Magic, Storytelling, Selling, and the Sokolov Metaphor

Rabbits on the lawn at midnight -- by Joe Reifer

Rabbits on the lawn at midnight — by Joe Reifer

“Magic only ‘happens’ in a spectator’s mind,” he puts it emphatically. “Everything else is a distraction. Magic talk on the Internet is a distraction. Magic contests are a distraction. Magic organizations are a distraction. The latest advertisement, the latest trick — distractions. Methods for their own sake are a distraction. You cannot cross over into the world of magic until you put everything else aside and behind you — including your own desires and needs — and focus on bringing an experience to the audience. This is magic. Nothing else.”

– Magician Jamy Ian Swiss quoted in Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker article, “The Real Work: Modern Magic and the Meaning of Life”

I invite you to read the above quote over again, substituting the word photography for magic. Try it.

The best storytelling exists in print, the Internet is the same as TV

Let’s get some obvious stuff out of the way. The Internet is entertainment. Revelations are rare. You’re better off with books. But you’re stuck in a cubicle all day so the Internet is an easy choice. But most bloggers aren’t great writers. There are some good writers. Passionate ones even. But there’s more great writing in one issue of the New Yorker than a whole year of Internet sources. Look at the May 12th issue (I’m a few weeks behind) — Malcolm Gladwell writes about an innovative invention startup, Lauren Collins profiles high end fashion photo retoucher Pascal Dangin, and D.T. Max’s profile of molecular gastronomist chef Grant Achatz’s battle with tongue cancer completely blew me away. Throw in a short Schjeldahl article and a Daniel Clowes cover as icing on the cake. If you’re looking for smart, in-depth, well written stories on the Internet, you’re looking in the wrong place. And reading a really interesting, well crafted story that has nothing to do with photography may end up helping to inspire your photography. Did you think a bunch of bored office workers pontificating about what lens to buy was going to help your photography?

Blogs are to sell you something — what are they selling?

Throughout high school and college I worked in a record store. The experience was a lot like High Fidelity without the love story. If you go to and buy the DVD of High Fidelity I will get 41 cents. That’s why a lot of blogs exist — to get that 41 cents. We may start out with good intentions — there’s all this great music and photography out there, and we want to turn people on to the cool stuff. And that validates us as cool people. You want to be cool, don’t you? I can assure you that my intentions are still pure. I just want to share cool stuff with you. I don’t care if you buy anything. But the commerce aspect of blogging has been an interesting experience.

Awhile back I put a B&H Photo referral link on my page. A very thoughtful guy I know (hi Joe!) bought a digital SLR and a lens through the link and I got $40. It felt kinda weird. Next I tried signing up for Google ads. The ads that Google served up were mostly for local portrait and wedding photographers. Sometimes I clicked through on the links. The results were rather terrifying. I was going to donate all of my Google ad revenue to charity. After taxes it was adding up to about $8/month. The pollution on the page wasn’t worth it. I’ll just donate to charity out of my paycheck.

So the Amazon links are still here, but I only link to books and music I really like. I encourage you to support your local independent merchants if you have any left. I’m lucky to have Amoeba Music and Moe’s Books here in Berkeley. The B&H and Google stuff is gone. So what am I selling?

I’m not trying to sell fine art prints — I only sell a handful a year, mostly at shows. You can read Stu Jenks’ thoughts on how tough this path is. I probably don’t want you to hire me to photograph your product, event, or portrait, unless you happen to be a rich eccentric person with a dilapidated castle who’s having a haunted house party. Then give me a call. We’ll talk.

What many of us are really selling is artistic validation. If a photograph falls in the woods, and there’s nobody there to see it, does it make a sound? The answer to the great zen koan of why we make websites and blogs and post photos online is simply that we want people to say that they like our photos. This isn’t a great revelation, but I feel like nobody wants to say it out loud. Getting a pat on the back for something you created feels good. The Internet gives us a way to get that pat on the back. Some of us need it more than others.

The Sokolov Metaphor

What really smells funny are the psychological ploys that some folks use to sell you stuff and/or get that pat on the back. Serge Gainsbourg’s book Evguenie Sokolov is a great reference point here (another 53 cents for me if you buy it). Go ahead and let loose with your creativity. Nobody is forcing me to look (or take a whiff). Maybe something incredible will arise out of this cloud of online photography. But the more I take a step back, the cleaner the air outside seems to be.

