How Bay Area phenomenon Flickr has managed to create a feel-good route to photographic fame and fortune (or at least a few hefty checks in the mail) and turn scores of isolated amateurs into a network of admired professionals.
By Dale Eastman, Photograph by Merkley
Flickr members warned Deborah Lattimore to be careful, that what she was heading for was the Internet equivalent of crack. With two grown sons she adores and an oral-history transcription firm she has patiently nurtured for 26 years, Lattimore, 54, seems too responsible to get caught up in an obsession. But when she hits on certain topics—politics, animals, family, and travel—her awestruck tone hints at her susceptibility to a mad passion. So it’s not a total surprise that in 2005, soon after she joined the wildly popular photo-sharing site, which now has 35 million members and more than three billion images, her life began to unspool.
Lattimore had taken photographs from an early age, but she’d never set foot in a photo class and didn’t understand things like shutter speed or aperture. But within weeks of joining Flickr, she was effortlessly wielding the digital camera one of her sons had bought her and regularly heading to the shoreline of Pacifica, where she lived, to shoot the iridescent fish that washed up onto the sand. That led her to the Serramonte farmers’ market in Daly City, where she’d arrive early to take dozens of extreme close-ups of fish eyes. She rarely left her house without her camera, and she always had backup disposables in her car. Eventually, even a casual walk became a potential source for her next photo—after which she’d rush home, upload her images, and wait anxiously to read the comments from other members. “It was an addiction, for sure,” she says now.
During two years of this intense exploration, Lattimore posted some 1,500 pictures (up to 20 per week) to her photostream. Something else was happening, too—something many amateur shooters fantasize about, but that Lattimore never consciously set out to accomplish: She was morphing into a successful photographer. Instead of just sharing pictures with family and friends, she was confidently negotiating user rights and making sales to a dozen or so companies and organizations. The largest was to Pearl Izumi, a Colorado-based sportswear company that paid her $4,000 for an image of a runner that it spotted on Flickr and then displayed on its website and on 50,000 apparel tags.
And almost from the start, Lattimore became a minor celebrity within the Flickr ranks. Whenever she uploaded a new image, she would be inundated with gushing praise from fellow members, some of whom also tried to elicit her secret. “This is genius. How did you get the idea?” asked one of nearly 15,000 viewers who eventually checked out the striking image Lattimore posted in 2005 of a bright green apple she was holding in her purple-gloved hand. Even as Lattimore was typing, “thank you!” others were signing on to ask which camera and lens she’d used to take the shot, which has become something of an icon within the Flickr universe.
Lattimore’s is not the only Cinderella story on Flickr. French member Eric Lafforgue, a 44-year-old manager of a multimedia company, had done only a little amateur photography before he joined the site in 2006. But he got such a huge response to his photos of Papua New Guinea tribesmen that he submitted them to Kubik Éditions, a French publisher that released 150 of the images in a striking coffee-table book. One of his shots even made the cover of National Geographic in Taiwan—“the dream of every photographer,” he says. Icelandic art student Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir first created a frenzy on Flickr with her self-portraits, then later with her long-exposure landscapes and her color-saturated shots of otherworldly horses. Then she won an assignment from Toyota to shoot its Prius print campaign in Iceland. There are so many other tales like these—including those of Bay Area Flickr members like the artist known as Merkley, who has earned tons of assignments and an enormous cult following for his stylized nudes, and Erin Malone, a savvy tech-head whose work was featured on KQED—that it sometimes seems as if anyone who joins Flickr will inevitably land assignments and acclaim.
