Tuesday, October 15, 2013


I enjoyed the recent Going Viral posts on Lenscratch. I'm guessing most people have read them by now, but if you haven't you can find them here and here. The phrase going viral is not that old, dating only from the internet era. Since its creation the phrase has gone, well, viral, and been applied to many photographers and images. It can strike any place any time. For example, I'm guessing you've seen a lot of links in the past few days to this story, which is currently in the process of going viral. Never mind that the photos have been floating around online for more than 5 years. When the moment hits, it hits hard.

The Lenscratch posts are the most comprehensive report I've seen yet on the first-hand experience. For those curious to explore this idea further, this Ben Roberts essay is also worth reading.

Ben Roberts goes viral in April 2013

I've never had a photo go viral (although I've written about the phenomenon here and here), and reading these accounts is probably as close as I will ever come. It sounds like a whirlwind and somewhat of a mixed blessing. One of those "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it" scenarios. That said, most of photographers profiled, apart from Julia Kozerski, were generally positive in their appraisal. After all most photographers want their photos to be seen, and going viral is the cheapest, most efficient mechanism to achieve this. More importantly, it may be one of the clearest paths to that elusive holy grail: monetizing creative effort.

The Lenscratch articles make an interesting comparison with Sara Lewkowicz's recent experience. When Lewkowicz's photos went viral she viewed it as copyright infringement, and by the way, where was her piece of the pie? Maybe she has a legal case. I'm not sure. Let's just say she didn't enjoy the viral ride. In fact let's go one step further and say that going viral and copyright protection often operate in complete opposition. You probably can't have both because the basic mechanism of virality is copying.

All of these accounts are interesting, but they don't touch on the central player here, the reporter. As far as I can tell most written profiles are similar. They're typically puff pieces introducing a photographer to a general audience. Talk about the artist, show a few images, etc. Whether it's Lens Blog, Picture Show, Slate, Photobooth, Lightbox, Huffington Post, or Feature Shoot, the reporting seems interchangeable. So why go to the trouble when a simple reblog, tweet, or like accomplishes the same task in about ten seconds?

The media landscape according to Fair Observer via

I think there are a few reasons. First, major news outlets are sometimes trapped in a pre-internet mindset. Before information became truly global, a regional newspaper was an exclusive outlet. Maybe a newspaper would cover a photographer, then some other newspaper 500 miles away would write a similar piece. Each one was written from scratch and served a different audience with little overlap. String a few of these together and you had a mini-viral story, old school style. Maybe with enough attention the AP wire service would pick it up. Then virality truly kicked in.

Today the internet has rendered both syndication and regionalism largely obsolete, yet reporters still cover the same viral stories from scratch as if they were writing for a regional paper. They're trapped in an old model, at least as most profiles are currently structured. An original interview or perspective is one thing, but if it's a straight puff piece, there's really no need.

That brings me to the second cause of virality. Major media tend to be lazy sheep. Sorry to be blunt but it's true. Back in the print era, Time and Newsweek often ran the same cover stories, and it's still common today to see the same news events covered in the same order on each TV channel. That's not coincidence. It's because reporters are like gas stations. Where one sets up, you'll likely find others nearby.

Multiple Erwitt posts within a 3 day period in late September 2013

Let's face it. It's hard to do original research. It's difficult to interview people or dig up facts. And when that's been done, the hardest task of all is figuring out what you really think about those facts. Forming judgments about photographs is even scarier. For most people, the photo world is an inscrutable blank mass. There are so many photos out there, and of such varying quality and styles, and so many ways to consider them, that it's overwhelming. Which ones should you profile? Which ones will readers care about? Which ones are "important." Who knows? 

The viral media knows, that's who. Writing about an unknown photographer is a risk, but if that photographer has already been profiled in Magazine X and Magazine Y, they're a safer bet. Someone else likes them, or at least someone else wrote about them, so they've been informally screened for approval. Once a photographer has appeared in one of these outlets, there's a good chance they will be written about in another one. And when a photographer has been profiled in 6 or 7 different places, the momentum carries itself. That's the basic equation behind a viral story.

Now consider a hypothetical. What if the same unknown photographer had sent Magazine X those photographs unsolicited before anyone else had written about them? Most likely they'd be ignored.

Think about that for a moment. It's the exact same photographer, the same photographs, the same potential story. Why should they be treated differently? The only variable is the viral quality. But for many arts stories, that determines what gets reported and what doesn't. The particular merits of the photographs are relatively unimportant in comparison.

Banksy attempts to go viral in Central Park

Banksy put this idea to the test recently when he tried to sell his art anonymously in Central Park. In a gallery his work would sell for six figures and up, but on the street at $60 very few people bought one. Granted, Banksy isn't a photographer, but he's working with the same fundamental situation. No pedigree + no virality = no interest. Joshua Bell playing violin in the subway? Same thing.

To most people, including me, the creations of Banksy or Bell are an inscrutable blank mass. Who knows what's world class and what's merely good? Like photographs, an introduction or explanation can aid one's appreciation. And that's a role the media can serve. But one or two stories in major media will cover it, thanks.

By now you can probably connect the dots. Going viral is not merely a media phenomenon. It's at the heart of the art world. Call it buzz or fashion or another name. Curators, collectors, and editors often operate in a very similar way to reporters or gas stations. Certain artists become collectible at very specific times. Everyone wants them because, well, everyone wants them. 100 years from now, the art that lis still remembered and recirculating is likely to be good. But there's possibility it's just something that happened to hit a random viral nerve. Everyone wrote about it, wanted it, and bought it. Then something else came along.


Stan B. said...

No hype, no attention, no props, no $$$. Always been.

How many subsequent Robert Frank 'monographs' are out there featuring The Americans torn, taped and written on? MacArthur Grant recipient David Hammons attempted to sell snowballs on the street in St. Marks in NYC- everyone (incl yours truly) passed him by as a homeless guy with a less than fertile imagination scrounging for a free bottle of wine. How many openly out NAMBLA members other than Allen Ginsberg can get shows in major museums?

It's the same old joke- people are either hearing it for the first time, or are just too scared not to laugh when everyone else is...

mark alper said...

Goes to show you how the art market is. Does not really matter what you do but who did it. A famous artist can create a painting in 2 minutes and sell for thousands while a stuggling artist takes times and develops a real masterpiece only not to be able to sell their work,,,,sad

Anonymous said...

Try "The 12 Million Dollar Shark" if you want a real eye opener about the world of contemporary "art".