Last week we learned the sad news that Behold, Slate's photography blog, and one of our all time favorites had posted its last piece. If the buzzword "influencer" could be used sincerely to describe a photography blog writer, it couldn't more accurately epitomize David Rosenberg, the mind behind Behold's editorial direction. We've spoken to countless photographers whose work exploded after being featured on Behold by Rosenberg and staff writers Alyssa Coppelman and Jordan Teicher, and I can personally attest to seeing my own work take off after Rosenberg wrote about it. I'll never forget the knee-shaking feeling of receiving a call from Fox News asking to interview me after reading his piece. So I reached out to David to learn more about what drives his love for photography, and a bit about what's in store for the future. We've also included some of our favorite photographs from past Slate features, like Kevin Horan's series ChattelI above, and Corinne Botz' project Bedside Manner below.
Jon Feinstein: Your Behold features have been linchpins for photographers work exploding online. Business Insider, Fox News, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and so many others consistently followed your eye. How do you feel about this? Straight up, spill it.
David Rosenberg: Honestly, I don’t have a problem with it. At first it was kind of surprising and frustrating, especially when work would make the rounds and eventually people wouldn’t even be linking to my story. But let’s face it, that’s how we have always consumed the news, regardless of format. The difference is that online is so immediate you can follow the paper trail a lot easier.
The whole point of Behold was to provide photographers with as wide an audience as possible for them to have their work seen. The great thing about Slate is that their readership is curious and the content is very well respected, so a lot of other outlets look at Slate as a resource anyhow. I’m happy that reputation paved the way for artists to have their work seen by a larger audience.
However, I do have a problem between copying an idea and plagiarism, which I think is rampant. A lot of people writing online don’t have a journalism background and don’t even know what plagiarism is (although I suspect some of them play stupid). I’ve seen entire paragraphs of mine copied and not sited. On Behold, we interviewed everyone, so when I would see a quote or an anecdote that was taken directly from my story, that bothered me, too, since I had gone through the trouble of interviewing someone and building a story off of it. A lot of online writers are lazy. That bothers me because I think the way we consume and share information is in real trouble.
JF: This question has been done to death, but I'm interested in your thoughts: How does "going viral" impact photographers' careers?
DR: I’ll start by saying that I’m curious what the definition of "going viral" is. I really don’t know the answer to that. Do entire bodies of work continue to go viral? I can think of a couple of recent examples, but I feel there used to be a lot more than what we’re seeing now. Anyhow, I think the impact of “going viral” really depends on the photographer, what they’re hoping to get out of the attention and whether or not they’re prepared for it. I think being prepared for it is the most crucial part of that equation. They’re also not ready for what they’re about to lose, namely, control of what they created.
Once things go viral, your message can get lost quickly. I always think of it as a kind of telephone game where the message gets reinterpreted, quotes are taken out of context and suddenly because everyone has seen the work. Sometimes that means the value has the potential to lessen. Photographers, if they aren’t capable themselves, need someone to step in and say, wait a minute, take a deep breath, weigh your options. You still have control of this. If you see people running the work and you don’t want it up there, get it taken down. And, do your research. Do you know anything about the writer who wants to cover your work? Do you trust them? Do you like the publication? Do you think they’ll be fair? Do you only want attention? Do you want to sell this work? Find a good consultant to help you out (hint: call Julie Grahame).
JF: What was the most unexpected surprise that came from working with a photographer?
DR: A couple of years ago I was doing the pre-screening for Critical Mass and came across Liz Obert’s work Dualities about what it felt like to live with a bi-polar 2 diagnosis. I had seen a lot of work about mental illness – a lot of it really great – but had never seen something that felt truly relatable. The images in Obert’s work were in color, they were showing very ordinary situations and they included some text (I’m a sucker for a mix of text and photography). Liz and I had a nice chat and I put the work up, not thinking it would do that well since it was fairly subtle and parts of it were maybe too DIY for our readers. It ended up as the most popular post (by far) we ever ran on Behold and I think it probably ranks fairly high up on Slate’s all time list for any story.I didn’t mention this in the question above, but going viral can also be a positive experience. It proved that the work can fill a void for a great number of people. In this case, I think there was a sigh of relief or a feeling of connectivity because people who related to the work were essentially seeing themselves or had seen that behavior from someone else. Who doesn’t like to feel represented?