Last month, the chance for that kind of success shot even higher when Getty Images, the first and largest company to sell professional photographers’ work online for commercial use (known as stock photography), began offering thousands of Flickr images to its customers—advertising agencies, magazines, newspapers, and websites—in a prominently branded section of its home page. The company even pays Flickr photographers at the same rate that it pays pros. Given Flickr members’ mostly amateur status, as well as the snapshot nature of up to 95 percent of their photos, some professionals scratched their heads when Getty announced its partnership with the site last year, which gave the company the right to mine all of Flickr’s public photographs. Several naysayers even suggested that all Getty had landed was a black hole of clichéd images, and that it would surely require millions of dollars and just as many hours to uncover the gems, if any even existed. But Getty had been watching Flickr carefully over the years, so it seems more likely that the $2.4 billion company saw something that casual visitors had missed: Alongside all those shots of cute puppies, colorful flowers, hot cars, and romantically backlit couples is an enormous reserve of fresh, good—and even great—images by a huge new pool of talented photographers.
How did this happen? How did an uncomplicated photo-sharing site become the go-to place for a new generation of commercial images and a new kind of commercial photographer? Somehow, Flickr went from being a place where everyone from soccer moms to frat boys could post shots to being a worldwide force within the photography industry. It now operates as an enormous social network where members share images and personal support—something Lattimore would come to appreciate when she was diagnosed last year with breast cancer—and as a form of art salon–cum–photo school. George Oates, Flickr’s former chief designer, says that over the years, she’s noticed many examples of people who “joined Flickr with a crappy camera phone, just taking bad photos of their mates on the couch.” But as time went on, she says, there was a transition. “Suddenly, they were looking at the light a bit differently, then maybe they bought a better camera, and eventually they turned into proper photographers. And I use those words very deliberately.”
With no small amount of controversy, Flickr has also created a whole new career ladder for aspiring photographers. For generations, the established art world nurtured the idea of the photographer as a lone wolf, and the photograph as a singular, rarefied object produced through laborious work. But Flickr has enabled instant feedback among millions of people, regular group meet-ups, and an almost endless source of images and information about photography equipment and craft. The speed and, in some cases, perceived cheekiness of the process have startled and even offended some observers. Virginia Heffernan, of the New York Times Magazine, wrote in a piece about Flickr that San Francisco photographer Merkley “might have amounted to nothing in analog times, when elaborate deference to institutions, hard-won group shows, and expensive years spent in unnoticed toil were the only way to success.” What Heffernan seems to have missed is that now, even traditionally trained photographers—people who years ago might have raised an eyebrow at the site’s unorthodox methods—are using Flickr to get ahead.
But the site’s biggest impact has been on hobbyists like Lattimore: people who never dreamed they’d one day call themselves full-time photographers—not because they lack desire or talent, but because of all the time, networking, and money that becoming a respected photographer has generally required. Lattimore still runs her oral-history business to pay her bills, but she now considers herself primarily a photographer and loves to tell her tale to the beginners she teaches in 4-H clubs. “It’s great, because they can relate to the idea of being spontaneous, of not having a background in a subject but just forging ahead passionately and having fun. That’s what photography is all about for me, and I think Flickr is the perfect vehicle for that expression.”
It feels strange listening to Lattimore talk about having so much fun with her photography, and to hear her call it “creative expression,” especially given her commercial success. My brother Michael was a commercial photographer in Southern California in the late 1980s, and although I know he enjoyed his work, he was extremely methodical in his approach—and still wasn’t able to make it. He took thousands of images to familiarize himself with his equipment, and he spent hours in art history classes at Cal State Fullerton, and many more in the darkroom. He also interned with an established photographer after graduation. When Michael did strike out on his own, he accepted mostly smaller jobs that his peers with long-standing careers no longer needed. But when the recession of the late ’80s hit and the bigger photographers needed every client they could get, Michael’s sources of income dried up, eventually forcing him into another career.
Surely one reason Flickr photographers are able to make so much more headway than Michael did is the affordability of today’s digital technology. When Michael was working, the price tag for a digital camera was upward of $25,000; now you can buy one for less than $200 and start operating it within minutes. This new equipment has also had the unexpected effect of returning us to a more democratic definition of what a photograph can be. At the turn of the 20th century, renowned art photographer Alfred Stieglitz became so disgusted with the snapshots people were taking with the easy-to-use Kodak, the camera that unleashed photography’s first democratizing wave, that he joined the Pictorialist movement and formed the Photo-Secession group, both of which emphasized the art and the labor-intensive craft behind taking “real” photographs.
