Ping-Pong Chatting with Michael Itkoff



I had “known” Michael Itkoff, one of the editors of Daylight Magazine, for a while, having exchanged a few emails. We met in person and got to know each other at this year’s Fotofest in Houston, and we decided to collaborate to produce contents together. After a bit of brain-storming, we came up with “ping-pong chatting” - an online conversation. We decided to talk about the Fotofest portfolio reviews, and things took off from there. It’s a bit of an experiment, and we’re both very happy with it.

Jörg Colberg: We both attended the Houston Fotofest portfolio reviews, and there are a couple things I thought I want to talk to you about, to see what you think about it. First, you’ve done the reviews more often than me - I was a total newbie - so your experience might be different from mine. Even though I enjoyed talking to the photographers and seeing a lot of good new work, I was a bit put off by the general atmosphere, which reminded me of, well, a meat market, almost like the reverse of events like the Armory Show, where the actual art in question is relegated to be something secondary. I’m curious about your impression.

The second thing is that someone said - I forgot who it was - that there simply are too many photographers (I think he said “too many cameras,” but that’s just the same), and I remember when I heard that I thought “No, there aren’t.” I know given I didn’t like the meat-market aspect of the reviews I should just agree, but then even though there are many photographers, maybe dealing with it in this kind of fashion isn’t necessarily the best idea any longer.

Are there too many photographers?
Michael Itkoff: Yes it is funny to be put in the position of sitting at a table for eight hours as photographers approach one after another. I think i did over 65 twenty minute sessions over the four days… The overall experience of talking with so many photographers is fantastic especially when I find some work to get excited about. Among many others I enjoyed seeing the work of Robert Knoth, Susan Dobson, Phillip Toledano, Mike Osborne, and Eamon Macmahon. There were quite a few other projects that showed promise as well. Having the opportunity to speak with the photographers one by one was enriching and I also enjoyed hanging out with all of the other reviewers. With a photo event as epic as Fotofest its ironic when the work sometimes feels secondary to the experience. My hunch is that it’s more intense for us reviewers who fly in, work hard for four days and then fly out. Those that stay longer and the lucky folks in Houston can make there way through all of the exhibitions and events with less urgency.

As to your next question are there too many photographers or, perhaps, too many photos being taken? It does seem as if more and more people are perpetually snapping photographs, looking through a lens of one sort or another. We are awash with representation and the images we make speak a type of language. For me looking at photographs is a type of reading, a visual experience of communication and idea sharing. Photographers, and other image makers, have the ability to participate in the global visual dialogue and collectively serve as a way to speak back to the aesthetics of advertising and other vested interests.

The increasing number of events worldwide that center around the exhibition of photographs, and the portfolio reviews that often complement them, speak to the growing interest of people to engage with photo-based media. Overall I feel lucky to be involved with these events where I have an opportunity to see what is being made, how people are using the language of photography to tell stories.
I noticed that you now offer private consultations to photographers who want focused critical feedback, how do these reviews compare to an experience like FotoFest?
JC: Those reviews are very different because everything is (currently) done in written form. I decided to offer these kinds of reviews when I noted that there was actually some demand for it; and I thought that for the kind of portfolio review that I like you don’t necessarily have to sit opposite each other. The way this works is that I ask the photographer to send me a portfolio of images, a statement, plus a set of questions that they want to get answered. I then take everything and react to it, in writing. When I send what I produced back to the photographer I tell him or her that I’m available for follow-up questions. So you essentially don’t have to travel, and if you got more time to think - and that’s true for both the photographer and me.
Needless to say, this only works well for a photographer who wants some sort of critical feedback; but I do think it has its advantages. There’s no arbitrary twenty-minute limit, and you can really ask almost as much as you want (there’s a ten question limit, but usually people send less). And crucially, I think there’s something to be gained from having a response in writing, since you can go back to it after the initial “impact”.
I do think that this kind of process might constitute a good addition to events such as Fotofest, especially since more and more people want to have somebody comment on their work. But of course I might be deluding myself?
Let me come back to where you said that more and more people are snapping photographs. I don’t know whether that’s true. It might be. Maybe the simple fact that snapping a digital photo is more convenient than taking one on film is the reason. But have things really changed on a fundamental level? I actually don’t think they have. I chatted with a friend of mine the other day - he teaches photography in Pittsburgh - and we ended up talking about old slides, which you can now buy very cheaply on Ebay (which is what I do), or you can find them (often for free) on Craig’s List. I don’t know whether those old slides are so different from what people do now: People taking lots and lots of photographs, and eventually, they are to be discarded. And I still need to be convinced that the increase in quantity really changes anything. Replace digital files that nobody looks at with slides in a box that nobody looks at, and we’re still in the same situation.
In that sense, Flickr really is just a shared repository for your digital slides. And you can go a step further and go to the times when everybody got prints made, to be stored in shoe boxes. If you feel bold, you can even look at the boxes of tintypes people used to have. It seems that people have always been hoarding photographs - and they have always not looked at the vast majority of them more than once.
But maybe I’m wrong, and there is some change. I’m just curious what the change is.

