Planet Web: Framing the Big Picture

SAN FRANCISCO (04/03/2000) - A few days ago, Yahoo Inc. became the latest Net company to launch a photo service. Teaming up with Shutterfly, the digital image-processing company started by Netscape founder Jim Clark, Yahoo will provide a forum enabling consumers to show their digital pictures on the Web.

It also will offer a service to develop digital images into regular paper prints. Yahoo's rationale is quite simple: It wants to be ready for an exploding market. Worldwide, consumers are expected to buy 22 million digital cameras by 2003, up from 4.7 million this year. America Online, Hewlett-Packard and a host of smaller companies have already jumped at the chance to bring the $9 billion amateur-photography industry online. With its new service, Yahoo hopes to tie consumers' love for photography to the thrill of Web-based artistic expression.

But just as this latest innovation in consumer photography is launched, its archetypal mode of expression is fading away. Last week, Time Warner unit Time Inc. announced that it will suspend monthly publication of Life magazine, the periodical that has opened America's eyes to the power of the captured image for more than six decades. One could argue that Life has done more than any other publication to turn the U.S. into a land of shutterbugs. As the Web led to Yahoo, another invention led to Life's founding in 1936: the portable 35-mm camera.

This device introduced the art of photography to a new breed of documentarian.

Sure, the new format gave everyday people the chance to document birthdays, holidays and other family events. But it also gave rise to a small group of passionate professionals who were able to capture life as they saw it. From Walker Evans' somber look at the Great Depression to Gary Winogrand's off-kilter street sensibility and James Nachtwey's chronicles of global war zones, the work of a few select photographers continues to inspire newcomers to photo, video and even homepage design. Naturally, as a new generation of photography enters the digital age, it remains anathema to many modern photographers. Ever since digital cameras came into the picture more than six years ago, a number of photojournalists have predicted that the Internet would be "the death of photography."

Their complaints deserve to be taken seriously. Digital images just don't reproduce as well as traditional print photographs or slides. Also, editing programs such as Adobe's Photoshop tend to manipulate those images far more than would a black-and-white print developer. That, purists say, undermines the photographer's creative role. Equally important, say many media shooters, is that it's impossible for photographers to maintain control of their work and get paid for it once it's online. But does Internet photography really signal the death of creative photography?

Can't a new generation of talent and technological innovation open up whole new areas of art and commerce? Sue Johnson, cofounder of , Picture-Projects posits that photography can benefit from its new digital light. Johnson urges photographers not to "become so embedded in [traditional] photo and in maintaining the preciousness of the structure" that they lose the bigger picture. The people at her site, she says, are "trying to come up with new forms of documentary that have yet to be envisioned." Picture-Projects has won awards for Magnum photographer Gilles Peress' "Farewell to Bosnia," a work that most media outlets deemed too graphic to publish, and for . AkaKurdistan, which describes itself as "a borderless space," grew out of a book project by photographer Susan Meisalas.

It encourages journalists, scholars, Kurdish descendants and people who have traveled in the region to post photographs and written reflections. The site was praised for building "a collective memory with a people who have no national archive."

As ever, the commercial world is hot on the heels of the pioneers, at least when it comes to execution. One new digital photo site, Mslide.com, embodies part of Picture-Projects' multimedia principle by allowing consumers to create a photo-collage of their weddings, vacations or office parties, complete with an accompanying CD soundtrack (which the site encourages consumers to buy from Amazon.com). Is Mslide fostering personal expression?

Yes. But does that make it art? Definitely not, says Johnson. "It requires the skills of a storyteller and the editor to make something that is universal enough to capture people's attention," she says. "I think real photographers can rest easy."

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