ZAP! POW! KABAM! VROOOM! Erik Palmer may look like an ordinary fellow, but then so does Clark Kent. A comic book and sci-fi enthusiast long before such obsessions carried cultural cachet, Palmer started honing his superpowers as a child. Soon, he could shapeshift and see through disciplinary walls. His hero’s journey was about to begin.
The call to adventure came early, with Palmer exhibiting predilections for both technology and journalism in high school. He majored in journalism at Texas State University at San Marcos, but it would be nearly a decade before he followed up his bachelor’s with an MA in photojournalism, this time from the University of Texas at Austin. Thirteen years later, he completed his PhD in communication and society at the University of Oregon.
Along the way, Palmer wore multiple costumes: sportswriter, photographer, technical site producer, software quality assurance manager, marketing director, and sales manager. He played a founding role in two startups: Vico Images and Trackwire Online, serving as creative director/international channel manager of the former and managing producer of the latter. And he served as a freelance tech writer and interactive media developer for Intel, Boeing, Aldus, and a string of other prestigious corporations.
Yet he could not forget his first passions, and Palmer would eventually find a way to wed technology, photojournalism, and even comic books. His destiny: convergent media.
Intrigued by the relationship between philosophy and photography, Palmer explored this intersection in his PhD dissertation, “Seeing Richard Avedon.” He went on to publish articles in Visual Communication Quarterly and Journalism Education Today.
Yet not all of Palmer’s publications are scholarly. Thousands take the form of blog posts, tweets, Tumblr photos, and Instagrams. And let’s not forget Pinterest, LinkedIn, Vimeo, Delicious, and of course Facebook.
The social media maven uses these tools to further his research in visual communication, critical theory, and community journalism and extend his teaching expertise in digital media production, DIY media entrepreneurship, and urban communication.
Zigzagging across North America, Palmer has delivered conference presentations on topics ranging from “Superheroes and Gender Roles” to “Richard Avedon: The Khmer Rouge and the Objective Ideology of Portraiture” to “Is Naked the New Black?”
His numerous exhibitions include “Bang Comics! The Superhero Women” and “Dancing on the Walls.” Selected prints from his series are housed in the Portland Art Museum, Harry Ransom Center, and Whatcom Museum of History and Art.
Palmer’s community service takes both creative and political forms. He was the online community manager for Portland’s Bouand Dance Company and land-use chair of Friends of Cathedral Park. He has served on multiple citizens’ committees and working groups.
Having returned to his initial calling, Palmer has now achieved the penultimate stage in Joseph Campbell’s archetypal monomyth: Master of Two Worlds. Adept at practicing both traditional photojournalism and digital media, he now wears a new superhero identity: assistant professor of convergent media and academic coordinator of Southern Oregon Digital Media Center.
E-interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels in fall 2012
Competing in the Gulf Star Conference Cross Country Championship in Nacogdoches, Texas (courtesy of Erik Palmer)
MM: Have you been drawn to media and technology all your life? What were some early indicators of your future career path?
EP: I was a comic book and science fiction fanboy—at a time when the idea that one might have a personal identity as a fanboy lacked the modest street cred it sometimes has today.
I had an intuitive sense that the superheroes and science fiction heroes who interested me were an essential part of how my identity was constructed, but I didn’t really have a set of concepts and a vocabulary to help me describe that until much later. My ability to articulate that perspective on popular media only really shaped up during the course of my doctoral studies at the University of Oregon.
I was also around early adopters of personal computers from a very young age, so I learned programming in high school more than 30 years ago. I used early personal computers in my journalism training in high school and college, and I spent most of my early professional career working for tech startups.
I am not technically a digital native, but I have used computers as an integral part of my personal and professional life for a long time, and I have owned personal computers almost without break since 1983. I’m not sure if it is a natural trait or something I’ve learned, but I am also good at using computers to solve problems. In that context, I characterize myself as a highly adept tool user.
Shooting the photographer (by Steven Babuljak)
MM: In a past life, you were a technical site producer, a software quality assurance manager, a marketing director, a sales manager, a technical writer, and a sportswriter/photographer, among other things. You had studied journalism as an undergraduate, but it sounds like you took an interesting detour along the path to graduate school. Tell me about that journey.
EP: First of all, let’s be clear: don’t do what I did. I have many wonderful qualities I hope students and colleagues at SOU will emulate, but one quality I did not have—especially in my younger years—is a strategic vision about career development. In some ways, it has worked out pretty well anyway, and I accumulated a lot of skills and had some great accomplishments in my various careers. But what you observe on my resumé is largely the consequence of a lack of strategic vision, and one of my goals as a teacher at SOU is to push students to adopt such a vision sooner and with greater ambition than I did.
