obsessive tendencies).

I've refused or otherwise found a way out of most jobs for the past year, which has not been easy to do financially, but I don't want photography to become a chore. At this point, I've decided two things:
  1. I will only work on art photo projects that really interest me
  2. The only event/portrait work I will do will either have to be "commissioned" at a rate that I assume most people will be unwilling to pay (I'm honestly not sure how much that is right now) OR it will have to be charitable work.
Doing a really great wedding shoot for a couple that would not otherwise be able to afford a photographer sounds a lot more appealing to me than doing a wedding for pay. But how do you know? How do you find that couple? And still, it's not something I could do very often.

Of course there are other types of photography projects that might be a good service. I know of a few photographers that have done amazing projects. I'd like to explore possibilities for service-oriented photography here on the blog. Maybe some of you have ideas to share. Let me know in a comment.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The end of the monetization experiment

Marc Olivier, Eiffel Tower at 6 a.m. (buy it here)

So, a while ago I decided to experiment with "monetization" (is that even a real word?). I like to be up front with everything, so I did a post about it. I wondered:

1.Could I do some form of affiliate marketing that wasn't obnoxious?
2. Could I possibly earn money from it?

My answer: yes on the not obnoxious part and no on the money part. I chose skimlinks because I had read that Pinterest had temporarily used it. I have nothing but good to say about skimlinks. It was easy to set up, they represent a broad spectrum of affiliates, and unlike those annoying pop-up ad words, they don't seem to hijack your blog. But at the end of the day I earned maybe less than $30 total. So I don't blame them. My downfall is probably due to the fact that I have posted less and less, and that when I do post, I'm not trying to get you to buy stuff—oh yeah, except for that little link by my photo up there (notice that?).

Based on my extremely limited knowledge of web marketing, the best way to make money from your blog is to push your own products and services (not someone else's). So that's the next experiment.

So this is the end of the skimlinks experiment. I'll scour out that code as soon as I remember where it is. And I'll get back to posting.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Plague of Pinonymity and How to Stop It

Who took that photo of Ewan McGregor? No idea. But I'm sure the photographer would prefer to have her/his name credited. The number of pinners on Pinterest who like photography enough to create boards and boards of photos but apparently not well enough to bother attributing those photos simply astounds me. And don't get me started on Tumblr, which seems to be the most frequent source of those orphaned photos.

If you have come to this blog, chances are, you like photography. Maybe you have your own blog, or tumblr site, or pinterest account. If so, consider what you can do to rescue photos from pinonymity.

Don't just repin if there is no credit line. First, click through to see if the link gives the name of the photographer. Then, when you repin, you can add the name.

In this case, the pin took me to
Ok. Fingers crossed.....NOOOOOO!! Worst possible outcome. The pinner didn't pin to the stable URL. This meant that I had to go to "archive" and search back all the way to June 2012 to find the photo:

What do you think the odds are that her post included a photo credit? Slim to none. So I clicked through to "above-the-charming-clouds" and eventually to the source which—surprise—had no credit.

Open google images and drag the photo into the search bar. You will get a result like this:
See that image at the top? That's the one I dragged into the image search bar. Click on "All sizes" under "Find other sizes of this image" and you get this:

You can then click on individual images and go to the sites that have posted them, hoping that somewhere, somebody gave an image credit. Most of the time, you can find a reputable source that gives the photographer's name. In this case, most of the results were repins or tumblr reblogs—none of them attributed. What's the responsible thing to do? Don't repin it. 

But if you absolutely can't resist repinning a photo with no credit, at least acknowledge your desire to know by writing "photo by?" or "photographer?" or something that might make other people stop to think for a moment that there's a person who took that image that you like so much.

