Rise of the hobbyist documentary photographer

The number of photos uploaded to Flickr doubled between 2006 and 2007.[1] More people with better digital cameras (and camera phones) began to document street art. Taking photos and posting them to Flickr become one of the simplest and most enjoyable ways to become involved in street art as more than just a fan. What began as one or two photographers snapping photos became a daily onslaught from (in some cities) a dozen or more photographers. In some instances there appeared to be an unspoken competition to get the first photos of new work online before another photographer else got the scoop. That competition might not exist among photographers in smaller cities and towns, but there still is something that was not around ten years ago: One or more photographers in just about any city for whom it’s a hobby to document street art and share those photos online. As a result, someone living in London following Billy Craven’s Flickr stream can be more up-to-date with street art in Chicago than someone who lives in that city. Flickr and Instagram are now significant communities where nearly everyone there viewing, sharing and producing content.

These amateur photographers capturing street art street art or graffiti were not (generally speaking) also actively putting up work on the street themselves. Even if that class of photographers did exist before Flickr (and indeed there were a few people documenting work before 2005), it was certainly the first time that photos by amateur fans were being published in such great numbers and so quickly.

Publication speed is a major draw of Flickr, Tumblr and Instagram. Professional-quality photographs can be posted to Flickr and Tumblr almost immediately, and cellphone pics are often uploaded to Instagram, Tumblr and Flickr as soon as they are taken. This means that new work can be viewed by people around the world on the same day it hits the street. KATSU says Flickr is “almost real-time graffiti monitoring system. If I tag something new, chances are within a day or two I can find different photographs of it.” But, compared to photo services like Instagram where real-time viewing is the focus, Flickr has a degree of permanence as well. It’s as easy to look through all of the photos taken of KATSU’s work before 2009, as it is to find something he did yesterday.

By comparison, Aric Kurzman’s story exemplifies the barriers that photographers were faced with before Flickr. In June 2011, Vandalog published a series of 7 photographs by Kurzman featuring work by New York graffiti legends Adam Cost and Revs. Kurzman took the photos around 1993-1995, but they weren’t shown publicly until 2010, when he uploaded blurry reproductions of them to his Flickr account. In 2011, Vandalog published higher-quality scans of the photos to a larger audience. Kurzman says he has more photographs of Cost and Revs’ work somewhere, but hasn’t been able to find them. There might have been as many Kurzmans in 1993 as there are photographers posting photos of street art to Flickr and Instagram today, but it is rare for those old photos by amateurs to surface except.

Even on Flickr and Instagram, photo platforms where anyone can get an account, there are users documenting street art and graffiti who are disproportionately (although not unfairly) influential. They may have started as complete amateur photographers, but these users have become minor celebrities within the street art community. Katherine Lorimer aka Luna Park and Vitostreet, who both joined Flickr in 2005, are prime examples.

Lorimer works as a reference librarian, but in her free time she takes her camera around New York City (and sometimes the world) to photograph street art and graffiti. She began photographing without much knowledge about the work she was seeing, but the librarian in her recognized the importance of documenting and sharing images of such ephemeral work. By the fall of 2013, she had uploaded over 9600 photographs to Flickr.

Thanks to the photographs she posted to Flickr, Lorimer has become one of the most well-respected and closely followed photographers documenting street art and graffiti today. At the height of Flickr’s popularity, new photos posted to her Flickr could get well over 100 views in less than a day. The focus has shifted, and Instagram is now the dominant photo-posting platform for most street art and graffiti photographs, and Lorimer has thousands of followers there. Almost as important as the number of views is that, for street artists, getting your street art photographed by Lorimer is a stamp of approval. People look to Lorimer and other photographers to see what interesting things are happening on the street, and since she cannot possibly photograph everything, the choices Lorimer makes about whose work ends up on her Instagram account gives others a sense who is important at the moment. It has gotten to the point where certain artists put up a new work, they will email Lorimer to give her a heads up and information about where the piece can be found.

