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.