Matt Blaze's
Science, Security, Curiosity
Photography, publishing and Flickr
I take pictures because I can't draw.

I've dabbled with photography for most of my life, defiantly regressing toward bulkier equipment and more cumbersome technique as cameras become inexorably smaller and easier to use with each successive generation. Lately, I've settled on a large format camera with a tethered digital scanning back, which is about as unwieldy as I'd likely want to endure, at least without employing a pack mule.

But for all the effort I'm apparently willing to expend to take pictures, I'm pathologically negligent about actually doing anything with them once they've been taken. Scattered about my home and office are boxes of unprinted negatives and disk drives of unprocessed captures (this is, admittedly, overwhelmingly for the best). So it was somewhat against my natural inclinations that a few years ago I started making available an idiosyncratic (that is to say, random) selection of images elsewhere on this web site.

Publishing photos on my own server has been a mixed bag. It maximizes my control over the presentation, which appeals to the control freak in me, but it also creates lot of non-photographic work every time I want to add a new picture -- editing html, creating thumbnails, updating links and indexes. I've got generally ample bandwidth, but every now and then someone hotlinks into an image from some wildly popular place and everything slows to a crawl. I could build better tools and install better filters to fix most of these shortcomings, but, true to my own form I suppose, I haven't. So a few weeks ago I finally gave in to the temptations of convenience and opened an account on Flickr.

I'm slowly (but thus far, at least, steadily) populating my Flickr page with everything from casual snapshots to dubiously artistic abstractions. It's still an experiment for me, but a side effect has been to bring into focus (sorry) some of what's good and what's bad about how we publish on the web.

Flickr is a mixed bag, too, but it's different mix than doing everything on my own has been. It's certainly easier. And there's an appeal to being able easily link photos into communities of other photographers, leave comments, and attract a more diverse audience. So far at it seems not to have scaled up unmanageably or become hopelessly mired in robotic spam. They make it easy to publish under a Creative Commons license, which I use for most of my pictures. But there are also small annoyances. The thumbnail resizing algorithm sometimes adds too much contrast for my taste -- I'd welcome an option to re-scale certain images myself. The page layout is inflexible. There's no way to control who can view (and mine data from) your social network. And they get intellectual property wrong in small but important ways. For example, every published photo is prominently labeled "this photo is public", risking the impression that copyrighted and CC-licensed photos are actually in the public domain and free for any use without permission or attribution.

I wonder how most people feel about that; do we think of our own creative output, however humble, as being deserving of protection? Or do we tend to regard intellectual property as legitimately applying only to "serious" for-profit enterprises (with Hollywood and the music industry rightfully occupying rarefied positions at the top of the socio-legal hierarchy)? A couple of years ago I led a small discussion group for incoming students at my overpriced Ivy-league university. The topic was Larry Lessig's book Free Culture, and I started by asking what I thought was a softball question about who was exclusively a content consumer and who occasionally produced creative things deserving protection and recognition. To my surprise, everyone put themselves squarely in the former category. These were talented kids, mostly from privileged background -- hardly a group that tends to be shy about their own creativity. Maybe it was the setting or maybe it was how I asked. But perhaps their apparent humility was symptomatic of something deeply rooted in our current copyright mess. Until we can abandon this increasingly artificial distinction -- "consumers" and "content producers", us against them -- our lopsided copyright laws seem bound to continue on their current draconian trajectory, with public disrespect for the rules becoming correspondingly all the more flagrant.