AND DESIGN PRINCIPLES
FOR PERSONAL ARTISTIC SITES
ON THE INTERNET
BY RICK DOBLE
Digital Visuals is an Internet site of my digital photography, real life gif animations created from digital photographs, computer enhanced historic black and white photographs, essays about digital art and digital photography that are all displayed on pages and sites that I designed and coded by hand. I created every aspect of this site. My purpose with this web site is to place original and timely digital art work exclusively on the Internet.
As a lifelong writer for 35 years, a photographer for 30 years, and a computer user for 16 years, the web allows me to combine my various skills into a coherent display of my work. "All the various pieces of my art are coming together on the computer and on the Internet. Art forms that looked very different and scattered in the 1970s (such as animation, slide shows, essays), now work in harmony on the World Wide Web."(From my online essay "Why Create Art? " at the Digital Visuals web site.)
The central theme of my work is that artists need to humanize this technology. We need to embrace computers and the Internet for artistic purposes. While computers and the Internet have the potential to de-humanize our existence, artists can use it to reach people in new ways, to draw people closer into their art, and to add to a viewer's sense of self-worth. A major emphasis is that artists need to stress the human scale and our connection to the Earth. While this connection to the Earth has been broken by the Industrial Revolution, artists can forge new connections that replace the modern sense of alienation, hopelessness, and rage. See my essay: "Thoughts About Art in the 21st Century" at the Digital Visuals web site.
Through my digital photographs, animation and computer enhanced photography, I stress the human scale:
the beauty of natural objects:
and also ways that this new technology can be explored artistically:
Two shows are annual exhibits (snowflakes and christmas/solstice lights) in which I add new images for the new season.
My subject matter is the ordinary world viewed in an extraordinary way: shadows, self-portraits, my living room as a background to a 360 degree animated rotation, carnival wheels, neon and Christmas lights. I want to reveal and celebrate the beauty of the common everyday world that we live in. Most of my digital photographs are straight forward and not manipulated in a paint program, although I do use a simple color correction adjustment in a basic darkroom program.
My work also explores new digital possibilities. For example, my self -portraits would have been impossible before the digital camera. Because I can turn the lens 180 degrees, I can work with a real time image. While I am not the most photogenic person in the world, these digital photographs place the artist at the center of the creative process rather than as an unseen eye viewing the world from afar, an attitude which has dominated much of photography. In addition I want to convey a sense of exuberance, a sense of fun and playfulness so that we don't take this technology too seriously all of the time. The digital camera, in particular, allows experimentation on an unprecedented scale. Because the photographer gets immediate feedback, new techniques that used to take days or weeks to develop can now be done in a matter of hours. For example, my experimental digital photographs of carnival lights produced totally unexpected effects. Because I could see the photographs immediately, I was able to build and advance on each new effect in a matter of minutes.
I also believe that "work in progress" and unfinished or evolving work can and should be placed on the Internet. This work needs to be clearly labeled as unfinished. The artist can then ask for comments and participation. This kind of feedback on a worldwide scale would have been impossible before the Internet. We should not always display perfect finished pieces. The computer has the power to create exactly centered, justified, spell checked copy, for example. Because of this, people have become less tolerant of imperfections. However, life is imperfect and again artists can lead the way by showing their work as it progresses and evolves. My essay "Thoughts about Art in the 21st Century" is labeled as a working and evolving draft and I invite the reader's comments.
The gif animations are in their own category. They are created from a sequence of real life digital photographs taken with the Casio QV-100 digital camera. They are not mini-movies but rather an art form in themselves. I create animations that loop endlessly and in this way become a state of being. Because they repeat, because the timing is often different from frame to frame, and because pictures may have been taken at different intervals (not regular short intervals like film or video), they are more like music or a pulsing living being. (Animate means "having life" according to the dictionary.) Unlike still photography which deals in two dimensions (x and y axis), these photographic animations deal in four dimensions (x, y, z axis plus time). Little animations may achieve what the cubist and futurist painters at the beginning of the century were trying to achieve, that is the ability to see the whole object in space and time in one work of art. Four dimensions is not just a concept but a reality of physics. For example Einstein adapted the age-old Pythagorean formula for the hypotenuse of a triangle to accommodate time as another component.
UNIQUE ADVANTAGES OF THE INTERNET
I designed my site to take advantage of the special aspects of the Internet. From the beginning I wanted to reach a large worldwide audience that I could communicate with via email and that I could share my work with on an individual or group basis (such as schools and teachers).
As an individual artist I strive to reach a wide ranging international audience that would have been impossible in any other way. I live in a small fishing village in rural North Carolina, USA. Just a few years ago this would have been a major obstacle to reaching an audience. Now I can put work up on the Internet as easily as someone in New York or Paris or Vienna. In the last ten months since I put counters on my pages, I have recorded over 20,000 unique visitors to the Digital Visuals site and related main menu gallery pages. About a quarter have been from outside the United States, from about 60 different countries (again according to the statistics supplied by my counter). Dozens of sites world wide have featured and linked to my the Digital Visuals site and related pages. The large international audience that I sought is now a reality.