Richard Avedon (far left) with a sampling of his iconic photographs (© The Richard Avedon Foundation)
MM: In your PhD dissertation, “Seeing Richard Avedon,” you explore the intriguing idea of categorizing a photographer as a philosopher based on the subject matter and layout of his books. What did you discover about the relationship between philosophy and photography? Is Avedon indeed a philosopher, and if so, what were his postulations?
EP: For those not well-acquainted with Avedon’s work, it is important to get a sense of his stature in the history of 20th century photography and mass media. He began working as a photographer around 1944 and passed away from a stroke, almost literally on the job, in 2004. During that 60-year career, he was one of the most successful photographers in the world, and I think it is fair to say he invented or perfected many of the norms of fashion and celebrity portraiture we see in the media today. In his exhibition practice, he also pioneered the production of large, room-scale prints, and these prints gave his work a physical presence that helped photography become a visual spectacle on the order of painting, cinema, and theatre.
Avedon was a legendary control freak, and one consequence of his control is there has been relatively little strong, independent, theoretically grounded scholarship about his work. This surprises me, considering his importance to the history of 20th century photography and popular culture. One of my scholarly goals is to remedy that gap.
Most of the best writing about Avedon emerged under his guidance and received the seal of approval of his foundation, typically in the form of curatorial essays in his books and exhibition catalogs. At several moments in that conversation, writers suggested Avedon had a philosophic foundation for his photography. But until my research, there had been little effort to spell out what that actually might mean and to formally and rigorously assess the quasi-philosophic chatter around Avedon. That’s what I set out to do.
Of course, that inquiry necessarily led to large and interesting meta-philosophical questions. What does it mean to have a philosophy of photography? Can a philosophy be expressed through photography? How might a philosophy of purely photorealistic artifacts differ from or be consistent with more conventional expressions of philosophy? Based on a careful assessment of several hundred of Avedon’s photographs and supported by some of his own writing, I concluded that Avedon is a philosopher. Taken as a whole, his work expresses specific philosophies of embodiment, social relations among people, and the ontology of photography.
Khmer Rouge victim photographs (courtesy of the Tuol Sleng Museum)
MM: In your paper, “Richard Avedon, the Khmer Rouge, and the Objective Ideology of Portraiture,” you state, “Avedon deployed a highly intentional approach to pure portraiture, one that led to charges of brutality and lack of pity,” hence the dramatic comparison with the Khmer Rouge. Yet Avedon, you continue, “proposed that his work intended to examine the deepest and most subtle levels of interpersonal communication through photographic portraiture, and to create objects that reveal narratives embedded in his encounters with the people he photographs.” What did you conclude about Avedon’s objectives and objectivity?
EP: Infused in Avedon’s photographic practices and his own thinking about photography is an intimate concern with power. In Avedon’s case, he had great power at an interpersonal level, where he could make demands on the people he photographed and could typically expect compliance. His power also extended to the economic domain, where he achieved tremendous financial success and eventually became wealthy, a real one-percenter. His wealth could also be characterized as the result of his successful exploitation of the people he photographed. And his power had a societal scale in the sense that he was able to convey his ideas about power, gender, and fashion via his strong partnerships with global media enterprises. But where does that power reside? In Avedon himself, in the technology and practice of photography itself, or in the larger economic tissue of capitalist society?
My question about the Khmer Rouge torture photography and its formal resemblance to some of Avedon’s signature images had to do with this question of where power is located and how it is expressed or mediated through photography. Avedon and the Khmer Rouge prison photographers proved to be interesting test cases in that inquiry.
In upcoming research, I am exploring how the nature of photographic power is changing, especially given the cultural changes driven by social media. The presumptions under which we might understand Avedon to be powerful are eroding in the 21st century, along with our conventional understanding of the physicality of the photographic object. In a scholarly context, we have traditionally located photographic power in individuals and institutions. But social media are shifting that power to surprising new players in the photographic ecosystem, and my new research identifies and explains some of the new centers of photographic power.
MM: Is objectivity even possible to achieve in photography, short of the photographer closing her eyes and randomly framing the subject?
EP: No. Photographic objectivity is a myth, and the forces that compromise the objectivity of photography run deep, right into the constitution of the hardware, the chemistry, and the social spaces of photography.
