Publisher Q&A2: Aline Smithson of Lenscratch

Last year we posted a "Publisher Q&A" series, featuring 12 short interviews with a range of publishers on their presses and sites and the state of the publishing market (see the site links page for links). It was a popular series, and we've decided to add another 12 entries to the series with more extended questions.

The first four posts of this second series were with Éanna de Fréine of The Velvet CellDavid Schoerner of Hassla Books, Luca Desienna of Gomma Magazine Ltd., Hannah Watson of Trolley Books, and Curt Holtz, Photography Editor of Prestel Publishing.

Today we continue with Aline Smithson of Lenscratch.

Publication: Lenscratch
Location: California, USA
Format: online

fototazo: What is the back-story on how Lenscratch formed? Was there a particular need that you saw and sought to fill?

Aline Smithson: Like most other photographers, I simply started a blog to showcase my own work. After a few months, I started feeling guilty asking the same five friends to "like" my posts and follow my musings. It all began to feel very hollow and I realized that I could use a blog to learn about contemporary photographers in a significant way. And I thought my students would like to learn along with me. I set a goal for myself, almost seven years ago, that I would write about a different photographer every day. I wasn't filling any need but my own curiosity. I thought the process would force me to really understand the contemporary fine art photography landscape.

At first, I would simply post projects that I found interesting and not contact the photographer ahead of time. I would contact them on the day the post was launched to let them know that their work was being shared, but I realized that ethically it would be much better to connect with the photographer ahead of time. By doing that, I began behind-the-scene dialogues with photographers and creating the posts felt like a mutual effort. I also not only connected to the work more profoundly, but ended up with relationships around the globe. I think many of the photographers I have featured consider me a friend, and often share their successes and keep me up to date with their careers. What I have discovered as an educator is how important it is for students to be acknowledged and validated and sometimes I think by simply sharing someone's work, it allows them to feel part of a whole and move forward.

f: What separates Lenscratch from other sites? What are its strengths as a site?

AS: To be honest, I don't have time to look at a lot sites on a regular basis. I keep my head down, work on Lenscratch, create my own work, teach, travel to a lot of photo events, and do a bunch of other things (beyond being a mother and wife), so I feel a bit in a vacuum in terms of my online wanderings...which is good and bad. I guess that what separates Lenscratch is that I'm very democratic. I have a broad curiosity and feel work gets overlooked because of the biases of the photo world, whether it be age, education, or what's in vogue. I also like to celebrate photographers young and old, emerging and established, just hatched and half in the grave...if I find the work interesting (and sometimes I have to work hard to understand it or appreciate it), then I run it.

I think I was one of the first sites that ran a whole portfolio of images, shared the photographers statement and intent, and tried to couch the introduction of the work in a way that a student could understand why I was sharing it. At the beginning, other blogs were just showing one image with a link to the work, and I wanted to understand the work in a deeper way. Now, what I'm doing on Lenscratch is not so unique.

I also have monthly opportunities for exhibition. I post every image submitted as I want there to be a place online where we all bump up against each other no matter how bad or good the image is. I don't know how much longer I can keep doing those exhibitions as the number of images is getting unwieldy, but photographers get a chance to be on a site, share with their friends, and feel connected to the Lenscratch community.

f: What is your process for deciding what to publish?

AS: I have to feel like the work was made with intention and is well articulated. The artist's statement is the key to understanding the work and if both the work and the statement aren't ringing true, then I move along. I know I have featured work that I don't think is quite ready for prime time, but for the most part, I work hard to put the work and the photographer in the best light and give them an opportunity to be "seen."

f: How would you describe the contemporary online landscape in comparison with when you started Lenscratch?

AS: Great question. Obviously there weren't that many sites--in the beginning it was more of a boys club that I never felt welcomed into - very few women were producing blogs, but happily that has shifted. I would hate to state that there is just too much content online, but there is. Imagery is a commodity to be swallowed up whole...work on Lenscratch will go viral and the next day be on 50-60 blogs world wide - posts created without the photographer's knowledge that simply show the work and move onto the next "find." There is less reverence for the image. I am so sad about the decline of the printed page. Many of my photography magazines were dog-eared in my early days, Bibles of learning. I have an issue with imagery solely being seen online...there is nothing like the visceral experience of a physical print...and magazines and books are second best.

f: What have you learned through the process of establishing Lenscratch that you wish you would have known beforehand or that you would pass along to others interested in publishing?

AS: The success of anything comes from hard consistent work, dedication, and being willing to work for nothing and expect nothing in return. I have applied these efforts to every job I have ever had (except the work for nothing part), so writing a blog was just an extension of my work ethic. I wish I had been more Internet savvy, had better graphic design skills, had considered the big picture of all of this, but honestly, I could never have imagined that I would still be writing every day, communicating with photographers all over the world, be attending photo festivals and reviews on the other side of the table for simply sitting at my computer every night putting together posts. I also want to say that it helps to have a supportive spouse. My husband has given me A LOT of grief over the years about how much time I spend in front of the computer, but he understands the process. People think that this is my full-time job, and someone recently asked me if I compensated the photographers I feature. Little do they know, for all of us with sites or zines, that it we do it in addition to the rest of our daily lives with no financial compensation.

© Aline Smithson, Quincy, from "Spring Fever"
f: How has working as an editor influenced your personal work and your aspirations in photography?

AS: I wouldn't say that it has influenced my personal work at all - I have a very strong personal sensibility. Of course I will come across work that spark "why didn't I think of that" or "what a great idea," but it doesn't mean I will start making work in that way and it has helped me be a deeper photographic thinker. Since I don't come out of photo academia, I have learned a lot from other photographers. Lenscratch has gotten in the way of the amount of time I have to create my own work...there are days/weeks that I just want Lenscratch to go away so I can make work, but it all comes with the territory of doing more than one thing. In terms of aspirations, I am inspired by so much work, photographer's commitment to their craft and the intelligent thinking behind many projects. It makes me want to chuck everything and just disappear for awhile and make photographs.

f: What has been your highlight in working with Lenscratch?

AS: Making so many friends around the world, being given opportunities to travel to photo events, but most importantly having amazing things happen for photographers from being on the site - shows, books, incredible exposure. It's truly rewarding.

f: What are the next steps for the site?

AS: One thing that I started this year is to ask guest editors to curate weeks based on the area of the world they live in. We've had European, South American, Australian, Romanian Weeks and soon Korea, Japan, and Indonesia. I realized that my reach was not broad enough and I was curious to see the kind of work being made around the world. I would like to dig deeper and show work from individual countries, but it's finding the right editor that makes it a tad problematic.

In September I am moving Lenscratch to a new platform and am finally updating the site with more bells and whistles, richer keywording, and more resources for photographers. I have some new projects to launch on the site, and more ideas to come. I now have a staff of behind the scenes help, assisting me with the technical side of things. Six months ago my friend Kevin Miyasaki recommended two of his BFA students as interns, Sarah Stankey and Grant Gill, and now they are assistant editors, creating posts and putting together the Lenscratch exhibitions. I'm enjoying sharing this platform with other people to keep the content fresh.

If I can finish with a compliment...Tom, fototazo is one of the best sites online. Congrats on all your efforts, your programming, and for being such an advocate for photographers.