COLUMBIA — Notely Hawkins started his Flickr account in 2005 without much thought toward becoming a serious photographer. Now, after posting almost 3,000 photos over the last three years, he has become one of the leading figures in Columbia’s Flickr scene.
“At the time I was just working, just living my life,” said Hawkins, who has a master’s degree in fine art from MU. “It’s Flickr that started me in photography seriously.”
Flickr, a photo-sharing and management Web site owned by Yahoo, allows users to store and share their pictures online, much like Photobucket, Picasa and Snapfish. Unlike those other three sites, Flickr has become a place for Columbia residents to connect with other people through photography. Users can form groups dedicated to shared interests, though their links to photography are not always apparent. As of Tuesday, 203 groups on Flickr are dedicated to hippos, 528 are about police cars and more than 30,000 groups feature clouds.
Abbie Brown, who describes herself as “extremely enthusiastic, even slightly obsessive” about photography, has joined hundreds of groups and met dozens of people through the site. She became involved with the site by discussing photography with other local photographers.
“I check their recent photos and write them comments, and I participate in discussions on some of the quieter groups,” she said. “I love taking photos and posting them to the site, getting and giving feedback to other users, and searching out other photographers from the area.”
Even when she doesn’t actively participate in a discussion, Brown still uses the Flickr community to learn more about photography and the site in general.
“Recently, I thought I’d lost a bunch of photos and one of the group discussions shed light on the source of my problem,” Brown said. “I managed to save the photos after all, and it was a big relief.”
More than 10 groups on Flickr are dedicated to photography in Columbia and mid-Missouri. Lisa Fechter, an office manager with a physician’s office in Columbia, is a member of some of them. Fechter said she joined the groups to connect with local photographers and see what pictures they were taking of the area.
“I have benefited from it not only in being able to view other local photographers images, but to get inspiring ideas,” she said. “I also have communicated with another local Flickr user who assisted me in gathering information to begin taking infrared photographs.”
Fechter signed up with Flickr after it was bought by Yahoo in 2005. Yahoo automatically uploaded the photos she had sent through her e-mail account to a Flickr profile.
Brown originally joined Flickr as a way to share pictures of her wedding and honeymoon with friends and family. However, after exploring the site further, she discovered other Columbia residents sharing their own photos. She said she found inspiration by looking at the work other photographers were doing with Missouri landscape photos and was able to use the Web site to connect with them.
“I started to explore Flickr and really loved the way it worked, with not only the sharing of photos around the world but also local photographers,” Brown said.
Wolters also became serious about photography through Flickr.
“Somebody had mentioned there was some really cool photography out there,” Wolters said. “So I put some of my stuff online and I was actually able to grow as a photographer from it.”
David Bickley, a commercial portrait and fashion photographer in Columbia, uses the site not only to share his personal pictures, but also to connect, learn and teach. He leaves testimonials on other users’ profiles to critique their work.
“There are a lot of really talented people on Flickr,” Bickley said. “If I see someone’s work I respect, I won’t hesitate to tell them.”
Besides allowing users to communicate with and learn from other local photographers, Flickr has tools that help members to grow beyond their hometown. Users can sort images by where they were taken, called geotagging. Columbia is geotagged more than 5,000 times, but, since geotagging isn’t automatic when a user uploads an image, that number only represents a fraction of the pictures of Columbia online. Bickley thinks Columbia’s concentration of diverse subjects — alleys and metal staircases downtown, more rural settings on the city’s outskirts — contribute to the amount of pictures posted online.
“Columbia is a really interesting place,” Bickley said. "There’s all sorts of things here.”
Brown checks pictures geotagged to cities she visits before she travels.
“I also use the Explore Map function of Flickr when I travel so that I can see where other photographers take great photos of the cities and areas that I will visit,” she said.
While many Columbia Flickr users have come to use the site a way to connect with other local and out-of-town users, a core of users share primarily with family and friends. Fechter mostly takes pictures of family and friends. Her latest work is of her youngest daughter in her first communion dress, which she posted on Flickr to share with friends and family who live out of town.
“I do share photos from Flickr, mostly with family and friends who live outside of Columbia,” Fechter said. “The layout of the photos for their viewing is nice.”
Shahn Hogan, Web developer for the MU College of Business, joined Flickr when his daughter, Reagan, was born last February.
“My wife and I had just had a daughter and we needed a way to distribute photos to family and friends,” he said.
Hogan said Flickr works well in that capacity because he is able to upload his favorite photos as well as receive feedback about what pictures other people like. He thinks his family and friends also like Flickr as a way to keep in touch with the Hogan family.
“I think they like it,” he said. “They can go look at photos a day later and see what she is up to.”
Flickr also allows amateur and professional photographers to sell their prints online through their partner site Imagekind. Bickley uses his own Web site, davidbickley.com, while Hawkins uses Imagekind.
“I’ve sold a ton of pictures on Imagekind without any sort of advertising,” Hawkins said.
Since he works in the printing industry, Hawkins also frequently comes into contact with editors of magazines, who he directs to his work online.
“I’m always talking to these editors and I’ll tell them to check out my site on Flickr, and that’s got me published,” he said.
Wolters also uses Imagekind to sell some of his photography. However, he said buyers are more interested in pictures he thinks are less intriguing than some of his other work.
“The stuff they’re really interested in is nature,” Wolters said. “You get a picture of a cheetah or a hippo — oh, man.”
Despite its business potential, photographers keep Flickr an online community based on photography. Wolters said it is about connecting with other people and becoming a better photographer.
“I do it a lot for the photography of it,” he said. “The money isn’t very good.”