Going, Going, Going Viral Part 2
Today’s post continues to explore the phenomenon of “going viral.” A big thank you to Clay Lipsky, Sabine Pearlman, Ben Marcin, Haley Morris Cafiero and Julia Kozerski for their contributions and stories. Each photographer had a different experience and all have interesting insights, now that their storms have passed and the clouds have parted.
Los Angeles photographer Clay Lipsky was not ready for the “explosion” that was ignited after his Atomic Overlook project was launched. The visually compelling images, with layered interpretations, spread like wildfire throughout the internet. Clay quickly regrouped and created a specific website, Atomic Overlook, allowing for print sales. Clay is a fine art photographer and Emmy Award winning graphic designer based in Los Angeles, CA. His artwork has been published and exhibited internationally, most notably with Esquire Russia, Pink Art Fair Seoul, Wired Italia, Ballarat Foto Bienalle, PhotoLA and the Annenberg Space for Photography. He is self taught and strives to create classic images that can stand the test of time.
He shares his story below.
Atomic Overlook: History & Viral Reach
“Atomic Overlook” is a series of photomontages that blend 1950’s atomic bomb tests with 21st century tourism. On the surface this series seeks to remind us of the ongoing nuclear threat, yet beyond the sensational juxtapositions there are many other layers of meaning. Concepts of voyeurism, catastrophe as spectacle, desensitization to media, pollution, technology, tourism and the frustration of global issues beyond our control are all implied within the photos. It is this complex mix of art and social issues, infused with dark humor, that helped “Atomic Overlook” go “viral” online in 2012. The series was initially featured on the fine art blog Lenscratch.com and soon began to spread worldwide.
At first only a handful of art and photography blogs re-posted the images, but the web hits steadily increased and soon technology and mass media blogs such as Wired Online and Gizmodo featured the series. That seemed to be the tipping point when it was seemingly washed into the mainstream media cycle.
It was after this initial wave of interest that I created a website dedicated to the project, to divert the web burden off my generic pre-fab portfolio site, use cleaner URL names/links, have the often overlooked artist statement and offer prints and a self-published catalogue for sale. Interestingly enough, it was the European media who were the most intrigued. While no newspapers from the United States expressed any interest in “Atomic Overlook,” nearly every major paper in Europe was. Daily media requests streamed in, and within a couple of weeks the series was published in newspapers across Germany, France, England, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark and the UK.
Web searches also revealed that the series was even published, without permission, in the print and web editions of Pakistan’s The Nation. Additional, more considerate attention was given by the CTBTO (Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization), who are based out of of the United Nations in Vienna, by acknowledging the series in their newsletter. Esquire Russia and Germany’s um[laut] magazine both published multi-page spreads of the series in 2012 and the buzz continues to resonate. Recently “Atomic Overlook” garnished the attentions of the fine art world again and was shown at PhotoLA 2013 and honored as a finalist in Photolucida’s Critical Mass 2013 and Klompching Gallery’s FRESH 2013 Exhibition.
The upcoming electronic musician, DJ Clockwork, used an image for his EP album cover and the images continue to be widely reblogged online from China to Brazil. The series is now showing at the Smithsonian sponsored National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.
The viral journey of “Atomic Overlook” taught me a lot. Foremost, it caused me to be better prepared for future projects and not so casual about releasing new work. It also gave me a taste of how interviews can twist your words and the joy of having your images misappropriated. My advice is to be careful about what you say, don’t expect the media to get it right and learn when to let things go. The web trolls hated on me in the comments, others didn’t get the underlying message of the series at all, many times the images were just used as mass media eye candy and often the foreign language captions of my images were hilarious and confusing. Ultimately, I am just happy to have created a series that travelled the globe with a socially conscious message. The whole experience really demonstrates the power art and technology can have in these times.
Sabine Pearlman: Ammo
Photographer Sabine Pearlman had a viral experience after she won the 2013 Lens Culture Emerging Photographer Award. As an emerging photographer, she was unprepared for the onslaught of requests and correspondence. Sabine was born in Austria and was educated at Pratt Institute, Otis College of Art and Design, and Santa Monica College. Her work has been exhibited widely, in galleries in the U.S. and internationally. She is the recipient of the 2013 Lens Culture “Emerging Photographer Award” for her AMMO series. Her experience follows:
My “Going Viral” started after I became winner of the 2013 Lens Culture Emerging Photographer Award for my AMMO series.
