Meredith Badger, Royal Melbourne Institute of
Different mediums evoke different ways of viewing.
While we might gaze at a painting, we watch television and we see films. The
Internet, however, we tend to glance at; our eyes skim over the screen in a freefall
of vision until something interests us enough to pause the plummet momentarily.
It is therefore a medium that requires readily accessible information; lean
news, pared-down narratives.
Weblogs - or blogs - arrived,
and filled this need. Native to the Internet and personal in approach, weblogs
deliver bite-sized portions of information on a daily basis to an ever expanding
audience. Weblogs are the conjunctions of the Internet: the ands, the
buts the ors – they add to online conversations, refute them,
or provide new perspectives altogether. They are such a successful medium
that current figures estimate blog numbers to be in the millions. This poses a dilemma: with so many blogs to choose
from, how do we, as readers, know which ones to view? And as bloggers, how
do we explain, as quickly as possible, who we are and what our blog is about?
One way is through the use of imagery.
If we think of weblogs as being “homepage[s] that
we wear” then it is the visual elements that tailor the
garment to fit the individual. One blogger may add a title
image to the top of their blog, or insert a photo of herself
in the about page. Another may take an “off the rack” template from Blogger
and replace it with a visual style of her own. It is often images that
present the most immediately obvious point of difference between one blog
and the next.
This paper focuses on the use of figurative photography
and illustration within the blogging medium. It examines the ways images shape
and alter how we view blogs and how blogs shape and alter the way we view
the images placed within them. It suggests that ultimately both images and
the weblogs that contain them stand to benefit from the relationship.
Being Public, Privately
The Internet feels like an intimate space. We tend
to view it on our own, and up close; the computer screen is like a face, watching
us as we work. The weblog format propagates this sensation; the first person
narrative with its confiding tone can make us feel that we are partaking in
a one-on-one exchange.
Weblogs occupy a dichotomous position. They wish
to stand out and present an individual voice, but they also want to fit into
the genre of weblogs - to be instantly recognisable as being part of a community.
Weblogs, as Torill Mortensen and Jill Walker observe, are forever hovering
on the border between public and private.
When we encounter images in weblogs the sense of
entering a private space is enhanced, particularly as weblog images often
reveal information about the blogger, either intentionally or by accident.
Some weblogs include an image of the blogger at the top of the page and we
carry this face in our minds as we read the text. Is the blogger young or
old? Male or female? What nationality? The information imparted by the blogger’s
photograph inevitably influences how we react to the words that surround it.
Often, however, the images contained within blogs
do not show the blogger at all but we can still construct an impression of
who the blogger is based on the subject matter they choose. Viewed over time,
photographs in weblogs create a composite image of the blogger, a portrait
that builds incrementally.
Heather Champ’s photo-blog hchamp,
for instance, rarely includes pictures of herself. Nonetheless, an impression
of Champ is formed as we notice themes emerging in her work. She has an eye
for stripey leg-wear in a crowd. She
notices dogs and the surfaces of things. She likes pink and red and lives in a place
where the sky is often blue.
These are small details, of course, but the focus of photo-blogs is often
less on the big events in a person’s life – the sweeping vistas and formal
portraits – and more on the small moments and details, the fleeting impressions
that often characterise the text of blogs as well. The viewers of a photo-blog
like Hchamp may well feel that they have been invited to accompany the blogger
as they go about their daily business.
This impression of “walking with the blogger” is
also evident in Obsessive Consumption - an art
site created by Kate Bingaman. It pivots, blog-like, around a daily posting
of images depicting recent purchases by Bingaman. We may actually feel like
we are walking behind the blogger rather than with her, peering over her shoulder
as she eats her dinner, goes out, or shops. The photos are presented not as
high-art objects but matter-of-factly, the unadorned “evidence” of a life
being lived. Each image is like a small confession, presented up for the viewer
to judge: “Did I spend my money wisely?” This sense of intimacy makes us feel
that Bingaman is confiding in us, and the audience connects with the author
over common purchases, feeling that they know her because they know what she
Oct 27, 2003
In both of the hchamp and Obsessive Consumption
we feel that the bloggers allowed us into their worlds, yet there is still
a comfortable distance between blogger and audience. The bloggers achieve
this balance between revelation and privacy by rarely becoming the subject
of the photographs themselves.
