1993 – 1997: A group of photographers @technology’s crossroads found an online home in the early days of consumer access to the internet. Years after it wound down, I wrote this book to understand why my own journey to claim my artistic identity had been so important.
One of the best parts of being online in the early 1990s was my involvement with the Fine Art Board (FAB) in AmericaOnline’s Photography Forum. Here was a group of photographer-artists who met to discuss and share and support in the style of a 19th century arts salon – we debated everything from the definitions of pornographic vs. erotic to what kind of music we listen to in the studio to the meaning of art.
It was a unique group, a core of regulars with many others joining in for a time. Notable for the volume of posts, the intensity, the honesty, the respect, and the group had little of the insecure posturing and arrogant spouting that polluted so many similar groups. We put together curated group shows in galleries, both virtual and real; we participated in print exchanges (the old-fashioned way, by snail-mail). We also started a group gallery website – thesight.com – the first of its kind online.
Sometimes it was crazy, often heated, and always it was about finding our way to being artists. Success brought its own price, and as the wannabes jumped in and we all moved on, both the participation and the quality wound down.
Attempts to form new groups elsewhere couldn’t recapture the magic or the chemistry or the something that made it work early on. Why not?
Because this had been such a significant time in my life, I wanted to find out. I thought about it off and on, got sidetracked with other projects, and finally came back to the questions: What made it work? Why didn’t it happen again?
Writing the book gave me answers and stilled the restlessness. The friendships and business relationships that formed in the mid- to late-90s continue, twenty years on. We’re Facebook friends and Twitter buddies and meet up in person whenever we can, the best alumni group one could ever want.
photographs by: Orville Robertson, Robert Godwin, Mark Katzman, Paul Raphelson, Gerry Walden, Tim Timmermans, Scott Streble
“I am looking forward to reading this book. It has the passion and beauty of art, the thrill of a reporter at the scene of a big event, and the perception of someone who is standing far enough away from the experience to see how it fits. I think that there will be lessons for artists and communications students.“ – Preston Hathaway, San Diego
Read an excerpt from the narrative essay that weaves through posts from 55 different contributors, background of the Off the Highway gallery show and thesight.com web gallery, print media articles about the group, historical timeline of computers/cameras/culture and, of course, the photographs:
I remember standing on a downtown sidewalk, looking up at a turn-of-the-century commercial building called the Ice House. It isn’t cold. I remember thinking this is January, it should be cold in Denver. I’m on edge in the best possible way, unnerved-apprehensive and on-fire excited; been feeling like this for a couple of weeks. Do I sense that after the next few hours I will never be the same? After this about-to-begin opening-night experience that will afterwards defy attempts to completely grasp it, label it, definitively categorize it, everything changes—and none of us will ever really find the words.
Not that we haven’t tried to describe the experience. I don’t mean find particular words, but some kind of understanding. Why was it important? What did it mean? Among the most instinctive behaviors of our human inheritance are the rituals of art, getting passed down from one generation to the next, not by DNA transfer, but through a teaching-and-learning tradition. Apprenticed in a craft or guided by mentors, we don’t need to wait very long to learn and change. “Compared to genetic evolution,” poet–philosopher Frederick Turner points out, “tradition is a positive hotbed of newfangledness.”
The FAB is what we called ourselves—a group of artists primarily involved with photography. The meetings were casually arranged, the conversation passionate. Participants wandered in and out of the room, relaxing with a coffee, greeting friends, introducing themselves to newcomers, actively debating or eavesdropping.
But it was all just talk. For we were brought together and held together by electricity and telecomm services, channeled in the early days through AOL—and our focal point was the light of a computer screen.
Starting in 1993, we met at a virtual café in the form of a user-friendly electronic bulletin board named the Fine Art Board. Almost from the outset, the FAB transcended the self-important one-off postings about technique, chemical formulae, or how-big-is-your-lens, all typical of the topics—and attitude—that inhibited most online groups. The FAB was a twentieth-century reinvention of nineteenth-century artists’ salons, where the dialogue reigned. Conversation was king. Mutual respect was rampant.