After the announcement was out, the images began to spread like a wildfire on the web. People were posting and reposting the photos on social media and the blogosphere. The photographs got up-voted to #1 on Reddit’s front page and appeared on sites like National Geographic, The Boston Globe, Daily Mail, WIRED, Fast Company, PetaPixel etc.
The number of inquiries from around the globe and the amount of feedback the series received was astounding—offers from photo agencies, interview and licensing requests from newspapers and magazines, requests for poster reproductions, book covers and music albums, exhibition opportunities, the list goes on.
It’s a very exciting time and a big learning experience as there aren’t any “Hype-Navigation for Dummies” books available. I had to learn on the fly and negotiate licensing fees, write up usage agreements, review contracts, say no, call fellow photographers to ask for advice, manage correspondences, issue invoices, give interviews, resize images, run test prints, have meetings with galleries, stay cool and try to not get overwhelmed by all the extra attention and added hours in front of the computer.
I am grateful it is happening to me in the early stages of my career, as it has provided me with an invaluable crash course in many different aspects of the photography business. It has opened many doors and it pushes me to clearly define my goals—it’s getting me excited about what’s to come! The best advice I can give: You walk the dog—don’t let the dog walk you! And: Keep shooting.
Ben Marcin: The Last House Standing
I met photographer Ben Marcin at the Photo Nola Reviews last December. I remember liking his work right away, and being drawn to his capture of row housing in Baltimore. The work was well executed, timely, shot consistently, and most of all visually compelling. Ben lives in Baltimore, Maryland and his work has been shown at a number of national galleries and venues including the Delaware Museum of Art; The Center For Fine Art Photography in Ft. Collins, CO; Maryland Institute College of Art’s Middendorf and Meyerhoff Galleries; and the former Gomez Gallery in Baltimore. This is his story:
I met Aline at PhotoNola 2012, I believe it was on December 1. She was one of my eight reviewers at this event and definitely the most upbeat about my work. I showed her a set of solo row houses called Last House Standing and a photo essay on homeless camps. She then offered to post them on to Lenscratch. I couldn’t believe it at the time but, on January 3, 2013, there was Last House Standing and The Camps right on the front page of Lenscratch!
Shortly after she published my photographs, I sent an email with the link to a prominent gallery in downtown Baltimore. Baltimore is not an art gallery mecca. Galleries have come and gone in droves but this particular gallery has maintained its venue since the late 1970s. The gallery features a lot of photography but not exclusively so. The gallery owner replied to my initial email and said he’d like to get together at some point. This led to a review of my photographs in his gallery which in turn led to an invitation to have two of my photographs appear in his summer group show. One of these was highlighted in the local Baltimore Sun newspaper review.
Around the time that the summer show was ending, Diana Zlatanovski contacted me about Last House Standing. Diana is a curatorial research assistant at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and she runs her own blog called, “The Typologist.” I agreed to let her post LHS and asked her how she came across the work. She said she had seen them earlier in the year on Lenscratch but was just now getting around to asking me about them.
Shortly after the series ran on The Typologist, I received an email from Alison Zavos, who runs Feature Shoot. She said she had just seen my row houses on The Typologist and was hoping to run the story on Feature Shoot. Within days of her posting Last House Standing, I started getting emails from Slate, The Daily Mail (a big newspaper in the UK), The Huffington Post, MSN.com (UK) and numerous other web-sites, all of them asking to run Last House Standing. Channel 45, our local Fox TV affiliate, sent me an email asking if I would do a TV interview (it hasn’t happened yet.)
My web-site went from averaging about a dozen hits a day to a high of 1,500 within a week. This has since tapered off, although my hit rate is still much higher than it was prior to August. I’m attaching a screen shot from my SquareSpace metrics showing the huge bump in exposure I received. The numbers shown are by month for the last six months. The unique hits are in the middle column. This wouldn’t have happened except that the right person happened to remember seeing the work originally published on Lenscratch months earlier and decided to post it on her blog.
Fortunately, I remembered to ask each media outlet to mention that my photographs were available at the gallery in Baltimore. Any time a media outlet posted my story and included a link to the gallery, I made sure to send the gallery the post. After the third or fourth such email, I received an invitation from the gallery to exhibit twelve Last House Standing and other house photographs in a future show.