Perhaps to the disappointment of some artists, Lorimer’s documentation has become as much about getting a good photo as documenting interesting work. For the work she does publish, the results are spectacular, but if the light is wrong because of cloud cover or the sun being in the wrong place, she may not get a photograph that she deems worthy of publishing.

Vitostreet had been interested in graffiti since 1984, but if he was taking photos before 2005, comparatively few people have seen them.[2] Since starting to upload photos to Flickr at the end of 2005, Vitostreet had posted over 6000 photographs, mostly from the streets of Paris. Although he does not live in the city, Vitostreet says that he spends most of his Sundays in Paris photographing.[3] He documents street art or graffiti ranging from interesting tags to gigantic legal murals. Like Lorimer, a photo by Vitostreet can rack up views quickly, and a few photos can put an unknown artist in the spotlight, but despite his influence, documenting the streets of Paris remains his weekend hobby.

This respected hobbyist situation has occasionally led to difficulties. Being on the right blogs and Flickr accounts can benefit an artist’s reputation and potentially their pocketbook as well, but the hobbyists who publicize street art only have so many free hours, and they do the work for fun. Artists know that having their latest mural photographed by Lorimer can be helpful. Accordingly, some artists reach out to bloggers and photographers to announce their latest work. Most of the time these tips are friendly, but occasionally artists try telling the bloggers and photographers what to do, as if the street artists employ the street art photographers. Obviously, this goes a bit too far. The street art community is built by and for fans, and although some documenters get access to information from artists that the average person would not receive, at the end of the day they are still fans.

Like blogs and online forums, Flickr and Instagram accounts can also function much like real-world locations once did. Street art photographers who post the work of others that they happen to come across both reaffirm the importance of the physical location where they are and tear down the idea that you need to be in a certain place to see street art because they’re sharing what’s around them with a global audience.

These photographers are sharing the art of their cities with people around the world who can be amazed and influenced by it, but they aren’t sharing all of it, since photographers don’t document and upload everything they see. Just because a street artist gets up in Brooklyn doesn’t mean and that anyone outside of Brooklyn will know about that artist if photographers don’t pay attention and the artist doesn’t post her own photos. For some, who have never been to New York but still consider it a street art capital of the world, the influential street art photographers of New York street art define the city.

Well-respected street art photographers function as a collection of gatekeepers between their city and the people around the world who view their photos. Just as a scientist studying quantum physics may change the results of her experiment by observing it, by simply documenting the work and making judgments about what is worth photographing, Flickr and Instagram users became arbiters of taste for their local street art scenes. In places like New York this may not be worrisome because there are so many people taking photographs that one photographer’s opinion tends to matter less. However, in smaller cities with perhaps only one or two dedicated photographers, a online portrait of the local scene can be shaped by the tastes of a handful of few people. The “best” Flickr and Instagram accounts are like exclusive clubs where only the highest quality artists enter, but they then get to tell all of the world that they have arrived, and sometimes the world listens.

The situation has improved since graffiti writers were trying to get their work into Subway Art or Style Wars. Instagram and Flickr have not been magic bullets, but new and influential photographers can appear at any time, photographers are publishing pictures instantly rather than years after taking them. A smaller scale version of the photographer-as-gatekeeper problem still exists, but it’s fading fast.

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  1. Michel, Franck. How Many Photos Are Uploaded to Flickr Every Day and Month? Digital image. Flickr. N.p., 20 Mar. 2012. Web. 11 July 2012. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/franckmichel/6855169886/>.
  2. Vitostreet. "Flickr: Vitostreet." Flickr. Yahoo!, n.d. Web. 12 July 2012. <http://www.flickr.com/people/vitostreet/>.
  3. Vitostreet. "Flickr: Vitostreet." Flickr. Yahoo!, n.d. Web. 12 July 2012. <http://www.flickr.com/people/vitostreet/>.

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