MI: Well the most obvious difference would be that the physical limitations of these stored photos, rotting in shoe boxes, under beds and in closets have been relegated into the living archive of the internet where they are publicly accessible.

Its true that people have been shooting snapshots for years of travel, family, lovers - typical stuff. However I think as the technology has become more accessible making images has become more and more inseparable from everyday experience. Kodak’s familiar marketing campaign ‘Push the Button and We Will Do the Rest’ helped to democratize the technology of image making and leaned away from technical proficiency and toward the freely expressive, or reactionary, snapshot. I think what you have now is this same idea magnified by the increased proliferation of imaging technologies. Perhaps more interesting is the near instant ability of image makers to store and share these photographs online. Flickr is one example of a truly amazing social phenomenon with amazing potential import. I am most excited about the potential of these communication technologies to circumvent censorship and remain free of the apparatus of state control. When the snap-happy citizen ends up making a historical document, whether its of a Tube bombing in London or a protest in Iran, humanity is richer for it. So, for me its the political potential, ultimately, of these practices that most concern me.

What are your thoughts on ‘Citizen Journalism’ and, in general, of the place of the amateur or professional photographer? These public review events often provide an “interesting” mix of the layperson, the second career newbie and the seasoned pro. I remember you saying during breakfast on day two, “Its an interesting selection of work, I guess they don’t screen” which struck me as hilariously understated…

JC: Not that I want to spend too much time on the technological aspect here, but digital photography has resulted in an ironic change. Photographs in shoe boxes you can look at any time. Photographs on storage media that have become obsolete you can’t see any longer. I have some photos on a couple of “floppy disks” (remember those?), and I have no idea how I’ll be able to retrieve those.

As for the internet, we’re now in the curious situation where essentially the vast majority of images will never be seen again, not because they’re inaccessible, but ironically because they are accessible. There are billions of photos online, and who can look at those? Who can sift through those?

I’m also unconvinced that “social media” are really such a big change as far as photography is concerned. It is true, you can share your images with other people very easily - but we’re talking about ease here. There’s no fundamental change here.

MI: Haha touche! Digital media can become even more inaccessible and obsolete as physical objects. I also have a bunch of floppies and even Zip disks (the eight-track of computer storage) with random stuff on it. Periodically I have the urge to salvage this info in the hopes of stumbling on some fantastic image or piece of writing…

You may be right that fundamentally there has been no paradigm shift just a shift of speed and scale. That is, photographers are still making images and distributing them albeit more and faster. Thanks to keywording and intuitive search there is something to be said for having an image online vs in a shoebox. As long as it is traceable in some fashion there is the chance it will be viewed. The Library of Congress and George Eastman House for example, have been systematically making their archives available on Flickr.

I’m actually really interested in artists who are using the internet as the locus of their work, either for research or as a way to expand the scope of the project: Penelope Umbrico’s Flickr mining, Hans Witschi, Susan Meiselas’s AKA Kurdistan, Glenn Ligon etc.

I think there is something compelling about the constant flood of photos and video responses that seem to represent a vital call-and-response, a participatory model of creative social engagement. Fodder or folly?

JC: Unfortunately, I messed up slightly by hopping on the bus, thinking I’ll continue what I started writing later. So let me try to add some things, and then I’ll get back to some stuff that I think I might even have changed my mind slightly about (oh, the joy of a bus ride!). First of, the supreme irony of the floppy-disk situation is that these disks contains scans of actual photographs on paper. If I had taken the photos themselves, instead of just scanning them, I wouldn’t be in the situation I’m in right now.

You’re certainly right about the internet as an archive, and I find that very appealing, given that I spent a lot of time thinking about “data mining” back when I was working in the software industry. But here’s my real concern. I’m actually very interested in seeing what you can do with digital media, but I’m not so interested in seeing them do something that could be done before. Sharing your photos online is not that different from sending people prints.

What I’m interested in is how one can use the medium to create something fundamentally new. I have this same problem with “social media:” Most photographers use Facebook basically as a gigantic PR tool. Well, that’s great, but when I get the same announcements in an email and see them on their blog, why would I be a Facebook “friend” to see it yet another time? I mean it’s great that you can do all that PR easily, but I’m wondering what else you could do.