I'm not going so far as to say that every pin needs a photo credit, although I'm sure some people will accuse me of hypocrisy for having a double standard. The person who took a photo of that light fixture on eBay, or that ring for sale on Etsy, for example, likely operates under the assumption that their photo will not be credited—not that product photography can't be a work of art (I'd buy a coffee table book of Modern 50's catalog in a heartbeat.) Same goes for most stock photography once it has been licensed. Or, to use a personal example, my DIY dictionary print post has been repinned hundreds and hundreds of times without photo credits and I don't care in the least, because the photos in the post are not meant to be "photos" (i.e. my "photography"); they are meant to be purely descriptive visual guides to a DIY project. In fact, I would probably be embarrassed if someone thought that the shapshots in my DIY post were meant to be art.

However, if you are pinning a photo to a board like "Black and White Photography" or "Photos I like" or "Portraits" or anything where the photo is the object (i.e. is meant as art), then credit the photographer. It may take extra time, but if you stop and relabel a casually posted, non-credited photo, you might just help eradicate "pinonymity."

Now who can tell me who took that photo of Ewan McGregor?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Date Due

My otherwise minimalist man cave has been overrun with library books lately, most of them from interlibrary loan. I've been obsessively reading late at night for various projects, usually annoyed if I can't get through two or three books a week. Last night, for some odd reason, I noticed the stamped "date due" slips pasted in the back of the books. I thought about what an enigmatic chronology they represent. I wondered who checked the books out. I wondered about the clusters of dates, the ten-year chronological leaps of dormancy, the layers of check out slips or the complete lack of them (Has no one at Colorado State checked out Zizek's The Parallax View? Has no one in Toronto checked out Lyotard's The Inhuman? Not that I'd blame them.), the colors of the ink, the relation of the stamps to the lines, etc. I realized that the library's digital books have no such history, no traces of past users, of frequency, or of the librarians. At least half of the books I read are digital. I imagine that the percentage will increase rapidly in the next few years. The "Date Due" slips are chronicles of how information has been circulated. They remind us of other readers (and sometimes of hierarchies such as "FACULTY LOAN") and of the physical passage of a book through the hands of other people. They are stories attached to books that will no longer be told.

So late last night, I spread out all of the books on my coffee table, and when I got up this morning, I photographed them. I will probably do more as other books make their way into my home. In fact, I may do some work about other signs of the material history of library books (like the annoying underlined passages left by disrespectful readers)—that is, if I can pull myself away from reading enough to pick up my camera.

Techniques of the Observer, Washington State University Libraries

Suspensions of Perception, Texas Tech University Libraries

Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, BYU Libraries

The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, BYU Libraries

The Parallax ViewColorado State University Libraries

Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible, 1840–1900, BYU Libraries

New Media, 1740-1915, University of Oklahoma Libraries

The Culture of Time and Space, Washington State University Libraries 

Between Film and Screen, BYU Libraries

The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, University of Toronto Libraries

The Emergence of Cinematic Time, BYU Libraries

Monday, February 25, 2013

Can we please just stop with the heart hands already?

Source: via Marc on Pinterest

I repinned the above photo to my pinboard "all in good fun"—the board devoted to gently mocking popular pins that I find amusing. Here was my caption:

Doctor: I'm sorry to inform you that your baby has been born with heart hands. 
Mother: But I only did heart hands one time for that maternity photo, I swear! 
Doctor: One time is one time too many.

In spite of my mockery, the photo was then repinned 412 times at last count onto boards like "cute picture ideas." So even though I have had enough of heart hands in all their various iterations, clearly the rest of the world has not.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The New Year Post 2013

Time to assess last year—ok, well. past time by about two weeks. It doesn't bode well for 2013.
First, the overall picture. Since I started this blog, number of posts per year is:
2008: 88 (which was in half of a year)
2009: 118
2010: 73
2011: 76
2012:  *gulp* 45
Notice any trends? And then there's the fact that I feel like I should begin the blog with a confessional ("It's been more than a month since my last post.")
The average life span of a photoblog is two years. Actually, I just made that up. I have no idea what the lifespan of a photoblog is, but as a reader, I have seen many of them come and go. Will mine be next? Probably not. Will my posting become more frequent this year? I guess we'll see.