But by the time this century rolled around, the snapshot was back in vogue, even in the world of commercial photography, where images began shifting away from traditional stock shots—the slim blonde on her cell, the buff guy driving his sports car—toward authenticity. Witness Dove’s “campaign for real beauty,” which featured zaftig models, or the Liberty Mutual insurance ad that uses a series of shots—a nearly empty refrigerator, an unkempt bed, a wrinkled dress lying on an ironing board—that look like they’ve come out of someone’s personal photo album.
Flickr wasn’t the first site to take advantage of the digital-photo craze among ambitious amateurs: When video-game makers Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield launched Flickr in Canada, in 2004, Shutterfly and Snapfish were already up and running. But Flickr was much more user-friendly, thanks to an extremely efficient photo-sharing program that Fake and Butterfield brought with them from their gaming days. Flickr’s “tagging” function also made it easy for designers and editors to search the site for new work. Every picture that’s posted can be tagged with as many as 75 terms, so someone searching for an image of an “antique, blue car,” for instance, can type in those words and come up with thousands of possible images. By the time Yahoo! bought Flickr for a reported $30 to $40 million, just a year after Flickr launched and months after it moved to its new offices in Santa Clara (the company is now in San Francisco), Shutterfly and Snapfish had to rely more and more on their photo-printing services in an effort to stay competitive.
After the sale, Flickr grew like a hothouse fern, finally outdistancing even onetime archrival Fotolog, which for a period was mired in disruptive technical glitches. Kakul Srivastava, Flickr’s general manager, won’t reveal how much the company is currently worth, but during Microsoft’s Yahoo! takeover attempts last year, one tech blogger calculated Flickr’s value at as much as $4 billion. Srivastava even claims that the company has become profitable—a major achievement for a dot-com site—through a combination of prem ium fees, revenue from ads displayed on the sites to members who opt for a free account, and money from its printing services.
If technical ease is initially what drew people to Flickr, the genial and supportive atmosphere has helped keep them there. “Nobody on Fotolog would talk to me,” says John Curley, the former deputy managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, who threw himself more deeply into photography when he left the paper in 2007. Curley (who has done assignments for this magazine) shoots haunting, late-night street scenes, as well as quirky images of offbeat events like the local version of Santacon, an annual gathering of people dressed like Santa Claus. But despite the accessibility and the stunning technical quality of Curley’s work, no one on Fotolog paid him any mind. “I’d leave a comment on someone’s shot, post a shot of my own, and then wonder, ‘Where are the comments?’ But there was nothing.” With Flickr, he says, “you get people who know how hard it is to take good photos looking at your work. They know what went into it, which is tremendously exciting. So it was all about the feedback—and the immediacy.”
This feedback, which also played a crucial role in Lattimore’s evolution, often takes a laughably simple form: the comment box Flickr provides under each photo that’s uploaded. This is the site’s equivalent of the rubber band or the safety pin—a practical tool that makes it easy for millions of people all over the world to share thoughts about each other’s work. Of course, anyone who reads through the Flickr comments and their litany of positive backslapping might wonder about the actual level of education going on. “Brilliant idea!,” “Great silhouette! This image reminds me of friendship,” and the oft repeated “Awesome capture!” can all be seen under Lattimore’s shots. Lattimore admits to choosing carefully which comments to take to heart, but says the “validation and generosity” they convey gave her great confidence. “I started to realize my work was really different from other people’s—that I have a unique eye.”
The comment boxes are just the beginning, though. Away from the casual observer’s view, there are tens of thousands of specialized groups in which advanced discussions of the art and technique of photography take place. When Lattimore decided to branch out from her digital camera to experiment with a Holga, a cheap plastic device that devotees love for the evocatively lit images it produces, she joined several Holga groups. That’s where she learned how to take advantage of the camera’s light leaks—and where she discovered Light Leaks magazine, which subsequently published one of her Holga photos. At one point, Lattimore belonged to 403 dif ferent groups that focused on everything from how to make use of a Polaroid to the best way to shoot cemeteries.