If you think back to how photographers initially used blogging, they used to post images in almost real time (or maybe once a day). That was fundamentally different from working for some period of time and then producing an edit. In a way, this is the same problem we see with multimedia. Many multimedia productions are essentially just slide shows with audio (often goofy music). That’s all nice, but there’s got to be more! What is that more? I don’t know.

But I’d love to see some fundamental changes. One thing that I can think of which might be a change in a new direction is people having Twitter chats about some topic. Of course, with the 140 character limit, those can be hard to read, but there’s something fundamentally new (I know, you could argue it’s not, but I think people are onto something).

I mean, this complex is something you seem to be exploring with Daylight Magazine now, where you combine print with a blog and multimedia etc. So you must have some ideas about this?!

I still owe you an answer about the “citizen journalism” idea. I think seeing images that we haven’t been able to see before potentially is great, but there are lots of problems here. First of all, providing an image is not journalism. A journalist doesn’t just collect images. There needs to be context, and I’m worried that context is becoming ever more marginalized, especially since media organizations are cutting back their budgets (I’m happy to argue in part because they stopped providing context and, instead, tried to cater to people’s desire to see entertainment - who needs a newspaper when it’s really just a paper copy of some superficial TV news program? In Houston, I got a complimentary copy of “USA Today,” and even though I know how bad it is I was still shocked). And then you could ask whether we really need to see photos for everything. I don’t know. I think some things we need to see, but some other things we really don’t need to see.

I suppose this goes back a little to the social engagement you mentioned earlier. I’m all for social engagement. But social engagement for me is a bit more than sending around links or making “friends” on Facebook (prior to deleting my Facebook account I looked at my list of “friends,” and I had literally no idea who some of them were). Like I said doing Twitter chats is something that goes beyond just following someone’s Twitter feed. You actively engage, and you really move things away from where you were.  I think that’s great. And I think we yet have to see where this all is really going, because right now, the debate is mostly dominated by hype.

So I guess once I see photographers do something very new somewhere online, for example maybe involving other people in the image-making (in whatever way), then I’d be happy to say that, yes, social networking is finally changing something. I don’t think we’re there, yet. Of course, with sites like Facebook being abusive corporations, where you sign away your rights, I don’t expect a photographer to do anything on Facebook. But there are other ways. What do you think, can you imagine a more interactive Daylight Magazine? Or maybe an issue that’s a collaboration - however that might be set up - between hundreds of people?

MI: I guess my initial response would be to look to JPG Magazine (now defunct) which mined readers photos from the web and presented a curated selection. At Daylight we have made a real effort to complement our print edition with increased online content including a daily blog and monthly multimedia releases. We have been more or less successful on both fronts building our web traffic and cultivating an audience of repeat readers that, in turn, help to drive sales.

In terms of innovating within the confines of the medium itself I find this to be very engaging and difficult question. What are the strengths and limitations of blogging? Of multimedia? These are certainly questions Taj Forer (Daylights other founding editor) and myself chew on all of the time. Considering the fundamental shifts in the actual technological interface with these mediums (with the iPhone and now the iPad) I think the doors have only really just opened on these new ‘content delivery systems’.

I agree with you that FB promotion is a tired use of the social network. One thing that occured to me recently is that many folks speak of digital communication as antithetical to real, personal contact but perhaps the best thing about FB and Craigslist is that it actually leads, full circle, to more physical encounters. I am not really speaking about the famed Craigslist ‘personals’ so much as the fact that on FB much of the promo is geared towards opening receptions - that is, promoting an event where you can go, drink some wine and chat with the artist in person. On Craigslist my search for a cheap mountain bike got me an $80 Trek AND a local drinking buddy…

Ultimately I like to think of my work as a publisher of images and ideas as a providing a catalyst for dialogue. We do allow readers to comment on the site and have considered how to work ‘live’ events into the blog etc. I think Andy Adams and Miki Johnson led an interesting e-conversation on photo-books recently. I also came across a truly immersive multimedia experience on coal mining in China but I can’t find it again. In it the viewer followed a map and made decisions in the manner of a choose-your-own-adventure story. Did you ever see it?

And that brings me to the limits of narrative itself, or perhaps, of digital technologies to convey it. We write left-to-right and the web experience is oriented around the reception of the word with the image secondary. Similarly when viewing a web portfolio or even watching a multimedia presentation we expect to have a concrete way to understand it - a beginning, middle and end. I think the interactivity of future computing tools will make the ‘hyperlink’ and ‘hypertext’ experience part and parcel with the way we create and imbibe visual information. That is we could click on a basketball for a list of options: NBA Playoff scores, Spaulding stores, Paul Pfieffer video etc

Talk about the danger of de-contextualization. This from an article in Harper’s:

“If I think of what many of my friends and I read these days, it is still a newspaper, but it is clipped and forwarded in bits and pieces on email—a story from the New York Times, a piece from Salon, a blog from the Huffington Post, something from the Times of India, from YouTube. It is like a giant newspaper being assembled at all hours, from every corner of the world, still with news but no roots in a place. Perhaps we do not need a sense of place anymore.”

