Ideas Series: In-Conversation: Jason Evans and Aaron Schuman

From its outset, the Internet promised a new freedom for photography, providing a space outside the conventional outlets of galleries, books and magazines

Here Jason Evans and Aaron Schuman discuss the impact of the web upon photographic production and dissemination, and whether or not these promises have been fulfilled.

Aaron Schuman Firstly, when and why did you establish The Daily Nice?

Jason Evans The Daily Nice went live at the end of October 2004. I’m the kind of photographer that likes to take a lot of pictures—I don’t necessarily think about pictures before I make them—and today, there are fewer forums for photographers who work this way. It is an unfashionable kind of photography at the moment, but at the time the internet seemed to offer an opportunity to make my own, different platform. Also, 2004 wasn’t a particularly happy time in the world, but I believe in positive affirmations. I believe that if you look for good you’ll find good. We’re surrounded by a Media that keeps us scared, so the title of the site is a play on The Daily Mail. And finally, I’ve had various issues with depression in my life, and I’ve found that it’s good therapy for me to walk around with a positive mental agenda, with the camera reminding me to look for good things.

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AS When I’ve watched you taking pictures for The Daily Nice, I’ve noticed that you seem to really jump for joy when you come across something. Do you feel that the therapy aspect of the project has worked? Does it really give you a more positive slant on life?

JE When my mood swings were at their worst, if I swung too far ‘up’ I would become hypersensitive to my environment and light—it was an almost unbearably energetic and enthusiastic feeling. Now that’s more manageable and the camera has definitely helped, but there’s still a part of me that’s just like a very excited kid who likes looking around and being alive. It makes simple things quite valuable.

AS As you said, you’re a photographer that makes a lot of pictures, yet on The Daily Nice you only present one image per day. Why limit yourself?

JE We live in this time of accelerated consumption, and with the number of visitors that come to the site, it could easily support advertising—I could make money out of it, and it could become about consumption. But I don’t want to do that. It’s quite nice to have something that’s free for a change. Photography has been changed by an uncomfortable relationship with the art market, and I wanted to do something that was specifically not about money.

AS Part of what I enjoy about The Daily Nice is that it’s so lo-fi. As the internet becomes more sophisticated, complex and intense—and as people become more literate in it as a medium—so many things come at you at once. I love the fact that there’s this website out there that consists of one page, with just one picture on it.

JE There’s a sense of relief about it, isn’t there?

AS Yeah, it’s like a retreat—a sheltered harbour, where you can rest for a minute.

JE Exactly, but with more than one photo a day it might become about consuming. Surely one picture a day is enough.

AS Had any other online photography projects excited you before you started The Daily Nice?

JE I think that a lot of people were excited about the potential of the internet a few years ago, but sadly it’s now just become another way of selling us things. I find that really disappointing. There’s so much potential there, and what have we got, Wikipedia? Amazon? Duh. And to be specifically photographic about it, I hoped photographers who’ve pushed stuff along—people like Martin Parr—would do something with the internet. A lot of the images that he makes could look fantastic online; he’s the kind of photographer who makes transitional images that relocate really well, and I like that about his work—it’s so functional, and that’s a part of its success. But I haven’t really found many interesting photographic projects online. It’s just unfortunate that there was this potential for egalitarianism through the internet, but simultaneously there was this very self-conscious closing down within photography because it’s value had to be managed for the marketplace. That was one of the motivations for using the internet myself. What I find fascinating is that you can spend a few thousand pounds putting on a photography show for a month, maybe a few hundred people will go through the gallery, and that’s seen as a decent return. The hell it is! I can spend £150 on a camera, a domain name and hosting, and have an audience of hundreds of thousands. It’s an insane return. But then some people start to ask, ‘Are your visitors just grazing online, or are they serious art lovers?’ And actually, I don’t care.

AS You carry a small digital camera with you all of the time, and you take photographs with it every day—is that camera dedicated to The Daily Nice, or do you use it for other projects as well?

JE I also use it for making notes, and for photographing loved ones. Sometimes these pictures end up on The Daily Nice, but it’s a snapshot camera as well. I’m capable of being a human being with a camera, not just a photographer.

AS Before the launch of The Daily Nice, was your work already quite personal and diaristic?