So, on to the day of reckoning for last year's goal....
2012 was to be the year of shameless commercialism. After my artsy "epic fail" project of 2011 during which I learned that success in gallery shows can be expensive, I vowed to devote myself to the commercial realm. The screen shot above (from shows that it was the year of black-and-white Paris photos over vintage text and the year of dogs. The year was off to a good start when about 10,000 prints sold in January. Things kept going (but at a slower pace) for the rest of the year, and then in May, I ran into a postcard rack with two of my dog prints.

I must be rolling in cash from all those sales, right? Not really, since my royalty payment is a modest percentage of wholesale. Not that I'm complaining (just trying to give an accurate picture). I know that some photographers only dream of galleries and high end art sales (and I'd love that, too), but I dream of seeing my photos on the art aisle of Target (or some similar store). 

Advice to the new photographer—you can earn more money doing weddings. Nevertheless, I'm drifting away from the wedding market—at least at my old prices. I've decided that the absolute cheapest package I will now offer is $1800. The mid-range package (with album, engagement, wedding, etc. pretty much everything you really need) is $3400. The price increase, while not enormous compared to some (Jonathan Canlas, anyone?), definitely puts me out of the range of a lot of potential clients. Raising prices in bad economic times is a risky move, but I have a limited amount of time and my old prices just led me to resent the work. 

Speaking of risky price increases, let's talk about Smugmug

When Smugmug decided to double their annual fees for pro accounts with no corresponding increase in features/service, many people started looking for alternatives. Being a huge Smugmug fan, my response was to save money by attempting to customize my smugmug site to the point where I could dump my regular .com and hosting plan, thereby offsetting the price hike and streamlining my web presence. I spent hours trying to tweak code in Smugmug, but never finished and am not happy with the results so far. I still have until April to downgrade or abandon Smugmug before my annual renewal. So far, I'm pretty disappointed with Smugmug—not with their stellar customer service, but with the fact that they don't provide stylish website templates (just *meh* themes). Yes, you can tweak the code like crazy if you have the skills, but I don't have time to master java, CSS, and whatnot.

Back to last year's goals...

Last year, I said I would do an occasional tutorial (I did. not often.), some posts about books I'm reading, a "variety of projects," and hopefully some "real-life retouch" posts. The real-life retouch didn't happen, so I make no promises this year.

Also related to last year, my pathetic attempt at monetizing my blog with skimlinks has thus far earned me enough money to buy a couple of albums on iTunes. I'm sure I would have done better had I written more posts and spent more time trying to promote products, but hey—it's still money and I haven't cluttered my blog with ads, so I see no reason to remove skimlinks.

A word about Pinterest

On Jan 1, 2012 I had 146 followers on Pinterest. Today, I have 1,710. The ease of pinning (vs. writing posts) and the immediate satisfaction of seeing "likes" and "repins" and increasing numbers of followers means that I have more incentive to pin than to post. I can blame Pinterest, at least in part, for my decrease in blog posts, but I don't see it ever replacing my blog.

So what's this year's goal?

I don't know. To be honest, the Sundance film festival starts this week which means I will be watching movies non-stop for the rest of the month. I knew that if I didn't force myself to do this post tonight, then I might never do it—which ultimately shows that I still maintain at least some degree of commitment to my blog.

So if I force myself to come up with a goal, here, on the spot?

Portraiture. I want to get back to portraiture, preferably starting with my own kids. You can therefore expect:
  • one or more posts about my quest to redo a photo wall in my home
  • some portrait inspiration and experimentation
  • the occasional tutorial
  • ???
And in a project unrelated to photography, 2013 will hopefully see this parked domain turn into the promotional vehicle for an amazingly cool French book (sort of the anti-textbook French textbook that will make pedagogues gnash their teeth and cry out in horror) I am writing (with boy-wonder Andrew of ) for iPads everywhere. 

That's as ambitious as this year gets. If you've made it to the end of this post, thanks, loyal reader! So nice of you to indulge my yearly New Year's rambling. I hope to repay you sometime this year with inspiration of some kind.

I'll be back post-Sundance.