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Pictures of vanity

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Powerful aristocrats throughout history have commissioned portraits by master artists to immortalize their achievements. Now amateur photographer and Creative Commons advocate Joi Ito is offering that immortality to bloggers, bureaucrats, coders, CEOs, and other obscure Free Software functionaries, in an expensive limited-edition "blook," Freesouls. Ito muses, "Now the question is whether the demand for this book will actually exceed the number of people who appear in the book." His concern is justified, the book's content is freely downloadable under a CC license, with the notable exception of Ito's own copyrighted portrait.


There is little aesthetic or technical merit in Ito's portraiture. Most of the photographs have the charm and warmth of a corporate annual report. Many are blurry, poorly color balanced, crooked, or have distracting backgrounds. Ito seems to have discovered his limitations, converting most of his images to black and white, using a Photoshop effect known as the "Leica Look." This emulates the classic, dramatic look of film, but the results are often unflattering.

But the quality of Ito's photographs is beside the point (which is a major flaw in a photo book). Ito is the paparazzi of the internet in-crowd. These are his friends, they are cooler than you. Who they are is more important than how they look.

When I first learned photography in art school, the aesthetic paradigm was "Mirrors and Windows." Photographs are a window into others' lives, or a mirror into our own soul. But Ito's book is a Creative Commons manifesto wrapped in photography. Ito demands that authors and artists do as he has done, they must give away their work without compensation, in order to free their soul. His book is a bullhorn blasting through your window, declaring that if you look in the mirror and don't see what he sees, you have no soul. Copyrights are a contract with the devil. Lacking a soul, you will be invisible in a mirror.

But I disagree. Copyrights are for professionals, Creative Commons is for amateurs seeking a niche for unmarketable work. The best amateurs can achieve is a self-published "vanity press" edition, paying to push their work before the public. But real artists must keep control of their rights in order to fund their work. Real artists ship, their work is in demand.


It might be informative to compare the CC portraiture project with another photography collection.

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