Here is a list of some of the media outlets that have posted Last House Standing. It’s in rough chronological order:
Haley Morris Cafiero: Wait Watchers
I featured Haley Morris Cafiero‘s work in February–I found it when jurying Critical Mass entries and knew it was an interesting subject and worth sharing. I put her images in a folder on my desk and a month or two later, featured the project. To my knowledge, this was the first time Haley’s work had been presented on the internet, and from her Lenscratch post, her work continues to get seen through the spider web of online and in-studio media outlets. As Haley states, “There have been 292,000 visitors to my website since your feature in February.”
Haley received her BFA in Ceramics and BA in Photography from the University of North Florida and her MFA in Art from the University of Arizona. She currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee where she is the Director of the MFA Program and the Head of Photography at Memphis College of Art. She is a national member of the A.I.R. Gallery, and was named a “FotoFest Stand Out” by Manfred Zollner, Editor of fotoMAGAZIN. Here is her story:
So far, I have had nothing but a positive opinion about it all. I did not have gallery representation before the media blitz and I don’t have one now. I have sold one print in the past 6 months. Most would consider this a failure. I do have 3 solo shows lined up for next year that may or may not have happened because of the exposure.
I have been on TV a few times. The most notable things are CBS This Morning, Huffington Post US (2x), UK, IT and Live, Featureshoot, Salon.com, The Story on NPR, and Marie Claire South Africa. The TV features have been CBS This Morning and news shows in Chile, Brazil, the Netherlands and Australia.
But, I do think that my work has impacted people more than it ever could have in the traditional art world contexts. I have received over 800 emails from supportive people, some of which claim my work changed their life. That is a heavy burden for me, but I am honored.
I think that work that goes viral is not work that would sell. I would love to be wrong about this. But beautiful things typically do not go viral. People share imagery that exposes exceptionally good, bad and odd things about humanity. Again, I could be wrong. All I can think of when someone says the word “viral” is Honey Boo Boo.
The last time I spoke to Haley, this is what she said, “My work is going to be Brazilian news show on Wednesday and a fotoMagazin has selected me to be a featured fine art print for sale artist for their issue that comes out tomorrow. it will be a busy and happy week this week.”
Julia Kozerski: Half and Changing Room
I saved the story of Julia Kozerski‘s viral phenomenon for last as she was truly at the center of a media storm that took over her life. The press of media requests caused her to pack up her camera, disconnect herself from the photo community, and made her reassess her priorities. Julia created two bodies of work about losing a significant amount of weight. Her series, Half, was a brave exploration of a new self, and Changing Room chronicled her physical changes.
Julia Kozerski is an artist and photographer based out of Milwaukee, WI, having received her BFA from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD.) Her work explores universal themes of beauty, body-image, and identity and has been exhibited internationally. Kozerski was recently published in PDN (Photo District News) magazine as part of the 2012 Photo Annual and has also received significant exposure online, having been highlighted in Fraction Magazine, on Lenscratch, as well as on the CNN Photos Blog. Her story follows:
Admission: This is the first art/photography-related endeavor that I’ve participated in in almost one year. Why? Because my work went viral.
First a little background. In May 2012 I graduated with my BFA from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD.) In the years that preceded, I spent all of my time split between making work, as a full-time student, and, in my private life, struggling with my weight. At some point, the two converged and I began using myself to create several series of self-portraits (some of them nudes) exploring themes of beauty and self-image; the two most notable of my series being “Half” and “Changing Room.”
At the time I was extremely active in the photography community. I enjoyed attending events and openings, networking and participating in critiques. I especially enjoyed submitting my work to ‘calls for entry,’ you know, in hopes of becoming “famous.” A week after my college graduation, while my former classmates were still recovering from all the celebrations, I was hold up in the lab diligently printing my portfolio and promotional materials to be used for Review Santa Fe. After attending the event, I returned home where I immediately started a full-time job (now with the burden of student loan repayment upon me.) Things were looking up and I was doing what I needed to do, as both an artist and as a graduate. I thought I’d struck the perfect balance.
Then one day I received an email that would change everything.