Much has been made of the lack of civility in online discussions—one Flickr photographer closed her account because she felt people were relentlessly pressing her for professional secrets—but Lattimore says she has never had a problem. Her work flourished from all the input she received, she says, and soon, her now famous fish-eye close-ups caught the attention of Heather Champ, Flickr’s director of community management, who asked Lattimore to show her work at a Flickr event at the Apple store in Union Square. The nervous Lat timore eagerly agreed, although at the exhibit, she wasn’t able to say much more than “I like pictures, and I like dead fish.” Even so, the show was a turning point for her: “It gave me the courage to start pushing myself in a more professional arena. Until then, I’d only shown my work in small galleries in Pacifica.”
Soon she was being approached through Flickr to take part in other shows and began actively reaching out to galleries far and wide (she’s been in at least 30 exhibits to date, from the Artist- Xchange, Calumet San Francisco, and Avenue 25 Gallery in the Bay Area to galleries in D.C., New Jersey, and Paris). Somewhere around this time, she was brought on as a contributing photographer at the Pacifica Tribune, which is where she sold a lot of her surfing shots. Thanks to Flickr’s unofficial ranking system, which puts what the site calls the “most interesting” images at the top of any search, book publishers, photography magazines, and advertising agencies also started to find her work, which she now sells for around $250 per image. People had even begun to pirate Lattimore’s images. (Flickr members can get a range of licenses to protect their work, but as the music and video industries have proven, the Internet makes it easy to circumvent such restrictions.) Eventually, she felt she had to pull her images off the site and have them professionally copyrighted before reloading them to her account.
Lattimore feels that her success was well earned, but she also concedes that much of it came about because of Flickr. “It helped me express myself and brought so many of us together in such a personal way.”
More seasoned photographers also mine Flickr for advice and support. Erin Malone, a clear, direct 45-year-old who seems to reserve her passion for her beautifully lit, painterly photographs of open fields and local wetlands, started taking pictures when she was 15. Extensive classroom work and one-on-one training followed—but Malone, who lives in San Francisco, had to cut back when she started working, although she never stopped talking and thinking about images. She used some of her own shots in her job as a web-design guru at Yahoo!, and she is now a partner in a design-consulting firm.
But in 2004, she was eager to get more creativity into her life, so she joined Flickr (before Yahoo! purchased it) and bought the first in what has become a 20-odd-camera collection. At the time, she says, she was aware of doubts within the professional photography community about whether Flickr was a place that harbored serious artists. But she forged ahead, in part because she just wanted to be able to look at a whole lot of photographs—a key, she says, to an artist’s ability to evolve. Flickr alone has billions of photos, and last year it began displaying thousands of images from photo archives all over the globe, including at the Library of Congress, Australia’s Powerhouse Museum, and the Bibliothèque de Toulouse in France. Flickr members have been slyly adding to this growing archive of world-class art and documentary photography by uploading pictures taken with their cell phones at museums and gallery exhibits.
In part because of the demands of her job, Malone was much less interested in producing work to sell than in the artistic process itself. Perhaps that’s why she turned from her digital to a pinhole camera, which forced her to move at a slower, almost meditative pace that enabled her to create her artful, impressionistic shots. With no pressure to crank out saleable work, Malone also decided to look for more specific feedback from Flickr members, which is what convinced her that the site really does attract serious photographers. She posted as many as a dozen versions of one image—a field of grass, for instance, where she was experimenting with the effects of light and wind—then watched closely to see which ones other members preferred. “If lots of people comment on a particular shot,” she says, “then I know I’m heading in the right direction.” I asked Malone if she risks aiming too much for the wisdom of the crowd at the expense of her own artistic vision, but she insists “that’s life online. Feedback makes you a better photographer.”