JF: How did you start writing about photography?
DR: I started writing about photography once Slate hired me! I had worked primarily as a photo editor/producer the editorial world for many years. I started out working for Sygma with Eliane Laffont, which was a pretty great place to start in the photo world and had then worked for textbooks, magazines, agencies and in professional tennis. I was a journalism major in college and had always done a little bit of writing on the side. The blog seemed like a vehicle for combining both of my passions.
JF: Who was the first photographer you wrote about? What about their work inspired you?
DR: I honestly cannot remember the fist person I wrote about! Maybe Corinne Botz? I had taken a photo class with her at Cooper Union years earlier and really enjoyed the class and also enjoyed her work. I’m fairly certain she was the first person I contacted.
JF: You're a self proclaimed "tennis junkie" and tennis photographer.... does this "volley" (sorry, had to..probably wont include that word when published..J/K - just did) on how you work with others' photography?
DR: Although I love all genres of photography, sports photography hits me the deepest. Seems like a no-brainer to me. You get to watch these amazing people doing amazing things with photos taken by incredible photographers. By working in professional tennis (which is a sport I’ve loved for most of my life), I also learned about how much work goes into making a great sports photography – all the planning, the setting up, using the right equipment – and of course a little bit of luck. Sports photographers, specifically those who work in pro tennis, are work horses, traveling the world, paying for expensive equipment, fighting to get published in a world that is dominated by agencies, battling television crews who walk in front of shots, etc.. I just saw the great show, Who Shot Sports? at the Brooklyn Museum curated by Gail Buckland. She did a great job of exhibiting an historical look back at photographs that resonate with sports fans and photography fans alike.
JF: "The blogosphere" of the early 2000's quickly evolved into nearly every major brand and online magazine having a photography arm and an overwhelming about of "content" online. Has this changed how you look at, or think about photography?
DR: Definitely. My guess is that’s one of the reasons why Slate is no longer running Behold: there are so many other choices out there. Do people really want to read five hundred words and look at eight to ten images every single day? I’ve been thinking about this a lot. How are we consuming photography online today? There are a lot of great online resources for photographers and I think Slate was successful because of its readership and social media presence. So when we started a few years ago, Behold was a nice addition to Slate and quickly became one of its most successful blogs. But I think we also fell into a trap of producing too much. We ran six stories a week for 52 weeks a year. Is there really enough great photography to feed that kind of machine? I don’t think so. And when you add in countless other blogs producing even more stories, it’s a bit overwhelming.
I love photography but I have no desire to read about twenty five different bodies of work each week and do my own research for future stories that might bring me to another twenty five photographers. As for how we view photography, I’m lucky to live in New York City where I can actually visit a lot of galleries. There is nothing like seeing a really beautiful print up close hanging on a wall. It just stays with you in a way that seeing something online doesn’t. Although I’ve seen a lot of fantastic work online and my brain has certainly learned how to see work that way, I’d rather spend an hour in a gallery looking at one body of work than spend an hour online looking at ten bodies of work.
JF: You recently opened a gallery on Manhattan's Lower East Side. How did this come about? Tell me about the plans for the future.
DR: A good friend of mine and on again off again colleague (we met at Sygma and worked together at Us Weekly) wanted to open a project space that would be open for one night and then visible from the street. He asked me to curate it and so I asked Kevin Horan (another photographer I was introduced to through Critical Mass). Kevin was nice enough to agree and we had a great opening. We’re still trying to figure out what to do with it, what kind of work we want to show, if we can sell work, and if we should collaborate with book publishers or other people in the business. We’ll see. It’s called Kinescope and it’s in the East Village.
JF: Any advice for photographers looking to get their work seen/ out in the world?
DR: I think the best thing to do is to put yourself out there at festivals or portfolio reviews or juried competitions. Look at the list of reviewers or jurors and try to get something in front of them. I just spent four days in Chicago for the Filter Photo Festival and did reviews and have done them at a number of places around the country (I’m heading to Atlanta this weekend for Atlanta Celebrates Photography). With all of that said, if you do end up sitting in front of a reviewer, please, do your research, come with a point of view, an edited body of work and a willingness to have a real conversation about your work and where you want to take it.
Bio: David Rosenberg was the editor of Slate’s Behold blog. He has worked as a photo editor for 15 years and is a tennis junkie. Follow him on Twitter.