Why Photography Matters: an Airbnb Case Study

This is a superb read on one of my favorite start-ups, Airbnb, and how the company was able to double its revenues after a critical decision was made: get professional-looking photos of the listings.

At the time, Airbnb was part of Y Combinator. One afternoon, the team was poring over their search results for New York City listings with Paul Graham, trying to figure out what wasn’t working, why they weren’t growing. After spending time on the site using the product, Gebbia had a realization. “We noticed a pattern. There’s some similarity between all these 40 listings. The similarity is that the photos sucked. The photos were not great photos. People were using their camera phones or using their images from classified sites.  It actually wasn’t a surprise that people weren’t booking rooms because you couldn’t even really see what it is that you were paying for.”

Graham tossed out a completely non-scalable and non-technical solution to the problem: travel to New York, rent a camera, spend some time with customers listing properties, and replace the amateur photography with beautiful high-resolution pictures. The three-man team grabbed the next flight to New York and upgraded all the amateur photos to beautiful images. There wasn’t any data to back this decision originally. They just went and did it. A week later, the results were in: improving the pictures doubled the weekly revenue to $400 per week. This was the first financial improvement that the company had seen in over eight months. They knew they were onto something.

This was the turning point for the company. Gebbia shared that the team initially believed that everything they did had to be ‘scalable.’ It was only when they gave themselves permission to experiment with non-scalable changes to the business that they climbed out of what they called the ‘trough of sorrow.’

Here’s the takeaway:

Gebbia’s experience with upgrading photographs proved that code alone can’t solve every problem that customers have. While computers are powerful, there’s only so much that software alone can achieve. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs tend to become comfortable in their roles as keyboard jockeys. However, going out to meet customers in the real world is almost always the best way to wrangle their problems and come up with clever solutions. 

Read the rest here.

 

The Photography of Adam Magyar

In a long piece titled “Einstein’s Camera,” Joshua Hammer profiles the photography of Adam Magyar:

In a growing body of photographic and video art done over the past decade, Magyar bends conventional representations of time and space, stretching milliseconds into minutes, freezing moments with a resolution that the naked eye could never have perceived. His art evokes such variegated sources as Albert Einstein, Zen Buddhism, even the 1960s TV series The Twilight Zone.The images—sleek silver subway cars, solemn commuters lost in private worlds—are beautiful and elegant, but also produce feelings of disquiet. “These moments I capture are meaningless, there is no story in them, and if you can catch the core, the essence of being, you capture probably everything,” Magyar says in one of the many cryptic comments about his work that reflect both their hypnotic appeal and their elusiveness. There is a sense of stepping into a different dimension, of inhabiting a space between stillness and movement, a time-warp world where the rules of physics don’t apply.

Magyar’s work represents a fruitful cross-fertilization of technology and art, two disciplines—one objective and mathematical, the other entirely subjective—that weren’t always regarded as harmonious or compatible. Yet the two are intertwined, and breakthroughs in technology have often made new forms of art possible. Five thousand years ago, Egyptian technicians heated desert sand, limestone, potash, and copper carbonate in kilns to make a synthetic pigment known as “Egyptian blue,” which contributed to the highly realistic yet stylized portraiture of the Second and Third Dynasties.

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Fascinating profile. Definitely worth clicking over to see Adam’s photography, especially the Stainless photography and video features.

Errol Morris on the Abraham Lincoln Portraits

I spent the better half of the afternoon reading Errol Morris’s fascinating series “The interminable, Everlasting Lincolns” in The New York Times, in which he sets to establish how the last known photographs (portraits) of Abraham Lincoln came to be. The prologue sets the tone with a vivid dream that Lincoln presumably had a few days before his assassination, but it’s in Part I where Errol Morris comes firing:

The story of the crack, along with the original April 9 date, was printed in The New York Times on Feb. 12, 1922. O-118 was captioned: “The President Sat for This Photograph Just Five Days Before Booth Shot Him. The Cracked Negative Caused it To Be Discarded. It Has Only Once Before Been Published, and Then in a Retouched Form.” The accompanying text by James Young read:

Probably no other photograph of Lincoln conveys more clearly the abiding sadness of the face. The lines of time and care are deeply etched, and he has the look of a man bordering upon old age, though he was only 56. Proof that the camera was but a few feet away may be found by scrutiny of this picture… The print has been untouched, and this picture is an exact likeness of the President as he looked in the week of his death. [10]

——–

This is Errol Morris’s motivation for writing the series:

My fascination with the dating and interpretation of photographs is really a fascination with the push-pull of history. Facts vs. beliefs. Our desire to know the origins of things vs. our desire to rework, to reconfigure the past to suit our own beliefs and predilections. Perhaps nothing better illustrates this than two radically different predispositions to objects — the storyteller vs. the collector.