JC: You’re definitely right about the issue of translating our way of reading or of narratives onto the screen. But maybe we need to move away from our idea that someone imposes an order and consider thinking about ways to present something in a way that the user can decide where to go and how to go about it? This would probably lead to general despair of editors - or maybe of editors used to linear narratives - but would it be so far-fetched to imagine that some websites would work really just like “adventure” video games as you just said - where you basically have to decide where to go to discover something. With photography, I could see this work very well. After all, the problem with many stories is that they are presenting things in a linear fashion that might not actually be that linear to begin with. Some stories don’t have a simple cause and effect. Just imagine what this could do for photo books, where often the linear aspect can be such a big problem!

And if you think about it this is how many people use Flickr, except that the way to discover work on Flickr is immensely tedious. I could imagine that at some stage, they’ll stand back and realize they have this huge database of images, and then they’ll realize that they can provide smarter tools for people to discover something.

Coming back to how we started, I could imagine portfolio reviews being done in completely different ways, because with the internet there is no real need to have hundreds of people travel to the same crappy chain hotel, to look at oversized prints under bad lighting. Mind you, doing it in different ways might take away some of the stuff that people right now like very much, but it might also add something that currently simply isn’t there.

But for all of this to happen, I think we need to realize that the web is currently driven almost entirely by commercial considerations. Just take the iPad - it’s really all about selling stuff. Or look at iPhone commercials. I saw one yesterday, where someone “discovers” some music, to then buy it (at Apple’s store, of course), and then the person went to look for a concert ticket. And that really bothers me. If such aspects of commercialism are always first - and anything else simply follows (or not, because people don’t even try) - then we reduce what we could have to a glorified consumption machine. Or just be honest, and say it’s all about selling stuff, but stop pretending there’s a fundamental change - just because it’s way more convenient for people to sell stuff. The iPad might be a great tool - but I’m not interested in any of the applications people sell right now, because why would I spend hundreds of dollars to then be able to buy an electronic magazine?

Of course, this could be in part because I have been using the internet for a long time, and I definitely remember a time when it wasn’t nearly as commercialized as it is now. And if the new “Net Neutrality” court ruling holds - which does away with net neutrality - we’ll be in real trouble.

I think this is why people lack that sense of place that you mentioned, because many of the social aspects of the new media are… well, I don’t want to say fake, but they’re certainly unbelievably shallow. And as you said you then use digital tools as a short cut to meet people in real life. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; but I just would love to see more than that.

What do you think?

MI: Hmm, you raise a number of incisive points. Central to them perhaps is the driving force of consumer culture in the rise of new media. TV and newspapers themselves evolved independently of commercial considerations but quickly became subsumed and dependent upon advertising revenue streams. It’s no different, of course, with Apple, a savvy marketer if ever there was one, whose emphasis on intuitively designed hardware has led (somehow) into the creation of a cultural behemoth. Personally I depend on my iphone to stay connected on the go and as a gateway to some of the amazing free content (podcasts) that I enjoy. If it wasn’t for the exorbitant and prohibitive monthly fees I would say its a win-win all the way.

The recent net-neutrality ruling is as disturbing in its corporate empowerment as the awarding of political lobbying rights to the same companies. Is there an inherent ideological conflict between open-source information and the creation/control of the information? Can the interwebs provide us a middle ground between free stuff and paid services? Apple and many others are banking on it. News outlets are hustling to reinvent themselves and, theoretically, the ad money not currently invested in Cable or dwindling print outlets is just waiting to sink itself into a sexy new platform the iPad purports to be…

But I agree the driving force of consumerism and its seemingly central role in our free democratic way of life needs to end.  It is fundamentally unsustainable and when folks realize that the endless acquirement of acoutrements is not, in fact, an end in itself then we will be getting somewhere.

Adam Curtis’s Century of the Self lays out a devastatingly cogent connection between psychoanalysis and marketing. But the iCraze is hopefully not just another gadget but a way to interface with information more seamlessly…. Personally I am looking forward to the de-materialization of these technologies, or at least the nano-tech revolution. Surely that will waste less resources?

It also might be valuable to address two conflicting ideas you raised: the shallow social aspect of the internet and social media and your concurrent desire to free the portfolio review experience from the in-person face-to-face. For me the most valuable part of the portfolio review is the ability to engage in real-time dialogue and meet new people. Indeed, you and I had communicated lightly before meeting at FotoFest but, having the opportunity to hang out with you in person, I now consider you a friend!

(image by Michael, ruff treatment by Jörg)