Tune in next time, as I attempt to fabricate some clothespins for our noses, and try to find a path out of the cloud. Past the distractions, and on the way towards magic. The Internet is smelly, but I’m not giving up yet.

12 thoughts on “Magic, Storytelling, Selling, and the Sokolov Metaphor”

  1. Joe,

    You brought up a lot of good points. The thought about, “a bunch of bored office workers pontificating about which lens to buy” was dead-on. That’s exactly what I picture every time I read DPReview. Like many blog-type/forum sites, there is some good stuff in there. But you really have to dig through the BS to find it.

    Last weekend I was at Caranval photographing some of the Brazilian dancers. While I was composing a shot with my 70-200 f/4 L (Hey! A bunch of guys on DPReview said it had great I.Q., so it must make my photographs better!!!), a guy actually walked up to me and asked, “Does that have IS?” I told him, “No”. He shook his head with pity and mumbled, “They’re all going to be blurry,” as he walked away. I refrained from telling him, “F— Y—”, but all I could picture was an image of him sitting in front of his computer all day digesting everything he read on the DPR Holy Grail as absolute truth.

    But back to blogs…

    There’s a million types of blogs out there. Ever since you pointed me towards Netvibes, (thanks, again) I’ve been able to monitor dozens of photography blogs. Only one of them really fits the type of blog that Troy lambasted a few days ago. Most of the blogs that interest me are ones where the blogger simply finds links to other photographers (e.g., Conscientious). They’re like a moderated version of I can’t get enough of that stuff because it’s so inspiring.

    Andy Frazer

  2. Andy – it’s always nice to get pointers on photography at events from strangers who don’t know what they’re talking about. And, yes, maybe I need to change the title of this blog from Words to something else. Photos are most important. Words maybe not so much.

    Troy – I’m getting a lot out of writing, but may just go back to the Marble Memo for that outlet. More photos and less talking in public.

    Jamie – thanks! The house with the rabbits is on my street. The brown one only has one eye. I often see them in the yard when walking back from BART at night, and it never fails to put a smile on my face.

  3. Really well put, Joe. And beautiful work as always. Love the Air Base shoot and others. Love and light, Stu.

  4. This reminds me why most if not almost all photography magazines are useless. While it may have limited subject matter or style coverage, Lenswork at least is focused on the actual art of photography and why we photograph. I only wish they had broader style coverage.

  5. Stu – thanks!

    Andrew – I stopped subscribing to just about everything except Lenswork. The focus on “why?” in Lenswork has spirit, but I agree that the narrow stylistic focus is quite an unfortunate limitation.

  6. Paul Butzi pointed to this post today. Not that I wouldn’t have read it anyway, but he had the shorter and less intimidating backlog in my subscription list. :)

    Well, Joe, that’s another profound dive into the “Why?” of blogging. Reminds me to convert my hundreds of Amazon links. :)

    Back to the topic, I think it’s not only validation (the “business only” blogs aside). It is networking. It is inspiration. Some days ago I found a visitors from in my stats. I headed over there and found someone in his early stages of daily photo blogging, who had linked to me. I wanted to find out who this Michael Kohn was and why he did what he did, asked him, and he answered with a long blog entry (scroll down to the second part ) about what he does, why he does it and where he’s heading. With my questions I made him think and express his thoughts, and his answers made me think. So do your posts.

    That may be neither literature, nor is it high-profile journalism, but it has a raw feeling of authenticity. I like that, and if something does not resonate, I can simply skip it. In fact I skip many things, but every once in a while I find some gems. They may not be for everyone but, hey, they’re for me.

    After all, the blogging world is not as bad as it may seem. You have to be picky about what you read, but that’s the same in all media.


  7. I am a little late to the discussion here but I will only add that you are correct that whether we want to admit it or not, many of us blog for the validation. I tried the whole selling prints thing and found it to be a dead end. Blogging gives me a purpose for my photography and I am no longer afraid to admit it. If I didn’t have my photo blog, I might not have been able to maintain the motivation to keep shooting. Thanks for the lively discussion.

  8. Darrell – Thanks for your comment, and your honesty. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with validation — especially if the validation provided by the container motivates you to keep shooting. That is a positive result. I follow and enjoy your photos in my feedreader, even if I rarely comment.

    I’m not sure what’s motivating me to shoot right now, so I’m going through a period of questioning. I’m taking a step back and trying to figure out why I do what I do, where I want to go, and if what I’m doing supports my goals. This could take awhile, but it’s worth a shot.

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