Unbeknownst to Malone, one of the people watching her stream closely was Russ Morris, another Flickr member and the first photographer featured on a segment about local photographers on KQED’s Quest program. Morris liked Malone’s work so much that he encouraged her to send it to KQED, which had been soliciting submissions on Flickr for a while. At first, she didn’t think she had enough worthy material, but the support she received on Flickr encouraged her to shoot some new work and to reconsider older work in her portfolio. Within days of submitting, Malone was told that she had been picked to appear on the program in a two-minute piece that aired last summer. “Quest forced me to get my shit together,” she says, “and Flickr gave me the support and exposure I needed to take that step.”
This past February, Malone’s image Jagged Beach was included in the annual Plastic Camera Exhibition at RayKo Photo Center in San Francisco, and her photograph Clouds over Mesas is being used in marketing materials for the Marfa Film Festival, which will take place in Marfa, Texas, at the end of this month. A series of her outdoor images wound up in a new book, Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web, and she now puts out a quarterly online magazine devoted to lens-free photography (WithoutLenses.com). “Flickr gets bad hype because it’s mass culture,” Malone told me toward the end of our conversation. “Gallery owners and museum curators seem to feel like they’d be stepping off their pillars of high culture if they actually went and looked at it. But if they did, I think they’d find work they liked.”
Musician and former concert promoter Merkley (who goes by his surname only, plus three question marks in his Flickr handle) wasn’t searching for community or support when he joined Flickr in 2006. “I don’t think somebody else’s ideas are going to make my work better, they are just going to make it less mine,” he says. He wanted to see what all the hype was about—and ended up with an adoring audience. For years, he has been shifting between music, painting, and digital photography, and a few months after he joined Flickr, he was well into shooting a series of 111 women, all nude and posing on different couches. By now, he claims, his photographs have received 16.5 million views, which makes him conceivably one of the most closely watched photographers not just on Flickr, but in the world. (I’m guessing the nud ity helps.) “There’s not a museum or gallery that could offer that,” he told me during one of several bring-down-the-established-art-world manifestos he delivered during our interview.
Indeed, Merkley has no use for the world of organized commercial photography, which is why he loves Flickr—and why he decided to publish his own coffee-table book of the nude shots he posts on the site. He produced only 1,111 copies of the $111 book (titled 111???); the launch party took place on January 11 last year at popular SoMa gallery 111 Minna. It was so crowded that people were turned away. For all his marketing chops, Merkley is first and foremost a showman and entertainer who is shrewdly aware of his highly crafted persona, which he constantly uses to turn situations to his advantage. This skill is evident not just in his photos, but also in the bold and uppercase type he uses; the long, in-your-face captions (Errol—Posing With 2 Apple Balls & 2 Banana Boners Rocking a Giant F T-Shirt, Hard to See Pants and Hands Almost Indicating Double Butthole, Om or OK Depending On Your Background); the quirky manifestos (“74 Things I Learned About Being Mentioned in the New York Times”); and the playfully belligerent commands to “Buy my book!” (Because of a Flickr restriction against prominent sales language, these messages were recently toned down or moved to his blog.)
In some ways, Merkley is a poster boy for all that is seductive and unsettling about the web. His nudes, for instance, are at once as off-putting as Hustler and as engaging as the work of David LaChapelle, the famous digital fashion photographer who crams so much visual information into each image that it feels like a mini-film. This all makes sense, given that Merkley doesn’t even think of himself as a photographer; rather, he uses photographs to tell “tiny, funny stories” that he hopes will steep viewers “in the creative process, because even figuring something out sometimes makes your own creativity kick in.”
This philosophy helps explain the flying cats, the monkey on the toilet, the endless litany of sandwiches, and the dinosaurs—all of which pop up in his work like uncoded fragments of surreal dreams. None of this seems like an obvious match for Flickr, a site known for its simple and even anachronistic design. Unlike personal blogs or strictly social-networking sites like MySpace, where users have free reign to embellish their small pieces of digital real estate, all Flickr pages look basically the same: mostly white with black and blue lettering. “The distinction is the work itself,” says Oates, an idea that also underlies the spare, monochromatic design of most galleries and museums. When I offer up this observation to Merkley, he scratches the wiry hairs of his Howard Hughes–like beard and announces, “Flickr isn’t anything like an art gallery. It’s like a shopping mall!”