Illustrations in weblogs may initially appear to
be less revelatory than photographs, as the artist controls the amount and
types of detail included. Yet if we look at a site like James Kochalka’s American
Elf we can see how illustrations, particularly those paired with text
can actually create a very strong sense of intimacy. The daily comics on American
Elf present the large and small occurrences in the life of Kochalka, his friends
and family. The comic feels autobiographical and real events are depicted,
such as the birth of Kochalka’s son in 2003. The serialised nature of the
format adds to this. Each day a new comic is posted, a little more information
is imparted and the audience has the sense that they are following the lives
of actual people in real time.
Yet Kochalka mediates this sense of revelation by
introducing elements of visual fiction – he draws himself as an elf, for instance,
and his lawyer friend, Jason, appears as a dog. It seems unlikely that this
is done to protect identities as Kochalka does not use a “realistic” drawing
style and it is not done to affect the narrative – Kochalka as an elf has
no magical powers and Jason never complains about how difficult it is for
dogs in the legal profession. Perhaps then this fictionalisation has been
introduced for another purpose: to create a distance between the artist and
his audience. Once the fiction has been established it frees the artist to
discuss personal details more frankly than he may have otherwise felt able
to do, especially within a diaristic format. The shift into fiction reminds
the audience that is a version of reality and not a literal portrayal.
The blog format is one that encourages self-exposure
and revelation; personal information about the blogger is imparted in a similar
way to how it is revealed in most relationships; a little more with each meeting.
Images give us information about the blogger that text alone may not impart
in the same way that our gestures and expressions may give away things about
us not revealed by our speech. Sometimes, of course, the primary purpose of
the visual blog is to reveal – this is particularly true of the bride blog
format where a written description of how lovely the bride’s dress is cannot
match a photograph of the dress itself. Revelation in the bride blog context
is expected - the blog is intended to be viewed by a specific audience known
to the blogger and who require this kind of detail. For the blogs such as
American Elf, hchamp and Obsessive Consumption, however, the audience is largely
unknown to the blogger, and as such the artists wish to create a balance between
the revelatory, intimate aspect of the medium and maintaining a degree of
separation between themselves and their viewers.
When images appear in blogs they usually do so in
conjunction with some form of text; the weblogs mentioned so far exemplify
different ways through which this interaction can occur. Hchamp
uses words minimally, as captions for the images or links to other sites.
Obsessive Consumption uses words
to describe her photographs: what is depicted, how much the items cost, where
the picture was taken, a rating for how successful the purchase was. The words
in the American Elf comics are intrinsically
linked to the images; without them, the narrative would be almost impossible
There are also bloggers like Kevin
Sites who use words and images similar to the way we see them paired in
newspapers and on television news. Sites is a solo-journalist currently stationed
in Iraq who uses photos to illustrate
and give weight to his words, anchoring them to a specific time and place.
Sites often intersperses long passages of text with images, which act like
stepping stones, drawing the eye further down the page and deeper into the
narrative. The following images were taken during a night raid that Sites
attended with the 101st Airborne 1st Battalion in November last year. They
appear on the site in an unbroken sequence:
November 5, 2003
We can glean a great deal of information from these
images about the events that took place during the raid: this is a tense,
wartime situation – the battalion has come to a local house, looking for someone
or something. The men have been separated from the women and children. A man
lies flat on the ground, with a foot on his back; his expression is curiously
passive, or defeated. Another man stands in the corner looking small, vulnerable
and almost child-like compared to the tall soldier pointing a machine gun
If we looked at these images without reading the
text by Sites that follows them we might assume that Sites is empathising
solely with the Iraqis. But the text adds further information. Sites, we discover,
has spent some time with the soldiers, knows their names, has asked for their
opinion on what is happening around them:
"I looked around town today," one lieutenant told me, "I was
hoping to find someone doing something bad, somebody I could hurt -- but there
wasn't one. Just people that needed my help."
It’s just that kind of mission whiplash that has confused and demoralized
so many troops in Iraq. Soldiers are ordered to go on night patrols or raids--where
danger can lurk at every corner or behind every door -- and life and death
decisions have to be made within the hair-fraction of time it takes to pull
the trigger on M4 assault weapon – then the next day they're told to monitor
the selection of a new local mayor or to rebuild a school.”
Sites’ reportage gives a slightly different perspective
from that of the photographs and suggests that both Sites’ and the soldiers’
feelings about the situation are not as clear cut as we may have assumed by
looking at the images alone.
