What the Freetard Photo book tells us
Pictures of vanity
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.
The Oxford Project
I recently had the privilege of assisting my old photography professor produce his own book of portraits, The Oxford Project. In 1985, Peter Feldstein took simple portraits of the entire population of Oxford, Iowa, opening a window into the lives of his neighbors. These are ordinary people, shopkeepers, postmen, farmers and housewives. Then he photographed them again, 20 years later. We look into the pairs of portraits and see the ravages of time reflected in their faces. We read their interviews and see they are a mirror of our own lives and losses.
This book would not have been possible without copyrights. Copyright allows the artist to reserve his right to sell his photographs in galleries, while licensing publication rights to a publishing house. The artist takes a huge risk, spending months preparing photographs. The publisher takes a huge risk in marketing a book with unknown prospects. Both of them may lose money.
The publisher distributed dozens of free preview copies to assess demand. Art scholars began interpreting his work in historical context, comparing his work to other portraitists. Gallery sales and exhibits of the photographs funded two years of expensive pre-production work by professional editors and designers. Positive reviews in major media encouraged the publisher to release it as a deluxe edition of 15,000 copies, a huge press run for an art book. The book is a smash hit, generating unexpected profits. The publisher expressed its gratitude by giving each portrait-sitter a free copy of the book (over $4000 worth of books) and threw a big party for the whole town. People are talking about giving this book to their grandchildren as an heirloom. The publisher has deposited the book in the Library of Congress and other book repositories. No doubt art historians will study this book in future centuries, to gain an insight into the human condition.
Joi Ito can wrap some media manifestos and portraits in the deluxe packaging of fine art book, in the belief his portrait sitters will purchase enough copies fund a larger edition, and that his work will be endlessly reproduced under a CC license. But unlike The Oxford Project, readers today and historians tomorrow will gain no insight into the human condition. They will merely wonder how anyone thought these awkward manifestos and amateur snapshots of self-appointed internet aristocrats were worth the paper they were printed on, let alone $395. ®
Charles Eicher is an artist and multimedia producer in the American Midwest. He has a special interest in intellectual property rights in the Arts and Humanities. He writes at the Disinfotainment weblog.