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The infamous “crack” photograph of Abraham Lincoln.

For the collector the image with the crack is a damaged piece of goods — the crack potentially undermining the value of the photograph as an artifact, a link to the past. The storyteller doesn’t care about the photograph’s condition, or its provenance, but about its thematic connections with events. To the storyteller, the crack is the beginning of a legend — the legend of a death foretold. The crack seems to anticipate the bullet fired into the back of Lincoln’s head at Ford’s Theater on Good Friday, April 14, 1865.

It should have a name. I call it “the proleptic crack.” 

Errol Morris continues:

Holzer’s enterprise is to weave a context — a story — around photographs and significant events in American history. If Meserve were correct — if Gardner took his photographs of Lincoln on April 10, if the negative cracked just days before Lincoln was shot — it would make for a better story. But that story, like so many “better stories,” isn’t true. 

Part II of the series is here. Parts III and Parts IV will follow soon.

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(hat tip: @kottke)

Experiencing Self, Remembering Self, and Photography

Dave Pell contemplates in a post titled “This Is You on Smiles” on what the proliferation of cameras in our devices is doing to our collective memories:

During a presentation on happiness at the Ted Conference, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman makes a distinction between theexperiencing self and the remembering self. Digital photography gives additional dominance to the remembering self. At his birthday party on the beach, my son almost leapfrogged over his realtime experience. He was no longer imagining what he looked like on that surf board. He was looking at what he looked like. The wave of emotions, senses and reactions that made up his initial experience were swept away by the undertow of a single sense: what his eyes saw on a two inch viewfinder.

The digital age gives a new (and almost opposite) meaning to having a photographic memory. The experience of the moment has become the experience of the photo.

And it’s not only the subjects of the photos who are affected. In the age of the realtime, social web, the person taking the photos is often distracted by the urgent desire to share near realtime photos of an experience. Is it worth reducing an entire real life experience to what can be seen through a tiny screen? 

This tidbit is fascinating:

John McEnroe wants to remember having the experience, not watching it. McEnroe has never watched the video of his dramatic 1980 Wimbledon final against Bjorn Borg. I’ve heard him explain that he wants to maintain his personal recollection of the match. He doesn’t want to take the chance that his memory of the experience will be altered or even replaced by a new memory of the video version of the event.

There are a few events which I’ve attended, and after I’ve seen the photographs, my memory was jogged and the thought process was: did I really do this? So I totally get where Dave is coming from; sometimes, just put away the camera and experience the world around you.

“Apple has quietly become a leading camera company.”

That’s the quote of the day, courtesy of John Gruber, who runs Daring Fireball:

Megan Garber summarizes in The Atlantic:

The camera features a new lens (one designed by Apple) with an f/2.2 aperture and a sensor that’s 15 percent larger than previous models. It’ll have a relatively meager 8-megapixel sensor, but each pixel will be bigger than previous models’ — which will, Apple’s Phil Schiller explained today, let in more light. The camera software — which will be optimized for iOS 7 — will do an automatic series of adjustments to things like an image’s white balance, exposure, tone map, and autofocus. The camera will also feature what Apple is calling a “true tone” dual LED flash, featuring one cool (blue) LED and one warm (amber) LED, allowing the flash to better match the color balance of the light in the room. That makes for, Wired notes, “over 1,000 unique flash variations for your photos.” Which is, as Schiller put it, “a world’s first for any camera.”

That new f/2.2 lens looks particularly impressive. Just look at this sample photograph Apple has posted.

Just a ton of new features for the iPhone’s new camera. I’m pretty sure I’ll be upgrading come September 20.

Interview with Photographer Peter Belanger on Shooting for Apple

Great interview at The Verge with photographer Peter Belanger, who’s shot some of the most iconic products for Apple.

What camera is nearest to you at the moment?

Canon 5D Mark III, this is my go-to camera. My base lens is the 24-70mm; if I could only have one lens this would be it. It works in almost all situations. I’m always impressed with how shallow the depth-of-field looks at f/2.8 with this lens.

You’ve created images seen by millions of people every day, but most people probably have no idea that you’re the photographer with whom they’re so familiar. I see your images every day walking around New York City. How did you come to work with Apple so much?

When I was starting out I freelanced for agencies that had Apple accounts. Over the years the agencies evolved and many of the designers and producers moved internally at Apple. Because I had a working relationship with lots of them, they kept using me. I feel very lucky that this relationship continued.

He gets one thing right: nailing most of the image in camera, rather than relying heavily to post-production. I guess Mr. Belanger using Apple’s Aperture program shouldn’t be a surprise (I prefer Lightroom).

