Michael Macrone

New Media
A Focus on the Web: @tlas

(Graphis #307, January 1997)
By Ken Coupland
Graphis cover

For an impressive demonstration of the Internet’s awesome potential as a photographic medium, look no further than @tlas, a popular showcase for serious photojournalism and multimedia on the World Wide Web. With an eye-catching design scheme that transforms the intrinsic ugliness of the Web interface into something approaching beauty, @tlas crams hundreds of viewable images into its various editions. This isn’t some stock photo operation, either; what’s up there is the kind of hard-hitting photography you don’t seem to see around a lot nowadays.

According to Olivier Laude, creative director of @tlas and a working photojournalist himself, the reason why you don’t is, simply, that markets in traditional media for serious photojournalism have pretty much dried up. “The way things are now, you spend eight or ten months out of the year doing junk so that, if you’re lucky, you can use the rest of the time to practice your craft,” the 31-year-old San Francisco-based entrepreneur complains. Laude blames this unsupportive atmosphere on the juggernaut of entertainment conglomerates entering the media mainstream in the last two decades. In Laude’s grim assessment, “There’s a very small market for work that’s not about food, fashion or entertainment.”

Laude founded @tlas one year ago to showcase work by photographers like himself who, he feels, are underrepresented or just plain misrepresented in traditional media. The @tlas stable is a distinguished lot; several contributors publish regularly with National Geographic and other top-tier publications. True to its name, @tlas presents work from all over the globe, culled from photographers mainly in the San Francisco Bay Area. Each edition features work by half-a-dozen photojournalists; individual portfolios can run to 25 to 30 images. That’s a lot of photographs, and the format allows contributors to display their work to its fullest, without the burden of editing and the distraction of magazine layouts.

The @tlas photographers share a willingness to travel to hard-to-get-to places and a passion for tough, uncompromising subject matter. Ed Kashi’s “The Crimea” is ranked in the top 500 to 1000 Web destinations (out of some 300,000 extant) by 100hot, one of the Internet’s Nielsen ratings.

What draws the audience—besides frequent mentions by tipster services like Cool Site of the Day—is a seductive mix of forceful subject matter, combined with exotic graphics, and a sly intermingling of multimedia toys (as well as such self-indulgent novelties as this writer’s serial comic novel). The cosmopolitan character of @tlas is perhaps what’s most distinctive at first glance—a shared fascination among contributors for the iconography of foreign cultures gives @tlas a richly international flavor. Better still, the site has no advertising at least not yet-unless you count the loopy banners for Bangalore incense (“the perfect aroma for lovemaking”) and Chinese cigarettes.

Which brings up another interesting point: As what’s euphemistically known as an “experimental” site, @tlas has virtually no budget. Meanwhile, profit-based publications like Hotwired and Salon—which accept advertising—are scrambling for market share; rather than becoming more elaborate, they’ve been stripped to their essentials and pushed into daily postings.

The @tlas team can afford to take a more leisurely approach, with quarterly editions that fill up over a period of weeks. There’s a certain insouciance, too, about the interface, designed by Amy Franceschini and David Karam; @tlas can be a beguiling but bewildering experience for visitors used to the banners, buttons and peremptory commands of conventional Web design.

Production costs for @tlas are just about nil because it’s mainly sweat equity. That said, Web production is proving to be just as laborious and time-consuming as in any other new technology. Laude points out that the visual punch the photographs deliver is no accident; reproduction technology, like so much on the Web, is still in its infancy and there’s a lot of trial and error. Laude will spend several days making adjustments to a single portfolio, coaxing artfully rendered low-resolution images from a borrowed scanner.

The site’s designers are grappling with the Web’s new multimedia capabilities as well. Karam’s “play-page” links to work by Terbo Ted, a local rave artist whose hyperkinetic, crash-prone antics offer up a bag of visual goodies that’s designed with blithe disregard for the technically-challenged general audience.

Rather than create for the lowest common denominator, @tlas is reaching for the high end of the Web community, and the approach makes sense. Traffic logs for the site from earlier this year revealed, for example, that upwards of 95 percent of visitors used the latest Netscape browser upgrade, which for now allows the fullest implementation of graphics capabilities and multimedia plug-ins.

Michael Macrone, the @tlas webmaster, isn’t entirely comfortable with Netscape however. For instance, he pronounces himself “horrified aesthetically” by Netscape’s much-vaunted frames. While keeping visitors securely oriented to a parent site, frames drastically reduce the space Macrone has to work with, although he concedes that the latest Netscape upgrade’s frameless borders “would be an improvement.” The @tlas team has countered by keeping the site virtually frame-free and holding hypertext links to a minimum unless they’re within the site. “We don’t want people to stray too far away from @tlas,” Macrone confides. “We want to make it something you spend time with.”

The logistics of juggling past and current editions aside—not to mention guaranteeing that links within an edition lead where they should—Macrone devotes considerable effort to tweaking layouts and negotiating the perils of server technology. “I’ve had to learn a lot about things like the UNIX operating system we use on our server, and how to install things and add modules to the server. What’s largely invisible to the public are things you can do, but that need a lot of technical work.” No surprise then that @tlas has turned out to be the vacation playground, focuses on bikini-clad Russian gangsters and their molls cavorting at Black Sea resorts and later, naked sailors scrubbing each other down in a shipboard shower room. Lori Gringer’s moving black-and-white tribute to a Cairo music school for blind girls has been published widely but only fragmentarily, and Catherine Karnow’s searing images of today’s Vietnam are obviously just too damn strong for “family” publications.

“I hate to call it personal work,” Karnow says of her series, “but that’s what it is, because it’s self-funded.” Karnow cites a litany of horror stories about interference with her published work.

Yet @tlas has been remarkably successful. During its brief existence, Laude’s brainchild has garnered a slew of awards and been seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors. Meanwhile worrisome issues like copyright, which have kept many photographers off the Web-and well-publicized contractual battles with major news syndicates and publications—aren’t about to go away. But as Olivier Laude sees it, “The Web is ideal for presenting a lot of material and showing it in depth, whether it’s photography or whatever. Hey, the Web is cheap.”

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First published in the Graphis #307 (January 1997)

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