JE Yeah, I’ve done lots of diary projects. My second online diary project was called ‘Beauty Where You Find It’, which I did for Shiseido, a Japanese corporation that make beauty products. Basically, they paid me to travel around the world for two months, to go wherever I wanted to go, and all I had to do was send them one picture a day of something ‘beautiful’—it was the dream commission. I said to them, ‘Well, there’s lots of different kinds of beauty,’ and they said, ‘We know that. We just want your definition of beauty.’ Shiseido is a corporation that is genuinely supportive of artists—they didn’t try to censor me, and they didn’t edit or compromise what I did. They just spent a shitload of money to ship me around the world for two months, and every day the images were sent to Paris and installed in a ridiculous fancy gallery. Prior to that, I’d also done diary projects for Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio, but they were always within a context linked to commerce or consumption, which is something that I wanted to escape from.

AS When you’re shooting, do you consciously make images specifically for The Daily Nice versus images for other projects, or do you just take pictures and sort out which project they suit afterwards?

JE I do compartmentalize when I’m shooting. I have been in situations where I was shooting two projects simultaneously, and I found it incredibly hard. One of the reasons that I took the ‘Beauty Where You Find It ‘ commission was that it was an opportunity for me to finish my project, The New Scent. There were two places that I really wanted to visit for The New Scent—Chandigarh and Brasilia—but I couldn’t afford to fly to both of those places. Then, suddenly, I was in both of those places within a month, so I was having to think ‘colour, Sony Cybershot’ and also trying to think, ‘Ilford Delta black-and-white, Fuji 6×9’. It was a bit of a head-fuck. Whenever the process became too convoluted, I would just photograph the same thing in both formats. But it was tricky to switch between the two-colour and black-and-white, digital and analogue—with these two specific agendas.

AS Yet you chose to present The New Scent online as well (thenewscent.com), but the site’s structure is much more traditional in that it’s presented like a book, with a table of contents, an introduction, a sequence and so on.

JE Well, at the time I was thinking about what an online book equivalent could be, and so I tried with The New Scent. Also, I wanted to do something that was very different from The Daily Nice, so that I could have two online presences that were contradictory. For me the whole idea of an artist having a style is, as a photographer, not really relevant. I can take lots of different kinds of photographs. I like the idea that you can be many different things simultaneously, so I felt that The New Scent had to be very different from The Daily Nice.

AS How does The New Scent contradict what you do with The Daily Nice?

JE Well on a really simple level, one is black-and-white and the other is colour, one is made with a digital camera and the other is shot on film. I really hate this idea that you’ve got to be either a digital or an analogue photographer, or that one supersedes the other.

AS In a recent talk that you gave to my students, you said, ‘Don’t be afraid to take bad pictures.’ I think that a lot of photographers today—especially those just starting out—are scared to experiment because it might lead to unsuccessful images, so your advice seemed to really hit home with them.

JE To be fair, I don’t think that there is such a thing as a ‘bad picture’. I think that there are inappropriate contexts, which make a photograph less interesting. A lot of the work that we see published isn’t published because it’s good, it’s published because the person is able to fill in a proposal document well, or to appear charming at openings, or whatever. There’s some pretty sketchy stuff out there—not even sketchy, just mediocre and unchallenging. So I think that what I meant was that I’m not particularly worried about making mistakes in public. I don’t want to be that self-conscious, I don’t regard myself as a career artist, and I’m not particularly interested in being conventional. When I realized that I was a homosexual I thought, ‘Oh shit, the rulebook doesn’t apply to me!’ And that has affected me in lots of different areas of my life. Also, when I was younger I would get seriously depressed—I’d wake up and the bottom would fall out of my world for a month or two—so that stopped me from following a conventional pathway. Therefore, I prefer to think that we are constantly moving, and that photographic debates and creative agendas are always miasmically shifting.

AS Generally, people use their art to communicate themselves, express demons or apply their personal perspective onto the world. Yet, you’re trying to change your perspective through your art.

JE Exactly, rather than make a point, I’m trying to move towards a point.

AS In that respect, The Daily Nice is fascinating in that it’s presenting something that seems familiar, spontaneous, immediate and fun in a simple and straightforward manner, which forces people to try and think beyond it—at first glance, it doesn’t appear to be very challenging, yet its intention is to challenge.

JE I think I learnt that by working in fashion. Sometimes in fashion photography the most conservative image can be the most avantgarde; sometimes you stoop to conquer. The Daily Nice is, on one level, very pedestrian at a time when mainstream photography is being aggrandized, enlarged, archived, editioned and so on. It’s sticking two fingers up to that preciousness and saying, ‘I’m worthless, and you can have me.’ And hopefully, that gesture will become more valuable than something that’s pompous or self-important.