The People You Meet at McDonald’s

Vance Evans, a 66-year-old retiree from Bakersfield, California, “has been eating double cheeseburgers at McDonald’s since he flipped them himself as a teenager.” In a photo essay titled “The People You Meet at McDonald’s,” photographer Nolan Conway presents a menagerie of the people that visits the Golden Arches:

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Mr. Conway has visited almost 150 McDonald’s restaurants in 22 states. See the entire gallery here.

I’m looking forward to seeing more of this series. Would be interesting to see project extend beyond the U.S. borders as well.

 

Thierry Cohen’s Stunning Series on Darkened Cities

What would New York City, San Francisco, or Shanghai look like with a full sky of brilliant stars? Thierry Cohen, a French photographer, thinks he can show us by blending city scenes — shot and altered to eliminate lights and other pollution— and the night skies from less populated locations that fall on the same latitude on Earth. The result is what city dwellers might envision in the absence of any light pollution.

According to the NYT:

Paris gets the stars of northern Montana, New York those of the Nevada desert. As Cohen, whose work will be exhibited at the Danziger Gallery in New York in March, sees it, the loss of the starry skies, accelerated by worldwide population growth in cities, has created an urbanite who “forgets and no longer understands nature.” He adds, “To show him stars is to help him dream again.”

Below, a sample of these stunning photographs:

Shanghai without smog and light pollution.

Shanghai without smog and light pollution.

San Francisco.

San Francisco.

Starry New York City.

Starry New York City.

Los Angeles without the light pollution.

Los Angeles without the light pollution.

Hong Kong by night.

Hong Kong by night.

 

See the entire series on Thierry Cohen’s website.

Zack Arias on Signal, Noise, and Social Media

Zack Arias, an Atlanta-based photographer, pens a guest post on Scott Kelby’s blog about signal and the noise, social media hiatus, and finding inspiration. It’s worth reading in entirety, but here were my favorite bits:

– Build an inspiration wall :: I had stacks and stacks and stacks of magazines and photography books. I would thumb through them every now and then. Most of the time they just collect dust. I keep them for “inspiration” but they aren’t in front of me all the time. Since opening the lab I have started to rip out all the stuff that inspires me and have started taping this stuff to the walls in my production office and hair and make up room. Everyday I walk in I’m confronted by walls of stuff I find cool. At first I thought I was building a wall of intimidation but I see that it is a wall of inspiration. I see a picture, something about it speaks to me, I rip it out and tape it on the wall. Do this in your garage, basement, garden shed, hallway, somewhere.

Maybe I like the colors. Maybe I like the pose. Maybe I’m responding to the light. Whatever it is I tape it up and recycle bin the rest of the zine or book. It is cutting down on the clutter on my shelves and giving me cool stuff to look at each day. It starts to tell you some things about yourself as well. Currently my inspiration wall is about 90% black and white. Much of it is dramatically lit. There’s a lot of multiple exposures, motion, and projection.  It’s also nice to have it hanging up in a client area (hair and makeup room) because you can easily point things out like styling cues, posing ideas, emotional aspects of what you are wanting to make, etc. Don’t rip stuff out and put it in a binder. Get it on the walls in a place you’ll see it every day.

The nice thing about seeing this stuff everyday is you can begin to build ideas that you’ll start with on your next shoot. Grab one photo that you like for the light. Grab another that has a color palette you respond to. Another shot is a pose that you like. Another one has an idea for a background or location. You then start to build a shot with that light, this pose, that color palette, at this location. Signal. Showing up on a shoot with zero ideas can be a lot of noise.

For a different type of inspiration wall, try this.

On my recent trip to New York City, I took this to heart. I walked around with only the Canon 5D Mark II and the Canon 35mm prime lens:

– One lens. One light. One something :: Simplify your gear. You pick up a camera for the photograph. You pick up a camera for the photograph. It’s the photograph stupid. Not the Nikon. Not the Canon. Not the 8×10. Not the new 24-70 whatever. Not the new Octabank. Limit your gear usage for a week or for a month or for a year. One camera. One lens. One light source. Master it. MASTER it. Know it. Inside and out. Do everything you can with that one camera, one lens, and one light. My thing right now is one background. I shoot on a white background all the time. ALL the time. What else can I do with it? I know, from looking at my inspiration wall, that I can do more with a simple white wall than what I’m doing now.

Using only one set of gear is both constraining and liberating. Constraining because you can’t, for instance, get everything in the frame. But once you get over this barrier, it becomes liberating because you’re forced to think a bit more about getting the shot.

