The Daily Pick

Monday, September 12, 2005

Interview with Rich Vogel of Found Photos

From time to time on The Pick, we'll be featuring a project called Four Questions. It's just what it sounds like: four questions posed to webmasters doing interesting, original, strange, and/or important work. This is the first in the series.

Rich Vogel is the brains behind Found Photos, one of the Pick's all-time favorite sites. There are thousands of photographs - mostly portraits - that have literally been found, mostly online. The photographs range in era from 2005 all the way back to the 1950s. The current update features a woman drinking Jim Beam in celebration of New Years Day 1995, a cookout complete with rusted barbecue grill and couches pulled out onto a dirt road, two young men in a light sabre duel, and two men in drag DJing a party. The photographs are mostly of family and friends (presumably), celebrating, playing, arguing, living. There's a real warmth and humor to the photographs, and Vogel has even grouped some images into themes, including mirrors, kissing, and the very popular middle finger. Here's the interview with Rich Vogel:

Tom Kealey: Can you give us an idea of some of the sources of these found photographs? By that I mean, where do you normally find them, and where are some of the strangest places you've found them?

Rich Vogel: Almost all of the photos are found using P2P programs, like Soulseek, Limewire, Kazaa and all the rest, which are filesharing programs. Few have been found in the tangible real world sense. Since it all happened on accident finding them in the first place, it was a lot of trial and error making efforts to find more of them. There are a slew of file extensions and prefixes for digital camera photos, and these prefixes and keywords are what i'd use to find them. At one time I had a printed list taped to the side of my monitor - around 50 different search strings that would turn up different results. In the beginning it was incredible what a keyword might bring up, hundreds if not thousands of photos available. This was the case for months and months, in the beginning it was hard to choose what to post -I was posting an archive a day for quite some time, sifting through thousands of photos (many of them painfully boring) but finding strange gems all throughout. Over time I think people have either been more careful of what they share, or not sharing at all. The same search strings I used six months ago to find photos bring up close to nothing. It's a lot harder now, and the updates aren't as frequent but they're still coming!

Tom Kealey: I'm a real fan of the site design. It's very easily navigated, and a surfer can switch to theme or thumbnail galleries quite easily. The photos are posted almost right on top of each other, and this creates a sort of random and informal feel, which I think is appropriate to the 'found' theme. What do you think are a few keys to designing a good site, and what were your goals when you began the Found Photos design?

Rich Vogel: When I first started I wasn't sure how to display them and gave a little thought to using some of the pre-designed web gallery software out there, but I never really liked their interfaces. You always seem to be stuck with the forward / back button style or just a previous / next picture link to click on, which gets annoying to me after a while. The first archive of photos that I put up were dragged out of a folder and onto the page more or less, no resizing (and messy looking -

What I did change was the order of the photos. Somehow when looking through a set of them there seems to be a beginning photo and a few photos that look best in series, some great accidents (somewhere in archive 109 the top of someones head at the bottom of a photo looks to be coming out of the head of the photo below and other accidents are all througout the pages) and there almost always seems to be a best final photo. After sorting through the 1000's of photos that make an archive they are inserted alphabetically, and I rename them (usually just adding a 0 or a letter before the picture name) to create the order that seems best. Sometimes they fall just right.

Originally it was a lot of work to create the navigation for the archives, each one had to be added to a large table by hand and took much longer to finish. The new system (thanks to the help of a close friend) utilizes PHP and SQL to database the photos and it automatically creates an entry for the main table when a new archive is created. With the php version it's easy to switch between thumbnail and full size mode, which tends to be an issue with lower bandwidth connections. There are still a bunch of things i'd like to do with the page - commenting for photos and rating system (for photos and archives) and a viewer submitted archive, since many people contact me asking how to add one of their photos.

Tom Kealey: I'm sure it's hard to choose, but can you offer a few of your favorite photographs? Where did they come from, and what do they, to your eye, show?

Rich Vogel: There are so many, it's really hard to pick just a few specific ones from them. I just went through and picked a few from random archives:

-- this one of a grandmother with a bandana doing some gang style pose -

--I can't tell what is going on here -

-- photos that aren't what they seem -

-- terrible wounds -

-- not sure what is happening here but it makes me laugh everytime -

-- ridiculous setups like this one -

and so so many others, it takes quite some time to go through them all.

Tom Kealey: I was going to say that most of these photographs were taken in the U.S., but on closer inspection it occurs to me that these could be from many, many places in the world. No matter where they're from, what do the photographs, as a whole, say about how we live and interact with one another as human beings? What aspects or emotions do you see again and again, and what is the site (I see it this way) a historical record of?

Rich Vogel: Many of the people using filesharing programs live outside the United States, in fact it seems like most of the photos I find are outside the US. It's difficult to pinpoint where a photo was taken, without any unique language in the picture (road signs or writing on a piece of paper, etc) you have to go on facial features and the surroundings. It's fun to try and guess where geographically a picture was taken, it's not easy for me since I haven't travelled much outside the United States. I really see the same things I see everywhere around me here in facial expressions, I can feel the same sort of emotions I feel from looking at a photo from my own life - people transmit so many things through a picture. Some of them subtle and some very obvious. I am especially attracted to photos that portray something I can relate to in some way. And sometimes just the opposite attracts me, something about a photo that draws me in that I can't put my finger on. The composition, the accidental over or underexposure, people doing something fun and especially strange. What I see the most in the photos I come across are people capturing the things they really care about - whether it's an impulsive spur of the moment sort of thing, or a thought out composed snapshot, people take photos of their friends and family, their pets and houses, architecture, themselves, their surroundings and everything in between. I think the Found Photos are a visual representation of the kinds of people utilizing digital technology today.

The majority of people sharing photos share a wide variety of music and artwork, sharing many different things, each having very different and unique interests. If anything it's an archive of moments from the lives of people who support the sharing of music and things they've found along the way, and branching out to one another.

posted by Tom Kealey at 10:23 AM


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