A writer from NPR’s Picture Show (online blog) contacted me with reference to a portfolio review I’d had with her colleague a few weeks before at Review Santa Fe. She told me that while they could not publish my nude work, from “Half,” she would like to share images and an interview with me about “Changing Room” – a group of hundreds of images in which I used my iPhone to explore my 160+ pound weight-loss in department store dressing rooms. Knowing the reputation of the source, I quickly obliged; typing out responses to posed questions one morning before work. The blog entry was posted later that morning and that’s when all hell broke lose.
I remember it to this day. It was mid morning and I was sitting at my desk, the first week at my new job. My phone started ringing non-stop – voice mails, text-messages, emails, Facebook friend requests, Twitter followers … you name the media, it was flying at me and fast. Overwhelmed, I shut my phone off for the day. After driving home in rush-hour traffic, I turned my phone back on only to discover what had happened. My work had gone viral.
That evening the chaos calmed a bit. And then the phone rang. It was Good Morning America. The producer asked if I would like to talk about my story (as they’d seen on NPR) and I obliged. They stated that they were sending over a camera crew from Chicago to be at my home that evening. My husband and I frantically tidied our home, cleaned up our appearances, arranged for our dogs to be cared for and, at 1am, filmed for an air time just hours later.
It was fun at first, a rush. I was happy that people were engaged and interested in hearing about the work. I was happy to share … at least for the meantime.
My GMA segment ran the following morning. In fact, unbeknownst to my coworkers, it aired for the guests in the waiting-room just feet from my desk. Again, media requests poured in. In the following weeks, I lived a double life. By day I was a co-worker (my job not approving or wanting to condone/relate themselves to my artwork) and, by night, I was a media maven – responding to hundreds of requests from local, national and international outlets. Emails, online replies, phone interviews, in-person segments – there were many nights when I went without sleep.
Not only did I feel like I owed the viewers of my work, I also felt like this would be my only shot … this was my 15 minutes of fame.
Some of the media requests resulted in some very rich and interesting discussions/insights, some even paid (albeit not much) and others, now in hindsight, I wish I wouldn’t have participated in. Tabloids, day-time television show appearances, radio-show interviews, the sources ran the gambit.
Notice how non of these outlets are fine-art in nature? As time past I began to regain clarity – about my work and my life. I began to become discouraged that my images were being used for their “shock value” (similar to before and after photos) instead of for their true artistic and emotionally deep content. Atop that, I had received literally thousands of contacts from people who had read about or who had seen my images. While, of course, there was some hate mail (which I actually enjoyed and maybe partially understood – especially when it came to nudity,) the majority of the contact was from individuals who needed/wanted help and advice. I can not tell you the number of people who sent me emails begging me to tell them how I achieved my “bodily success” because they themselves were struggling and needed to lose weight for their health and well-being (or for that of their young families.) It was utterly heart-breaking. While I understood the point of view of each of these authors, I could not shake the fact that I was now carrying around the burden of their words – physically and emotionally unable to personally respond to each of them.
With this realization, I knew I’d had enough. I don’t remember the exact date or time, but in taking a deeper look at my life at the time, I knew I needed to stop. I ceased taking requests from the media, personal responses were auto-filed into a folder I simply titled “replies,” I stopped talking about my work and my story, I pulled away from the creative community I once called my “photo family,” worst of all, I packed away my camera and put it in the closet.
It’s been a year.
I was asked to write about what it’s like to “go viral.” Well, this was my experience – an emotionally and physically draining roller-coaster. I wasn’t prepared and it ate me alive. Do I regret it? Not a bit. While I would have maybe done things a bit differently, what I have experienced has really helped me to focus on what is truly important in life (and perhaps to also have a bit of compassion for those who choose to live their lives in the lime light.)
The greatest news is that I haven’t given up – I just took a much needed hiatus. At the time I thought I’d lost myself and the integrity of my work but, those few short weeks, one year ago, changed so much about the way I now see and feel about myself and my art. Funny thing is this whole experience has fueled my creative spirit. I am overwhelmingly rich with ideas stemming from and in response to what I’ve gone through. Now I just need to get back to my roots.
I look forward to making work again (and, of course, sharing it publicly at my own discretion.)
Many thanks to all the photographers for sharing there stories….
Posts on Lenscratch may not be reproduced without the permission of the Lenscratch staff and the photographer.
Steve Engelmann: Ancient WoodJuly 12th, 2015
Elena Dorfman: Empire Falling and RiverJuly 10th, 2015
Marcus DeSieno: Cosmos and American WestJuly 9th, 2015