MM: Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of a famine-stricken Sudanese girl shadowed by a vulture. The following year, the 33-year-old took his own life, leaving a suicide note that read, “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.” Where do you stand on the ethical question of the artist’s sometimes conflicting responsibilities to document and intervene out of compassion for the subject? Is the artist culpable for practicing photojournalistic “objectivity” in certain situations?
EP: Yes. Journalists and photojournalists often suggest that if they follow ethical rules that have been presented to them in the form of journalistic objectivity and professional practice, they are then excused from the ethical consequences of their work. They are wrong, as Carter discovered in tragic fashion. In addition to journalists, all people should ask of themselves how they can make a better world, not just how they can follow the rules that keep them out of immediate trouble.
MM: DIY media entrepreneurship is one of your areas of teaching expertise. Can you explain what is meant by that term?
EP: I have personally participated in the founding of two small startup media companies (Vico Images and Trackwire Online), and earlier in my career, I worked for several start-up technology companies launched by other people. So in one sense, entrepreneurship has become part of my DNA. When I encounter a complex problem that requires a collaborative solution, I am likely to frame the solution to that problem as a startup. And I am also likely to bring the lessons I’ve learned from my professional experiences into the classroom.
There is a lot of buzz in higher education around teaching entrepreneurship and startup practices as an essential component of a well-rounded education. I agree we should teach better entrepreneurship for students of all disciplines, but I also think the hype around entrepreneurship needs to be dialed down a bit. One of my hype-tempering claims is this: the overwhelming majority of startups fail. Nearly all of the startups I have been involved with have had some interesting successes but ultimately failed as enterprises. Those that did not fail outright have been absorbed by other companies. This can be a pretty good outcome from the founders’ perspective, but such buyouts rarely have the sex appeal of a big IPO.
One of the elements of my brand of DIY media entrepreneurship involves developing a strong understanding of how to assess the risk of failure and how to be a good judge of when startup ventures and methodologies are the right tools to solve your problem. If your goal is to try something new in niche sports journalism, as my colleagues and I did at Trackwire Online, then the consequences of failure are not that great. If your goal is to provide fire and ambulance emergency response for a rural community, then the large consequences of failure are going to make you think differently about risk—and they should.
Another key lesson of my startup history has to do with growth of the enterprise. Different people have different definitions of entrepreneurship, but one I have adopted is the idea that a true entrepreneur launches an enterprise he or she expects to have explosive growth by a wide margin over the growth rate of the economy as a whole. Therefore, my definition of entrepreneurship excludes people who launch small service companies that will employ only the founders and maybe a few employees. In my world, an entrepreneur is building a company that will survive and grow after his or her departure and take on a life of its own. Some people see small enterprises such as assignment photographers, graphic design shops, law firms, or solo health care providers as entrepreneurial. In most cases, these are good businesses but not entrepreneurial by my standard.
The lessons of these observations boil down to this: what is the right tool to solve your problem? For some students, the right answer will be to seek a safe job or launch a small business in a well-established industry. But others should look at the larger picture and conceive of true entrepreneurship as a part of their lifelong career strategy. And all students should learn to understand the practices of launching, nurturing, and growing enterprises and be able to wisely assess the alternatives as they live their own lives and careers.
Portland panorama at dusk (by Eric Baetscher)
MM: What characterizes urban forms of communication?
EP: The three big attributes that distinguish urban communication are density, diversity, and the cityscape. Because cities tend to bring large numbers of people into close contact in physical space, they multiply the number of opportunities for social connection exponentially. These densely packed communities of people also tend to provide great diversity, both along ethnic lines and in terms of lifestyle and other attributes. And, as many urban theorists have proposed, that mix of density and diversity sets the stage for the greatest economic growth and innovation.
Think about it this way: the physical forms of Portland and Houston are quite different. Portland has an urban growth boundary and a vigorous set of planning guidelines for development. Houston sprawls and has few planning regulations by comparison. The different physical forms of these two cities derive largely from a set of ideas about what cities should be, and those ideas are expressed via differing bodies of regulations and business practices, which result in distinct styles of physical spaces within which citizens communicate. Indeed, in that context, the physical form of the city is an act of communication itself and is part of the stuff we study in the Communication Department every day.
Communication permeates every iota of the ways cites are built and function. I recently explored the connection between urban policy and how it is communicated by conducting a pilot study of a staff journalist hired by Metro, the regional government in Portland. For an elected government to hire a reporter to cover itself is a controversial undertaking, and many critics of the project questioned the ethical context of the reporter’s work. But I think the real action framing this topic emerges from the information needs for active citizenship in the 21st century. New spaces for local news are emerging online from unexpected sources, and they are not connected with conventional news outlets. Our challenge in assessing the ethical consequences of these changes is to keep our focus on how complex public policy can be communicated to citizens in an effective way.
