Photography and websites; sometimes they mix well, but so many of the photography web sites I have seen out there just don’t work. They look ugly, or flat, or are just somehow lacking. As both a photographer and sometimes web developer, this is something I have had running about in my head for ages now. The basic problem seems to be, to my mind at least, that the “goals” of creating a good web site are somewhat contradictory to the “goals” of presenting photographs as works of art.
A good website should be usable and accessible. A good work of art should be presented in a way that reinforces the piece. These are not fundamentally conflicting, but it seems that people either care about one, or the other, rarely both.
A friend of mine from Imperial has written Gallery as a general put-some-photos-on-the-web type thing. He is very keen on AAA web accessibility, and making things work for all people in all situations. The site is very good: it works in different sizes; different browsers and even has meaningful behaviour. From a purely computing point of view, its one of the best sites available for photos. But just look at it, I hate to say it about something a friend of mine wrote, but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ugly :(! Who wants to go to the effort of taking a photograph they are proud of when itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to appear surrounded by so much visual noise, all distracting from the photo?
Flickr is much cleaner in terms of its view, and itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a very nicely written site (even if it does have long strings of numbers in most of its URLs). But it still doesn’t give any control over the context that your image is placed in. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s always on a white background, always with the Flickr menu, and so on.
The photographic course I’m attending has, along with reading on the subject, really got me thinking about presentation. A large part of the impact of any piece of art is the surroundings you see it in. A reproduction of a famous oil painting on my wall has different associations to the same work of art elsewhere. It now shows that I have chosen to place it on *my* wall. That says something about me, something that clearly wasn’t included in the original painting. The colour of the wall has an effect, as do the other things on display in the room. If they look like the something depicted in the painting that can change what you see when you look at it. In short, presentation is vital, a photo where the presentation is not decided on is like a piece of writing that hasn’t been spell-checked.
So letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s look at some websites that are designed by photographers rather than computer scientists:
Harriet Logan has a beautiful web site. I think it could do with a bit more text setting a context for the photos, but its beautiful, simple to navigate, and the photos are stunning. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also written using Flash. In this case, the Flash is totally unnecessary. The only thing it adds over basic HTML is the nice way that the panes animate when you change from one part of the site to another. You loose the ability to link to a specific photo, and I don’t think an animated bar is worth it, even from a design point of view. Flash makes too many assumptions about the viewerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s environment. This is a debate I often have with my dad. I think I have finally got an argument that will convince even him. I have two monitors connected to my computer Ã¢â‚¬â€œ as I imagine do many professional art directors. When I look at this web site, it automatically maximises across both of the screens. The effect of this is that the left half of each photo appears on my left monitor, and the right half on the right monitor. This really is not good. I can imagine a few pissed off magazine editors being so too!
Next we have Lesley Aggar. Lesley is a friend of my dads and an absolutely amazing darkroom printer. Her web site has some very strong point, but ultimately I think itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a failure. The strong points first. The design is stunning. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s so elegant that its breath taking. The bad points are that it is in Flash when it doesn’t need to be (see above), but the biggest failure is that a computer monitor simply cannot come close to a fine art print. When I look at one of Lesley’s prints I am speechless, but the computer version just can’t compare. A web site simply cannot work here.
Finally we look at Nick Briggs. Having complained about the last two sites use of Flash, this site doesn’t, it is pure HTML. The site is very simple, but effective. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s easy to get to the photos, though I do have a few bugbears with it. I don’t like the font, nor do I like the names “portfolio 1″, “portfolio 2″. However there is no denying the fact it doesn’t look as slick, or as smooth as either of the two previous sites. I said before that the Flash doesn’t add much that you can’t do in HTML, and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s true, but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not easy to do the HTML for a site that looks that slick. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s certainly not a skill that many photographers are going to have.
So IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m left with a conclusion that I don’t really like. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s possible to make a website that is both good from a computing, usability, and accessibility point of view, and from an artistic point of view. But itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s very hard. It requires both a combination of skills that is rare, and a caring about detail in two very different disciplines, ones that donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t often go together.