Ask a professional shutterbug to name one of the web's leading authorities on photography, and that person will likely mention Andy Adams of FlakPhoto. Since launching in 2004, the website has attracted more than 53,000 Facebook fans, 39,000 Twitter followers and numerous contributors from around the world.
What began as an online gallery of sorts has evolved into a web-based community that presents works by artists, curators and bookmakers. The site has also opened doors for Adams in international art destinations like New York City and London. But instead of moving to one of these cities, he's chosen to make his home in Madison.
Adams, 36, wasn't always so enthusiastic about Madison, though.
"It used to bring me down that there wasn't enough happening here, and I considered leaving," he admits." But as I met more people in the community, I realized there's lots of interest in photography. There just isn't a central organizing hub for that interest."
That's one reason Adams has spent the last year organizing the FlakPhoto Midwest Print Show (through Oct. 30 at the Central Library) and helping put together several Central Library events for the Wisconsin Book Festival (Filter Photo Festival PhotoBook Exibition, Oct. 13; The FlakPhoto Booklist, Oct. 16; Festival Arts Reception and House of Coates Revisited, Oct. 18; How Many Words Is a Picture Really Worth?, Oct. 19). The biennial PhotoMidwest Invitational (through Nov. 30 at Overture Center), hosted by the Center for Photography at Madison, makes Adams' survey of regional photographers even more timely.
Surprisingly, the Midwest Print Show is Adams' first independently produced print exhibition. When he learned that UW-Madison would be hosting the Midwest Regional Conference for the Society of Photographic Education Oct. 16-18, he decided the time was right for a show featuring Midwestern photographers.
After touring the new Central Library and seeing the Diane Endres Ballweg Gallery on the third floor, Adams knew he'd found his exhibition space. He approached Trent Miller, leader of the library's maker-focused Bubbler program, and a partnership with the Wisconsin Book Festival formed. The Miller connection also spawned a companion project dubbed the FlakPhoto Booklist.
"It's a selection of 101 photography books drawn from the library's collection," Adams explains. "The photography book as an [art] form has always been important to photographers. It's kind of experiencing a renaissance right now in the contemporary scene."
Adams launched FlakPhoto in 2004, around the time Friendster, MySpace and Facebook began making the Internet more social. The site arose from Adams' early interest in the photoblogging community, and it was initially a side project of Flak Magazine, a web-only pop-culture publication co-founded by Madison native James Norton. The magazine ceased publication in 2008, but Adams wasn't ready to throw in the towel. After all, he'd taught himself how to build a website, attract an online audience and harness the power of a global community.
The centerpiece of FlakPhoto is a vast archive of images Adams shares in a section called "The Collection." It's an ongoing presentation of contemporary works produced by photographers from around the globe.
In addition to sparking smart, lively conversations about visual and digital cultures, it helps strengthen Adams' connection with the photography community at large.
"To me, FlakPhoto is not unlike a record label or movie studio," Adams says. "One day I'll promote a show in Madison... and the next I'll do a project with somebody in Russia."
FlakPhoto is also a place for Adams to post long-form interviews with curators and artists. He uses the site to promote photography books, independent zines and art exhibitions as well. One of Adams' most recent endeavors is the FlakPhoto Network on Facebook. This 12,000-member community forum is an online gathering place where photographers can share ideas, ask questions and discuss techniques.
Adams has built his web empire with-out moving to one of the cultural coasts, something many creative people considered a necessity back when FlakPhoto started. A native of Jefferson, Wis., Adams studied communication arts at UW-Madison, and he has always embraced the digital awakening despite his interest in a medium that remained very analog in the early days of the web.
"Many photographers spent a lot of time being critical of the way the image was different and inferior on the screen from the way it looked on the print. I immediately saw new possibilities from how you could use the image on a screen," he says.
Adams' media work set the stage for FlakPhoto's success. During his time at UW-Madison, he served as promotions director for student radio station WSUM. After college, he digitized vintage photographs for the Wisconsin Historical Society, showcasing them in a monthly email publication.
Though FlakPhoto is his biggest claim to fame, Adams has been active in the local arts scene for a number of years. Since 2008 he has served as Overture Center's digital media manager. In this position he crafts social media campaigns and other strategies to help promote the arts center's events online.
Adams' pioneering work with FlakPhoto has also captured the attention of several traditional art institutions. For instance, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City turned to Adams to produce a portraiture exhibition in 2013. The Making Pictures of People show featured complementary online and offline components. Adams selected all of the project's artists through a worldwide submission process FlakPhoto coordinated.
At the bricks-and-mortar museum in Kansas City, visitors explored artist interviews and photo galleries through interactive touchscreens, all while surrounded by physical copies of photographic prints. Unlike a traditional museum show, the online portions of Making Pictures of People live on in perpetuity at FlakPhoto.
Adams has also produced photography shows for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney, and numerous festivals around the country. The Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design commissioned Adams to produce Looking at the Land -- 21st Century American Views, an online look at the evolution of contemporary landscape photography.
For the Midwest Print Show, Adams again turned to his online community.
"I put out a public call on the Internet, a free call," Adams says, noting that a photographer simply needed a website to be considered for the show.
After reviewing scores of websites, Adams selected single images from 40 photographers living and working in the Midwest, including at two from the Madison area (Jason Vaughn and Mike Rebholz). A number of photographers featured in the show are entirely new to FlakPhoto.
"One of the reasons I do these online calls is the serendipity you open yourself up to when you open the doors like that," Adams says.
One of the driving forces behind FlakPhoto is Adams' frequent correspondence with shutterbugs from around the world. These online relationships often lead to an artist's work appearing in "The Collection," or to Adams promoting an artist's project on social media.
"What started to happen was photographers would write me out of the blue and say, 'Thanks so much! I got this job because of FlakPhoto.' It became clear after a while that art directors, editors and curators were watching the website, and that the website was informing their world," Adams says.
These experiences have also helped Adams refine FlakPhoto's mission. Right now, this mission involves using web-based tools to unlock artists' potential, in part by making these individuals visible to a large, international audience.
Adams plans to use the FlakPhoto brand to launch other artistic initiatives both on the web and off. One of these efforts is a website overhaul planned for 2015, which Adams says will help FlakPhoto "do some new kinds of things," including content tailored to tablets and smartphones.
Expect Madison and Wisconsin to appear in Adams' lens more often, too.
"I'm very interested in the region and the creativity that lives here," he says.
FlakPhoto Midwest Print Show
Central Library, through Oct. 30
Filter Photo Festival Photobook Exhibition
Central Library's Madison Room and Art Gallery, Oct. 13, 6:30 p.m.
The FlakPhoto Booklist
Central Library's second floor, Oct. 16, 9 a.m.
Wisconsin Book Festival Arts Reception
Central Library's third floor, Oct. 18, 6:30 p.m.
House of Coates Revisited
Central Library's Community Room, Oct. 18, 5:30 p.m.
How Many Words Is a Picture Really Worth?
Central Library's Bubbler Room, Oct. 19, 11 a.m.