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April 15, 2008

Mexican Pictures and the Future of Photoblogs

Posted in: Art/Design,Photography


I’ve been a fan of Raul Gutierrez’s photography for some time. His understated style has always gotten under my skin in that subtle way: the first time you see the image, you pause for a second and keep going. Only later do you realize it’s still with you and come back to it again, this time for longer. There’s an authenticity in his style that really makes you feel a connection with people and places far away. He captures the small things.

I became a devout follower of Raul’s photoblog, Mexican Pictures, a few years back — watching his travels from Tibet to Cambodia to China to Mexico to Vietnam to East Texas with increasing interest. Then, in late 2007, his posting suddenly stopped.

And the way it stopped was mysterious. Those last sets of photos were different than what went before. Instead of travels, we started seeing scenes from home; photos of his wife and kids. Why walk away when you’ve got such a good thing going? What happened?

Turns out life did. Raul puts it this way:

The easy answer is that two new babies entered my life in 2007, my second son, Gabriel, and the company I helped create, 20×200. I went from around 5 hours sleep to around 3 which is pretty much my breaking point.

From the way it ended, you certainly could have guessed. Just as fellow photoblogger Rion Nakaya’s blogging changed after her clever baby reveal, so did Raul’s. But somehow those home photos are no less magical for it. Take this shot that, for me, evokes Guiherme Marcondes’ dreamy Tyger:

But that’s only half the story. For Raul, the concept of the photoblog itself was failing:

The more complicated answer is that for over a year I’ve been noodling with the idea of a more refined form for the photoblog. I came to feel that simply posting pictures daily didn’t give them enough context. They became disposable visual junk food. Clicking through a linear site like mine becomes a somewhat random experience especially if you are a photographer who shoots in a variety of settings and has a diverse project set (it’s less problematic with photographers who are very focused and work around and around a singular idea or set of ideas or whose photographs are a linear part of their journey). Showing the work as portfolios is the obvious answer but most portfolio sites are boring and static (the content might not be boring, but the form is). You visit a portfolio site once and are done with it. So the problem is how to design an image based site that is dynamic with regular infusions of fresh content but is able to present those images in context. The other design goals are to be clutter free, and easily navigable by anyone and to present nice big images. I haven’t figured it out yet.

So the deeper question, then, is how do we help photographers show their work online in a meaningful way considering our ever accelerating bite sized info overload culture? It’s a tall order but, if you consider the richness of seeing a photography exhibit in a physical gallery, it’s tough to argue that we can’t do better. While sites like flickr have some of the trappings of galleries (community, dynamic content, custom albums), they’re also full of noise, random access, and just general ADD. Plus, any artist wants fine control over their presentation and flickr forces everything into one monolithic style.

Where to next? How do we give the web the meditative quality and context of a gallery visit? Is it a zooming UI? Some VR walkthrough? Perhaps one direction lies closer, in the fan’s experience with Mexican Pictures. While surely not everyone lingered at the site, I did. And I found myself getting sucked in again and again, looking up names of places I hadn’t known before and wondering about the people who live there, the people I was seeing in Raul’s photos. That extended and deepened my experience, even though it didn’t all happen in one shot; even though my first engagements were invariably short ones. The question then becomes how do we encourage this kind of behavior? How do we provide tranquil spots in a random access world?

Fortunately, we may not have to wait until the problem is fully solved to see the return of Mexican Pictures. Raul tells me that he’s got some new projects in the works that will likely make it onto the web. Here’s hoping.

For more, see the Mexican Pictures archives, Raul’s text blog Heading East, and his flickr stream. Liz Kuball has an interview and his new business venture 20×200 has seen some nice writeups, too. Raul last showed offline at the Nelson Hancock Gallery.

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