If so, Merkley is one of its smartest entrepreneurs, having figured out how to use Flickr like his own private stock agency, even though he doesn’t need to rely on his photography to make a living. He’s taken images of bands (Bing Ji Ling, Dredg, Von Iva), writers (Michael Chabon), and products (a line of makeup in Australia), and he and his work have been featured in half a dozen European magazines. He’s so fiercely independent that he even turned down Getty’s invitation this past January to license 129 of his photographs on its site. He considered the idea, but when he learned that the contract was exclusive—meaning he wouldn’t be allowed to continue to offer those same images through Flickr—he said no. Other members felt the same way. “That’s a deal breaker for me,” announced one poster on Aphotoeditor.com, when Getty first announced its partnership with Flickr last year.
But for many, the Getty deal is a godsend. Cindy Loughridge, a busy, 44-year-old pharmaceutical analyst in San Jose, had been shooting for years, mostly on evenings and weekends. But when she joined Flickr in 2006, she stepped things up considerably; at one point, she belonged to as many as 700 groups. Her images, taken mostly of what she calls “small moments,” possess much of the comforting familiarity of stock shots, though flawlessly executed: a woman riding down the street on her bike, a couple chatting on a bus, a pensive young man looking off into the distance from his perch on some crumbling stone stairs.
Until recently, Loughridge’s biggest thrill (and largest sale) was selling an image of her 14-year-old daughter to an advertising agency that found her on Flickr while looking for an image for a Wal-Mart campaign. Then, last December, Getty invited her to contribute more than 100 of her images. She was so excited that she accidentally deleted the message from her email and had to ask Getty to resend it. She can hardly believe her good luck. “Without doing anything,” she says, “I’m now in Getty’s stable of photographers. It’s incredible!”
Lattimore hasn’t heard from Getty yet, but says that may be just as well for now. Last September, she discovered that a painful spot on her right breast was actually a cancerous tumor. Within weeks, she had to undergo a double mastectomy. She was devastated by the news—but instead of falling apart, she instinctively turned to Flickr. There, she found several photostreams by women who had documented their own harrowing bouts with the disease in images that were both startlingly graphic and devastatingly poignant. The bravery they embodied worked on Lattimore like a tonic.
“Looking at those photos changed my entire mindset,” she says, and allowed her anger and resistance to her upcoming surgery to fall away. For months afterward, she chronicled every step of her diagnosis, surgery, and follow-up therapy, including the day she had all her hair cut off, the moment when she was wheeled into surgery, and every chemotherapy treatment she received. Perhaps the most shocking images are the full-frontal shots of her scarred chest after the bandages were removed. “If it was going to help people see what cancer and chemotherapy are like, I posted it,” she says.
Her posts prompted hundreds of emails from Flickr members all over the world. Some simply wished her well, but many came from women eager to share their own terrible experiences with cancer, or to thank her for awakening them to the need to get regular mammograms. Lattimore’s visual story gained even more impact when she linked it to her blog—Love, Cancer, etc. (ddlatt.blogspot.com)—a nearly day-by-day chronicle of the medical and emotional ups and downs of her treatment. By recording it all, she says, she was able to transform a bizarre and frightening situation into “something good that could help other people.”
The experience may have also enabled Lattimore to become a better photographer. Not only has she been bled of much of her self-consciousness—the death knell of any good art—but even at the height of her illness, she says, the public airing of her story gave her uncommon energy and drive. “Suddenly confronted with my own mortality, I realized more than ever how important it is to capture every single moment. I don’t want to forget anything, and I want to leave my son a long trail of visual memories.”
Dale Eastman's last feature for San Francisco was "A Collector's Guide to the Exploding Art Market," in the January 2008 issue