AS Do all of your projects have that philosophy, or is The Daily Nice the primary place where you vent such frustrations with contemporary art and photography?

JE Most of my projects take between five and ten years to come to fruition, so it’s nice to have a daily foil that makes me feel that I’m out there, doing something, and thinking about photography. Also, the limitations of The Daily Nice mean that I’m constantly forced to reinvent it; its success is based on the power of limits. I’ve been using the same photographic technology for the last four years, so I have to try and be re-inventive within those constraints. Right now I’m grappling with whether or not to abandon Sony Cyber-shot technology, which is what I’ve always used for The Daily Nice because I really love the colour quality, and the way that the flash is positioned in relation to the lens. But today, there is so much camera technology going into the telephone that people don’t carry both a camera and a phone, and companies are starting to phase cameras out. More specialist cameras are being produced, but I don’t want a specialist camera; I want a snappy camera. So I think that I’ll have to buy up a bunch of Cybershots. That said, I guess that photographic technology comes and goes in eras, and I shouldn’t complain about what’s going. And anyway, I don’t know how much longer I can continue doing The Daily Nice.

AS Why would you stop now?

JE Because it’s been valid for a particular time in my life, and for a particular point in history, but I guess that my thinking is now shifting a bit. When I started the site I was moving around a lot—I was doing commercial commissions that gave me the opportunity to walk around in new places, wide-eyed in wonderment, looking at new things. But now, for the first time in my life, I’m living in the same place almost constantly. I’m bored of travelling, and I’m worried that my viewers are going to get bored, and that maybe the challenge of having to reinvent might beat me.

AS In a sense, that points to a central problem that documentary photography has often faced over the years—it has often been accused of being dependent on the ‘exotic’, whether that be an explicitly foreign culture, a disaster, a war zone, poverty, or whatever. But it surprises me that you have the same worries with The Daily Nice, a project that generally focuses on the mundane and the everyday.

JE Well I guess that it’s a very pedestrian kind of exoticism that I extol, isn’t it? Really, the point of it is to share my sense of wonderment, and I don’t want to become passive aggressive about that. And if I’m not wondering about something, then I don’t really want to share it.

AS How do you choose each day’s ‘nice’?

JE On my desktop there’s a folder with lots of images in it—I wouldn’t call it an archive; it’s more the unborn ‘daily nices’. The last thing that I do every evening, before I go to bed, is choose one picture and upload it onto the site. Sometimes I look through the pictures and think, ‘That one’s been hanging around for too long, so maybe it’s not nice enough to be a ‘daily nice’,’ but I usually have more ‘nices’ than I can use. Also, themes emerge. Sometimes a certain type of formalism comes through—I’ll get into stripes, or colours, or particular kinds of flower photography. One summer I spent a whole week just taking pictures in Rudyard Kipling’s garden. They were all photographed from below with fill-flash. I just felt like doing that.

AS Have you ever missed a day?

JE Yes. There was a time when I was sick, there was a time when I was drunk, and sometimes I find myself in places that don’t have internet connections. But that’s the human part of it. If a new picture went up automatically, exactly at midnight British Summer Time, it would just be horrible. It has to have some sort of flexibility to it.

AS How do you think your viewers use The Daily Nice?

JE People do send me really odd emails—I probably get at least one email a day from someone who’s got something to say about the picture, and I never expected the site to be as successful as it’s been. It is slightly cultish, and it shocks me that that many people know about it. But ultimately, there seems to be three kinds of users: there are the ones that find the site, then get bored of it and stop looking; there are the ones who religiously use it only when they’re feeling sad, to cheer them up; and there are the ones who have it as their homepage. Originally, it was designed to be a homepage.

AS Why do you refuse to archive past ‘daily nices’?

JE I like the perversity of it. I love the idea that it might not be something worth saving; that it’s something you can enjoy for twentyfour hours and then it’s gone. I love the idea of enjoying something in the present and then just letting it go, and I think that if we thought like that in relation to our lives we’d probably have a better existence. Also, you don’t know photography; you feel it. And I’m hoping that perhaps people might feel some of my intentions without them being explicit, and that it might alter the way they think about their lives.

AS What I find particularly fascinating about photography and the internet is that it has allowed unprecedented access to vernacular photography—people’s holiday snaps, family albums, party pictures and so on are now entirely in the public domain. Today more than ever there’s a massive participating audience for photography, and it’s become an integral part of everyone’s life in a way that it wasn’t before digital, or before the internet. And gradually that audience is gaining a reasonably sophisticated understanding of photography.