9 Instagrams (by Erik Palmer)
MM: Are Instagrams your preferred social medium? What is it about them that satisfies you as both a sender and receiver?
EP: I am very active on Instagram, and I encourage everyone to follow me there (@erikpalmerphoto) and on Twitter (@erikpalmer). But for me, the place to be is on Tumblr, and I really hope everyone will join me there. I have both a personal Tumblr and a teaching Tumblr, where I showcase student work. I also post frequently to the Facebook page for SOU’s Emerging Media & Digital Art sequence, so there’s another great opportunity to connect. I have found that the “sharability” factor on Tumblr is much more vibrant. What I do on Instagram is pretty much all about me, but Tumblr is more about other people and my connections with them.
MM: You previously taught a course titled Theory & Criticism of Comic Books. That sounds like fun. What kind of questions come up when analyzing comic books?
EP: Not terribly long ago, comics were seen as a marginal topic for academic study and teaching, but the topic has really boomed, especially in the last 10 years or so. But most of this energy has been directed toward courses in comic-making or interpretation, and the highest profile scholarship on comics has been dominated by faculty teaching mostly in English and cultural studies. And that’s all awesome. But as a scholar of mass communication, I’ve found the research and teaching on comic books from within the communication and mass media disciplines to be derivative of those interpretive methods. My teaching on comic books seeks to use the medium as a topic and a case study for exploring the theoretical paradigms we do best: media effects, political economy, media ethics, media ecology, and other theoretical frameworks specific to our field.
(left to right) Bang! Comics impulse number two (2005) and silver surfer number two (2003) (by Erik Palmer)
MM: You had a photography exhibition titled “Bang Comics! The Superhero Women” and have researched the topic of superheroes and gender roles. Do superhero women transcend gender stereotypes, or are they still subject to traditional patriarchal boundaries?
EP: Comics provide interesting moments involving the subversion of gender roles in popular culture, and I have explored those ideas in both my scholarship on comics and my art. One thing we can observe regarding female superheroes over the last 60+ years is that they have become more visible and more powerful relative to the men, and we might see that as an indicator of social progress in a way contemporary feminists might support. But one of the ways the superhero women have accomplished this is by becoming more like the male characters—more aggressive and masculinized in their behavior.
A legitimate question has been raised: are these characters really women through-and-through, or are they more like men performing in highly stylized drag? Then think about the men: since the beginning of comic book history, male superheroism has been about a kind of spectacular visibility that we conventionally associate with representations of feminine bodies. That is the dialectic of gender and the visibility of the body that informs my most successful photography.
Coffeeshop advising at Hannon Library (by Steven Babuljak)
EP: The larger answer to that question is that the new technologies I teach and evangelize mean every student can choose a cause and start working on it now. You don’t have to wait until you are done with school, you don’t have to ask permission.
Make media about your passions, launch startup enterprises, devise business models, tell your story via social media—and do it now. My colleagues and I who are affiliated with the Center for Emerging Media & Digital Art are here to help.
More specifically, my position at SOU includes an important role with the University’s Southern Oregon Digital Media Center (DMC), formerly Rogue Valley Community Television (RVTV). My mission is to integrate the content production that happens in the context of RVTV and the DMC more closely with the academic mission of the University and to help grow our facility into a premier digital media center for the 21st century. We have great tools, facilities, and opportunities for students to reach large audiences in southern Oregon. So students (and faculty!) who create digital content or online journalism should work with us to expand their reach.
MM: Tell me what excites you most about teaching at Southern Oregon University.
EP: I love being at a university that is having an open conversation about revamping its teaching practices for the 21st century. I look forward to working with other faculty to wire social media and other new technologies into our curricula at SOU and into the new house model the University will be launching next fall.
February 12, 2013 | Filed under Communication, Convergent Media, Emerging Media and Digital Arts, Humanities, Journalism and tagged with communication, convergent media, digital media, DMC, emda, emerging media and digital arts, Erik Palmer, journalism, philosophy of photography, Richard Avedon, RVTV, social media, SODMC, SOU, Southern Oregon Digital Media Center, Southern Oregon University.
Tags: communication, convergent media, digital media, DMC, emda, emerging media and digital arts, Erik Palmer, journalism, philosophy of photography, Richard Avedon, RVTV, social media, SODMC, SOU, Southern Oregon Digital Media Center, Southern Oregon University