The Internet allows me to reach my audience directly without having to go through a gallery or a magazine. I can publish my work directly on the Web which gives me much more control over the way that it is displayed and also what I display. Because the Internet is relatively inexpensive, I can do this with few financial limitations.
Sharing my work for free for non-commercial purposes is an important aspect of my artistic concept that again would have been virtually impossible before the Internet. The Web allows fast worldwide access to my work, email provides a way for people to ask me for permission to use my work, and downloading makes it simple for people to get hold of my work once they have permission. I receive one or two email requests a week asking for permission to use my images or essays at another site, in student work, in a class, by a teacher or as a screen saver. To date I have given permission to all who have asked. I feel that artists need to share their vision as much as possible especially with those who appreciate it.
The web also allows an immediacy that was not possible before. My seasonal "Christmas Lights" exhibit was shot in early December and up on the web in a matter of hours so that people could enjoy this contemporary display of lights during the Christmas season. Email and news groups made publicizing this timely display relatively easy and quick.
MY DESIGN PRINCIPLES FOR WEB PAGES
The design of my pages and the display of my pictures is a crucial element of my work as an Internet Artist. I combine digital photography, essays, HTML design, and an understanding of computers to create an overall site. K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) is my watch word. I learned about K.I.S.S. 15 years ago when I was programming the Radio Shack Color Computer and belonged to the Raleigh North Carolina Color Computer club. This principle has always been a guide post. I follow a number of simple design principles: my exhibits are designed to be very fast, easy to navigate and to look good at every level.
I pride myself on having one of the fastest sites around. File size is critical, given the relatively slow modem speeds (which includes 56K) that most users are limited to. I manually create pages that load quickly, then I use every trick I can think of to make the page display rapidly or appear to display quickly. I compress all my JPG images with a special JPG program (JPG Wizard) that reduces them to a third the normal size with no loss in quality. I optimize my animations for speed which reduces their file size as much as 50%. I use interlaced gifs to give the appearance of immediacy. Wherever possible I reduce the color depth of GIF images which can dramatically reduce file size. When a file is very large, as with animations, I warn the viewers that they will have to wait for a minute or two and often list the file size. When the overall speed of the Internet gets faster, I will design for the new faster speeds.
Each page should clearly link to pages below it, above it and to related pages. Nothing should be left to chance. The structure of an exhibit should be simple and straight forward so that the viewer never feels lost. I include my email address at the bottom of each page.
Each page should be visually appealing. Even menu pages should have a pleasing design. I spend time arranging the thumbnails on a menu page so that they create an interesting "tiled" look. This makes the site visually exciting at every level.
I try to use simple HTML in a way that creates dramatic effects. For example, the little used feature that automatically changes pages like a "slide show" is used in my first snowflake exhibit. Before I used this feature, I tested it on half a dozen browsers. It worked with all of them. Teachers have used these pages to automatically and endless display snowflakes during a class.
Once I put up an exhibit, I leave it up; I have never removed an exhibit from the Internet. It often takes six months to a year for the search engines and word of mouth to locate a site. I see no reason to remove a site since space on the Internet is so inexpensive.
I code all my pages by hand. I use HomeSite as my main HTML program. Although I sometimes use this program to produce a raw HTML page of thumbnail images for an online exhibit, I make extensive revisions to each page by hand before I display it. I also use a text-to-HTML conversion program for my essays, but again I revise the generated pages by hand. I have found that many automatic web page creation programs produce complicated pages that are too big, taking a long time to load and taking a long time for the browser to calculate the parameters involved. For example, many such programs make extensive use of the "table" command. This does not produce a fast page. I spend a good deal of time checking the appearance of my pages in different browsers: Microsoft Explorer 3 & 4, Netscape 4 and Opera. I also check my site from different locations with different servers. For example, I look at all my pages at a local cafe with Internet service to make sure that the speed and links are working reliably. I avoid features that may not work with all browsers such as interlaced JPG pictures, Java script or plug-ins. Most browsers in the world should be able to see my pages clearly.
KEEPING TRACK OF TRAFFIC TO MY SITE
I have made a concerted effort to monitor the traffic to my site so that I can tell what kind of response I am getting and where that response is coming from. The counter I use (www.thecounter.com) tells my how many hits I am getting, how many unique hits, which domains and countries these are coming from, and also the referring document. I also use a meta-search program to search all major search engines for my name which turns out to be a unique tag. I update this search every couple of weeks so that I can keep track of new pages that have been indexed by the search engines, and new sites that have linked to my site. In addition I have my email address at the bottom of each page. I get quite a few email messages and try to respond to all non-commercial queries. I allow virtually anyone to use my images for non-commercial purposes.