This linking of words and images to recount news
is not unusual of course, but what is unique about the blog form of photo-journalism
is that it expresses the vision and viewpoint of a single person. It is the
blogger who has taken the photographs, written the text and published the
words. He or she hasn’t had to answer to an editor, a department head, or
to the whims of the people who own the media outlets, yet they may have a
daily readership numbering in the thousands. Blogging connects the person
who has witnessed the event directly to their audience; the infrastructure
that is usually required to get a story published is simply not needed with
blogging. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that while working for CNN.com
Kevin Sites was asked to stop posting on his blog.
The counterbalance of words and images that we observe
in Kevin Sites’ blog also occurs in Dean Allen’s Textism.
The writing in this blog is often biting and acerbic and may leave
us fervently hoping never to be the object of the blogger’s scorn, yet the
impression we build up of Allen is as much informed by the daily, affectionate
images that he posts of his two dogs cavorting around the
French countryside as it is by the text. Were Allen a political commentator
in a newspaper it is unlikely that we would know about this dog-loving aspect
of the writer. The blog medium is one that allows disparate elements and contrasting
styles to co-exist harmoniously, rubbing up against each other and influencing
the way we respond to the other elements contained there. It is hard to think
of another publishing medium that creates such a successful blending of tone,
style as well as the public and private aspects of the one person.
Clearly then, images can affect how we read blogs
and blogs can alter the way we react to images. So seductive, in fact, is
this word/image/blog combination that it can sometimes lead us astray. The
image on Allen’s About page is of a young George Bush,
yet Allen has had to write “Not Dean Allen” next to it, perhaps tiring of
people believing it was him. The viewers’ confusion is not surprising; we
are so familiar with seeing the formula of a portrait shot accompanying text
from newspaper or magazine editorials that it is difficult not to assume that
the photo depicts the author.
The Kaycee Nicole hoax of 2000 similarly reveals the power that images can
have in verifying blog texts even when the text itself is false. The Living
Colours blog, ostensibly written by a cancer patient, included pictures of a
pretty young girl – purportedly the author of the blog. The pictures gave the
words credibility, and made the viewers feel as if they knew the blogger. Kaycee’s
diary became well known and when her death was reported many readers grieved.
The blog was subsequently revealed to be a fake, and when the girl in the photographs
was recognised and contacted, she knew nothing of the weblog or how her image
was being used.
Why do images have such a powerful effect on words
in blogs? Perhaps it’s because there is nothing else there to act as a means
of verification. We tend to trust, rightly or wrongly, that newspapers and
television networks value their reputations too much to allow deceptions of
the Kaycee Nicole scale to occur (although, of course, there have been recent
incidents of fictional characters slipping into reportage). We assume that newspapers and television stations have the
staff and structure to ensure that the images they present to us do in fact
represent the words. Journalists and writers in the public eye have reputations
they wish to maintain, but with blogs there is generally no masthead, no tv
logo, no publishing house reputation standing behind the words and consequently,
no proof that the blogger is who they claim to be. All we have is the text
describing the images and the images vouching for the words.
Reproduced Images and the Weblog
Prior to the invention of mechanical reproduction,
images were strongly linked to a sense of place. To see an image, we had to
travel to where it was displayed. Photographic reproduction allowed artwork
to be removed from its original context and made it transportable; the image
was now able to access places where the original would have been unable to
go. This is clearly true of images on the Internet,
where a single photograph can be simultaneously viewed by many people all
over the world. There is, however, a price to pay for this malleability. Benjamin
writes that the “aura” of a work of art withers when its ties to “place” are
severed and it becomes detached from “the domain of tradition.” In addition to this, as Andrew Darley points
out, the ability to easily reproduce images can make the work seem less precious” , its status as “unique” is called into question
by the presence of the reproduction.
Weblogs, it could be argued, help to re-establish
the connection between image and place. When we look at a blog image we also
look at what appears around it – the design of the blog itself, the text,
the other images, the voice of the blogger. The context within which we view
an image will always influence how we read it - we react one way to an image
in a gallery and another way when we see it printed on a tea-towel. The weblog
context is one of directness and immediacy and as such when we view images
on weblogs with do so with an awareness of the date-stamp that accompanies
them. Visiting a regularly updated visual blog is like being invited back
to the blogger’s studio and we may see the images as being part of a process.
We may be shown rough sketches that lead on to a finished piece. We might
be given links to other artists who have influenced the work. The blogger
might describe the thinking behind a piece, what has worked, what they’d do
differently next time. The images become linked in the mind of the audience
to the circumstances surrounding its creation and as such, intrinsically linked
to the blog itself.
