Using Images in Your Online Media

Shu Qi, the Assassin, China

Shu Qi as The Assassin

Do we “judge a book by its cover”? Yeah, we do! In a blog post this week, author Kirsten Oliphant focused on the importance of visuals for attracting book purchasers, blog post readers, and social media shares. Posts and tweets with pix are almost twice as likely to be read, regardless of topic, as those without. Facebook users know this, uploading some 350 million photos every day!

Searching for the exactly right photo for my blog posts is a fun part of the process, a reward to myself for completing the writing. When the content doesn’t easily lend itself to visualization, it can be an interesting challenge.

I depend heavily on Flickr images licensed through creative commons, because the terms of use are so clear, and have found great images on Pixabay. Generally, “stock photo” images seem stiff and unnatural to me. The producer had a message in mind, and that doesn’t ever match my message.

Scrolling through my file of images from this year so far, I see several I especially like. One of my favorites is at the top of this post—a still from the movie The Assassin—just because it’s so beautiful. Others favorites: the memorial to Britain’s World War I dead, an art installation around the Tower of London (clicking on it takes you to a description of the installation), below, used to illustrate a review of the play Remembrance Day, which is Britain’s Veterans Day, celebrated with red poppies as in the U.S., traditionally.

poppy poppies Beefeater London

A small section of the 2014 London installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a member of the British military who died in World War I (photo: Shawn Spencer-Smith, creative commons license)

Julius Caesar, bust

Julius Caesar (photo: William Warby, creative commons license)

And, this one, at right, such a powerful image of Julius Caesar, used to illustrate my March 15, “Ides of March” post about an exhibit of crime photographs at the Met.

Oliphant’s post reinforces the value of “branded visuals” that have a consistency of style that links them uniquely to an author. The image of the eerie, disused Eastern Penitentiary may be the closest I come to a branded approach, as it’s the header for my website and Facebook page, as well as appearing on my business cards. I snapped that picture; I own it.

Oliphant provides helpful sources for free stock photos, other guidance about using images, and reviews some of the top free image-editing sites. And, just think, if you’re doing a lot of writing, every great picture you come up with saves you, what? a thousand words?  Her complete post appears on Jane Friedman’s excellent website.

Photographic Evidence

Julius Caesar, bust

Julius Caesar (photo: William Warby, creative commons license)

On view in New York now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Gilman Gallery is “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play” for those whose interest in crime stories goes beyond the fictional to the grittily real. Since its earliest days, photography and other arts have been used to document crime and its purported perpetrators.

In this assemblage, crime-related photography from the 1850s to the present has been assembled from photojournalists, including such auteurs as Diane Arbus and Walker Evans, and a great many more dubious and less artistic sources. The resulting exhibition of some 70 works will be on display through July 31, 2016.

Among the highlights of the installation are such early examples of the genre as Alexander Gardner’s documentation of the aftermath of the assassination of President Lincoln, and rare forensic photographs by Alphonse Bertillon. In the Paris of the late 1800s, detectives throughout Europe and the United States were using Bertillon’s methods—called “bertillonage”—to identify criminals. According to the Met’s website, Bertillon’s system of criminal identification paved the way for the modern mug shot. Psychological research over the decades has failed to eradicate the “common-sense” perception that malefactors can be detected by the way they look.

In the current day, Bertillon’s methods have been displaced by much more scientific measurement and identification techniques, such as modern fingerprinting, iris scanning, and other biometric assessments.

Says the Met, in addition to the photographs on display, the exhibition will feature work by artists who have used the criminal underworld as a source of inspiration. These include Richard Avedon, Walker Evans, Andy Warhol, and Weegee. (Weegee was the pseudonym for a New York City press photographer in the 1930s and 1940s, who developed a very stark, black and white, photojournalistic style and found his subjects by trailing city emergency service workers.)

While many of the works on view may suggest an impulse for artistic debridement of the incomprehensible wounds violence inflicts, New York Times critic Ken Johnson found the exhibition “confused and confusing.” Perhaps that’s because the impulses that lead to crime and its aftermath are not necessarily coherent. They are open to interpretation.

That very confusion at the heart of the matter is part of the fascination. But, see the exhibit, and decide for yourself.

Finding Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier, street photography, Rolleiflex, camera


Another Netflix possibility, if it’s not playing in your local theater, Finding Vivian Maier, (trailer) is the story of the prolific photo-documentarian whose work came within a hair’s breadth of being lost forever.

According to a Wired story by Doug Bierend, the dedication of the filmmaker, John Maloof, in bringing her story to the public is a tale of equal parts dogged detection and appreciation of the joys of street photography.

A five-star rating from Rotten Tomatoes: 97% of critics liked it! If it’s as good as the documentary of legendary street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, it will be a gem!

Many of Maier’s works can be seen on the Artsy website’s Vivian Maier page.

UPDATE 10-22-14: Good rundown of the increasingly complex copyright claims and counterclaims swirling around Maier’s work in this Jillian Steinhauer article. I wonder how many of the men now vying for rights to her work would have given a nanny with the photography bug the time of day when she was alive?

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Finding the Soul of the City

“The soul of a city can be found by talking a walk”—the premise and inspiration for generations of street photographers. In the February 2014 Metropolis, Jeff Speck, city planner, architect, and sustainable growth advocate writes about his book, Walkable City, claiming such visually rich environments are “better for your soul.”

Every Picture Tells a Story

Walking is certainly a better way to get a closeup look at the life going on around you. He illustrates that point with scenes of timeless urbanism captured by some of the giants of the street photography genre—Gary Winograd, Lee Friedlander, Vivian Maier, and others. The daily activities that animate city streets produce layered insights about both places and people. In a vital urban scene, “the presence of difference”—in ethnicity, race, class, income level, occupation—suggest endless story possibilities.

These images may require a second, even a third look, but it is clear why such photographs are often used as writing prompts.  What’s going on between those two? What are they looking at? What are they thinking? Why did he wear that?


Walkable ≠ Happy

Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Though Urban Design, agrees that walkability may be a component of a healthy city, but alone it cannot make a city a happy one. A more complex set of elements contributes to people’s assessment of their own well-being. Photographers have captured these factors, too:

  1. elbow room (“People like their space”)—think about how kids tag every graffiti-friendly surface, it’s a way of claiming something distinctly, if momentarily, theirs; or consider the “reserved” parking place
  2. green space—and not just the occasional pocket park, but big swaths of it worthy of Frederick Law Olmsted, connected in continuous corridors, perhaps helping to explain the runaway popularity of the High Line, and
  3. economic justice. In other words, a city cannot be happy when a large segment of its population is much poorer than the rest.

Quality of life may be high in great, high-status cities, but that “does not translate into feelings of well-being . . . where social stratification creates a culture of status anxiety.”  Those tensions, too, are evident in photographs of many urban streetscapes.

walkability, streetscapes, urban life, High LineMore:

  • Jeff Speck’s TED talk on the walkable city.
  • The 10 U.S. cities having the most people who walk to work.
  • How cities are trying to become more walkable.
  • What’s the “Walk Score” for your address (U.S., Canada, and Australia)? Moving? Find walkable places to live.  My neighborhood’s Walk Score is 35, compared to New York City’s 88.
  • Many of Vivian Maier’s works can be seen on the Artsy website’s Vivian Maier page.