Lastly, something that I’ve only been able to do with limited success but plan on trying harder in 2013:

– Turn off facebook / twitter / flickr for awhile :: Get offline. Say adios to everyone and go make stuff. Work on a personal project. Get all the honey-do stuff off your list. Clean your basement. Organize your crap. Get all that stuff that lingers over your head off your plate. All those loose ends are noise. Social Media, as much as I LOVE it, is filled with noise. Social Media plays an important part in my life. It’s also a time suck. It’s a place where ideas, questions, and thoughts scatter in a million different directions from a million different sources 24 hours a day. Turn it off. Clear your plate. Let your brain quiet down.

Read the entire post here and don’t miss Zack’s video, Signal & Noise:

W. Eugene Smith on Breaking the Rules in Photography

The American Society of Media Photographers recently discovered the transcript of an interview of W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978), conducted by the portraitist Philippe Halsmann and the society’s first president. The interview took place in New York during an American Society of Media Photographers meeting in 1956, although the organization is unsure of the date. The New York Times provides a transcript.

Their conversation covered a variety of topics. In particular, however, Mr. Halsmann asked about staging photographs, a then-controversial practice that is now taboo in documentary and journalistic photography. Mr. Smith defended the practice in certain circumstances. The most revealing question is at the end.

Q. Where were you born?
A. Kansas.
Q. You know that Alfred Adler, the discoverer of the inferiority complex, believes the youngest child has a sense of inferiority which forces him to prove his own value. Do you feel this to be true with your own personality?
A. Definitely.
Q. Did you go to school in Kansas?
A. Frequently.

I had a photographic scholarship at Notre Dame — which they created for me. But after a while, I found I was asked to do only commercial, publicity photos, and so — I had to quit.

Q. Why are you a photographer?
A. I discovered that saturated hypo was good for my poison ivy. Now, Groucho.

I fell into photography through my desire to design aircraft. I met a fine news photographer, Frank Knowles, who encouraged me.

I don’t think I became a real photographer until I made a real acquaintanceship with music. That’s why I make my layouts the way I do. Photography happens to be my means of communication. But I do not feel I am a photographer singular. I feel that my art or my necessity is communication, and this could apply to many branches of the communicative art — whether it be writing or photography.

Since I am somewhat adequate as a photographer, I remain with it. I am probably more in command of it than any other medium. I respect it highly as a medium. It has its own very definite purpose.

Q. When do you feel that the photographer is justified in risking his life to take a picture?
A. I can’t answer that. It depends on the purpose. Reason, belief and purpose are the only determining factors. The subject is not a fair measure.

I think the photographer should have some reason or purpose. I would hate to risk my life to take another bloody picture for the Daily News, but if it might change man’s mind against war, then I feel that it would be worth my life. But I would never advise anybody else to make this decision. It would have to be their own decision. For example, when I was on the carrier, I didn’t want to fly on Christmas Day because I didn’t want to color all the other Chistmases for my children.

Q. Here were people in deep sorrow and you were putting flash bulbs in their eyes, disturbing their sorrow. What’s the justification of your intrusion?
A. I think I would not have been able to do this if I had not been ill the day before. I was ill with stomach cramps in a field and a man who was a stranger to me came up and offered me a drink of wine which I did not want, but which out of the courtesy of his kindness, I accepted. And the next day by coincidence, he came rushing to me and said, “Please, my father has just died, and we must bury him and will you take me to the place where they fill out the papers?” And I went with him to the home and I was terribly involved with the sad and compassionate beauty of the wake and when I saw him come close to the door, I stepped forward and said, “Please sir, I don’t want to dishonor this time but may I photograph?” and he said, “I would be honored.”

I don’t think a picture for the sake of a picture is justified — only when you consider the purpose. For example, I photographed a woman giving birth, for a story on a midwife. There are at least two gaps of great pictures in my pictures. One is D-Day in the Philippines, of a woman who is struggling giving birth in a village that has just been destroyed by our shelling, and this woman giving birth against this building — my only thought at that time was to help her. If there had been someone else at least as competent to help as I was then, I would have photographed. But as I stood as an altering circumstance — no damn picture is worth it!

Q. I remember your picture of a Spanish woman throwing water into the street. Was this staged?
A. I would not have hesitated to ask her to throw the water. (I don’t object to staging if and only if I feel that it is an intensification of something that is absolutely authentic to the place.)
And I think the most revealing Q and A exchange:
Q. Cartier-Bresson never asks for this…. Why do you break this basic rule of candid photography?
A. I didn’t write the rules — why should I follow them? Since I put a great deal of time and research to know what I am about? I ask and arrange if I feel it is legitimate. The honesty lies in my — the photographer’s — ability to understand.
Read the rest here.