Claire Roberton’s weblog Looby Lu exemplifies this “showing the steps
along the way” approach. Recently, Robertson posted a sketch for some dolls
she was making, along with links to artists who had helped to inspire the
idea. The initial post was followed some time later by photos of some of the
finished pieces, along with descriptions of the process undertaken to make
“So I started off with some little drawings for ideas for felt doll monsters
(very big hat tip to Maurice Sendak and the super cool Kaori
Kasi). They looked simple enough to stitch together quickly...
And then I got around to making one up ready for a birthday this week...
and discovered it's not so simple and I should have made a pattern and I almost forgot the arms. They were added on at the last minute and are accidentally
way too long. So now it's "Mr Huggy - the Hugging Monster". I am a
rather ad-hoc crafting type. I like to fly by the seat of my pants and thank my lucky stars
that monsters are quite strange looking at the best of times.”
The images on Looby Lu have an obvious and immediate
appeal which increases as the audience becomes familiar with the blog and
the voice of the blogger. The Looby Lu regulars are not unknown visitors passing
through a gallery; they engage with the blogger, leave words of encouragement
and advice in her comments, watching as sketches develop into finished pieces.
Any of Robertson’s images can, and do, stand alone, but within the blog context
a new, rich element is added: the image’s backstory.
The link between image and place on weblogs is further
illustrated by the way news of visual weblogs is stored and spread. If we
find an image we like on a weblog we might save a copy to our hard-drive,
but we are just as likely to bookmark the address so we can visit it again
in its original context. To show others, we may forward the address on to
them, so that they too can see the image in relation to what appears around
it on the blog.
An image from one blog is sometimes displayed or
“quoted” within the body of another. This may initially appear to threaten
the image’s ties with place: it has been removed from its intended context
and is now in danger of being associated with another URL. Yet quotation can
in fact strengthen an image’s bond with its place of origin when it occurs
in conjunction with linking. Most bloggers, when quoting images, will either
link the image itself back to the original context or will provide the original
URL beneath it.
The quoted image is often accompanied by a written
recommendation from the blogger who is doing the quoting as a way of alerting
their readers to a site they enjoy. If the viewer is interested in the image
they will follow the link to see if there are more images (perhaps it is part
of a sequence) or to see what else is on the site. The borders on both blogs
involved are loosened and extended by the act of quotation: one by allowing
images from another blog to appear within its framework, the other by having
its contents appear before a new audience in a new context. The quoted image
within the weblog context is therefore not just a way to attract attention
to a page but is symbolic of the way that blogs continually glance around
the blogosphere, forming connections with others while progressing along their
The image above was constructed after Meg from Mandarin
Design asked her readers who they would bring to a “tech prom” and why.
With each nomination Meg added an image of the nominated blogger to the square
and linked it back to their site. Rolling over each square produced an ALT
tag description of why the blogger was nominated. The resulting image acted
as a visual directory to blogs enjoyed by other bloggers.
Unstable Images, Serialised
Blogs not only shape the way we view individual
images but they also influence how we read one image in relation to others
within the blog context. Images are unstable. Even before the age of mechanical
reproduction, how we reacted to them depended on who we were and the circumstances
surrounding the viewing. Images on the Internet are further destabilised
– their appearance changes depending on the browser, platform or monitor on
which they are viewed.
Images within weblogs become stable when we think
of them as being part of a series. The format provides more than just a convenient
repository for digital material – weblogs bring with them the implicit understanding
that the images not be viewed alone, but considered in relation to what has
come before and what follows. Thus the emphasis in weblogs is less on individual
images and more about series. The following sequence is from hchamp and tells
the story of a car being towed from a no-parking area:
The series reads like a time-lapse sequence, with
each image divulging a fraction more information than the previous one. The
humour of the piece and its success as a narrative depends on the audience
reading each image in relation to the others.
The car series provides an example of a deliberately
constructed sequence, but multi-level narratives can form between images on
blogs even when they were not intentionally constructed. Take an individual
image from hchamp, for instance:
Oct 18, 2003
The image could depict a number of situations. Perhaps
someone has dropped the pillow on the step during the process of moving house.
Perhaps it’s been put there as a bed for a pet. Maybe someone has been sitting
on it while waiting for a bus. The next day, however, Champ has posted an
image of a pair of boots also resting on a step and this may make us start
to think that both the boots and the pillow belong to someone who has spent
the night on this step. A link has formed between the two images.