JE I’m not sure if it’s sophisticated, but there’s definitely a selfconscious formalism at play today, where people can recognize what they might describe as a ‘good picture’. But I think it’s slightly fascistic. If a picture doesn’t look ‘good’ then it gets deleted, so we’ll never get to see all of the happy accidents. It’s like a kind of eugenics within photography; everything that’s not perfect just gets wiped out. I find that worrying. But also, I think it’s going to give us something great to kick against in a few years time, when all photographs look exactly the same.

AS But I don’t think they will. I think that when people are trying to be ‘creative’ or ‘artistic’, that may happen, and many of the clichés that already exist will surface—sunsets, black-and-white nudes lit through Venetian blinds, and so on. But when people aren’t trying—when they’re just taking pictures to show their friends—very interesting accidents can still happen. In a way, The Daily Nice is just that; you’re making pictures for your friends.

JE And for the friends I haven’t met yet.

AS Exactly.

JE Well, I hope you’re right, but I’m not as optimistic as you are, because I’m not seeing enough evidence. I’m a lover of vernacular work and I don’t consider myself to be a photography snob, but whenever I go onto popular online photography sites like Flickr, I find very little that interests me. I think that the kinds of images you find at car boot sales—pictures made when people were more careful about money, and could actually attach a cost to making an image—are disappearing. Can you remember when a Polaroid cost a quid? It made you fucking careful about taking a Polaroid.

AS In 1988, Lee Friedlander said, ‘Look at any family album. Up until about fifteen years ago…you couldn’t go wrong looking at an old album, because they all had just one shot to make…there would be all that incidental stuff. The dog would be pissing on the tree. I love to look at the little things that wouldn’t occur to [the subjects themselves] as interesting. Give me anybody’s family album and I’ll find lots of interesting pictures.’

JE I think you make great pictures when you force yourself to only take one.

AS Have you seen any online photography projects more recently that have impressed you?

JE I think that things like Tiny Vices (tinyvices.com) are leading the way. Tim Barber is certainly smart, and bizarrely altruistic. Sure, I think that some of his contributors are Terry Richardson’s children, some are wannabe hipsters, but most of them are people who might otherwise not find a place to show their work. And if you haven’t got a place to show your work, then why make it?

AS I think that the internet is really at its best when it’s an outlet for obsession.

JE And good photographers are obsessives. I mean, look at something like Kevin Beck Photography (kevinbeckphotography.com)— that’s definitely an obsessive’s site.

AS I interviewed Tod Papageorge a few months ago, and he said that photography needed more ‘interestingly tormented people. Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander—they were all lunatics’. I think that Kevin Romanuik (kevinromaniuk.com) makes strangely compelling work. He’s also part of an interesting collective. Acid Sweat Lodge (acidsweatlodge.com). But I sometimes get annoyed with ‘art’ sites, because occasionally they come across as very contrived.

JE That’s what I love about Kevin Beck—here’s this guy who’s taking pictures of anything but his cool skateboarding buddies. It’s just not that self-conscious. It’s actually just about photography and taking pictures, and I think that a lot of contemporary photography is missing that.

AS Within contemporary art, there are quite a few artists who are now appropriating imagery from the internet for use in their own work—Joachim Schmid, Erik Kessels, even Thomas Ruff. The internet is becoming one vast car-boot sale.

JE And I think that there’s a lot of potential there, but I don’t really see anyone doing it very successfully. I think that the best example so far has been Kessels’s Useful Photography #002, where they collected together pictures from Ebay.

AS But that example is also interesting because the images only became legitimized once they were taken off the internet and recontextualized within a more traditional print format.

JE I’m hoping that someone will produce an online photography project that brings the intelligence of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence, or Barbara Norfleet’s The Champion Pig to the web, because it’s sorely missing.

AS Why don’t you do a project like that yourself?

JE Because I’m working on loads of other stuff. And to be really honest, I fucking hate sitting in front of a screen. I didn’t sign up to be a photographer so I could sit indoors all day. Essentially, I’m just a street photographer—a traditional, very boring flâneur—and I like to walk around and look at things, follow people, and get lost. I don’t find that kind of fun sitting in a chair at a desk. That’s another reason why The Daily Nice is so simple—because I get to walk around a lot and take loads of pictures, and then it takes me less than two minutes to put a picture online and show it to thousands. [/ms-protect-content]


Published in Photoworks Issue 12, 2009
Commissioned by Photoworks.

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