Oct 19, 2003
The two images look like they have been taken at the same site on the same
day, so perhaps the narrative that forms between them is unsurprising.
The image that appears the next day, however, has a very different look:
Oct 20, 2003
How do we interpret this image? We could read it
on its own, as an image of two policeman. We could see it as building on the
composite portrait we have of Heather Champ herself; where she lives, the
things that catch her eye as subject matter for her photographs. We could
look back over her archives and compare this shot with others taken with her
pinhole camera. We could, however, choose to see it as continuing the narrative
started by the shot of the pillow – perhaps this is the story of a runaway,
sleeping on the streets until he finds somewhere more permanent. Maybe the
boots are a recent discovery and a prized possession. If we continue this
line of thought then the third shot might change from depicting two policemen
waiting patiently for a pinhole photograph to be taken and becomes instead
a slightly menacing image of a potential source of conflict as seen through
the eyes of someone who doesn’t want to be recognised.
Clearly, it is not necessary that we look for the
relationships between sequential images on blogs and often any attempt to
do so would be forced. But sometimes lines of narratives may occur to us out
of the blue, purely because of the way that weblogs present one image before
or after another. Presenting images in sequences is something that blogs do
very well and recalls Scott McCloud’s description of comics as being based
on the simple idea of “…placing one picture after another to show the passage
of time.” The difference between the two formats, of course, is that while
we are meant to find a relationship between individual panels in a comic,
we are not necessarily intended to do so with images on a blog. Yet as McCloud
points out with comics, it is the space between images where things
start to happen, where the viewer constructs bridges between one image and
the next, filling the gaps, making the connections.
We live in an image-hungry society – screens are
embedded into aeroplane chairs, phones double as cameras. Images compel us
to look at them and their message is instant, unlike text which requires some
time and effort on our part. Consequently, where images and words compete,
the consensus is generally to go with the image, as “It’s the image they’ll
remember the next day, and the next week and possibly for the rest of their
Does this mean that future weblogs should favour
image over text? To do so would be to the detriment of the medium as it is
the combination of words and images presented over time that make the visual
blog what it is. Yet the contributions that images can make within weblogs
should not be underestimated – they act as a way of catching our attention
and turning a glance into a sustained appraisal but as the examples discussed
in this paper show, images are more than mere decoration. A rapport is quickly
established between images and words in weblogs where one supports and enhances
the other. If blogging continues to develop as it currently is – with images
becoming an increasingly common element, it seems reasonable to expect that
visual blogging will evolve from being a subset of the phenomenon and will
strike out on its own – a medium in its own right. It is already possible
to see this happening with the development of the video weblog, or “vlog.”
The vlog, which may require the viewer to get plug-ins and which work best
with fast connections may appear to be a move away from the simplicity and
accessibility that underpins the blogging ethos, but it should perhaps be
considered as a way of subdividing the burgeoning possibilities offered by
the medium, creating areas of speciality.
What is interesting to note about the vlog is the
awareness that the vloggers have about each others’ work and the information
that is shared. As these ties strengthen we may expect to see collaborative
experiments emerging on and around visual blogs between artists who have never
have come in contact with each others’ work if not for weblogs.
There are other applications for visual blogs that
are already beginning to emerge and will almost definitely be explored further
in the near future. Artists may be invited to keep guest blogs on gallery
websites to coincide with real-world exhibitions of their work, blog “curators”
may invite artists to hold online shows within their own blog where a new
exhibit is added each day.
Future visual bloggers increasingly will have to
contend with the negative aspects of the medium. Theft of online images is
easy, for instance and copyright is difficult to police. Publishing your work
in an online diary creates pressures for the blogger to make work regularly
and consistently, whether they are inspired to do so or not. It brings with
it the possibility of negative feedback, either through the comments function
or simply through lack of visitors. Yet these drawbacks will always be balanced
by what is offered to artists by blogging – a direct line of contact with
their audience; an audience limited only by access to computers, not dependant
on the whims of printers, curators, editors, distributors.
Visual weblogs present a new aspect of visual literacy
grammar, where images must be read in direct relation to the passage of time
and as indivisible from the personality of the blogger themselves. Visual
blogs show the process; how I got there rather than what I saw once
I arrived. It is this aspect of visual blogs that make them a useful tool
for pedagogy; they become a tool for examining how images operate online and
how they interact with text. Visual weblogs are a starting point for debate
and discussion. They emphasise the present tense – this is what I saw today,
this is how things look to me from where I stand right now.
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