Update: Almost none of this applies to the blog as it currently exits, but I think it’s still interesting as a trace of where things came from.
I wanted to host photo albums on my own server rather than on Facebook or Flickr. For all the reasons you can imagine, yes. But also because I’m trying to figure out to what extent a non-programming, computer literate (but not hard-core techie) can shape his corner of the internet rather than merely consume and distribute content through pre-defined channels. Basically, I’m trying to figure out what a non-programmer using basic tools can do.
So for these albums, I needed a way to arrange images in groups that offered well-laid-out thumbnails for quick scanning, that allowed commentary & captions to explain what was being seen, and that offered an easy way to see good quality, full-sized version. Most importantly, I needed to be able to control who could access the photos through a user-password system.
So first, I experimented with dedicated gallery hosting software. I tried out Coppermine, 4image, and Gallery 3. I got all three running and posted test galleries. Of them, Coppermine gave the best privacy controls and the clearest admin. The others were no-goes at that level. (4images’s site and documentation is multi-lingual in ways that are impossible to navigate. Gallery 3 seems half-done, and I didn’t trust it to manage privacy the way it said it would and doubted I was savvy enough to spot it if it didn’t.)
Unfortunately, although Coppermine worked for me in terms of admin, it failed my user-test: when I sent a link to PL and asked him to check out the test gallery, he was frustrated after the first minute or two and hated how the whole thing looked. For him, the layout was too button-heavy and cyber-aggressive. Because my HTML and CSS skills are sufficient only for tinkering, I’m dependent on theming to adjust layout. There is no way I could style a web-gallery on my own from scratch. So Coppermine was out.
Next, I turned to WordPress. I had experience with the software and was pretty good at the admin, at basic tinkering, and in the whole posting-editing-managing thing. I had a batch of themes I had used and thought I could adjust them to handle photos. After a bit of digging, I also found a solid plugin for blocking access through a user-password system. So I settled on the blog format.
Because I’m using blogging software to make these albums, all posts are necessarily organized on a timeline. Photo albums often (but not always) follow a timeline but they are not fundamentally time-based things.
To make albums of the sort I wanted, I’ve treated categories as album names and used individual posts within the category to classify and comment on groups of photos. To make these posts appear from top to bottom in the same order as the trip timeline, I’ve played games with the posting dates. Specifically, I’ve treated the blog’s time stamps as numbers in a filing system to be adjusted as necessary to create the correct posting order. In the INDIA album, for example, I’ve dated each of the fourteen posts December 29 and then spaced out their timestamps at one-hour intervals, the last events of the trip being assigned the earliest time. The result is a sequence of posts that follows the timeline of our trip when read from top to bottom.
Screwing with the post dates produces two odd effects that I can’t get around. First, the navigation buttons remain time based and, thus, are counterintuitive. For example, unlike in a normal blog, the link “older posts” at the bottom of the pages on this blog will actually bring you to pages containing later (i.e. newer) events. I assumed this was no big deal until PL was sent the test link. He got to the bottom of the first page, saw “older posts” and hesitated, asking “What do I do now?” I told him to click on the link, and all was good until, after finishing the next page, he was confronted with “newer posts.” He wanted to go back to the previous posts (i.e. the older images from earlier in the trip) and again asked “What do I do now?” I take this to mean that using time stamps to mark order independent of temporality creates a genuine cognitive/navigation issue. As a work-around, I’ve bumped up the posts-per-page to twenty. Because few albums will ever have more posts than that, I’m hoping that the “older posts” and “newer posts” links will generally not appear.
Second, using the time stamps to order albums disables the “log” aspect of a web log (the sense that the sequence of posts captures a flow of life). For now, that doesn’t really matter much because all of the posts are within only one album and within that album the order does follow a timeline (although in opposite direction of standard blogs). But I’m planning on posting other albums of photos, some that used to be on Facebook, some that have only been on my computer, and once these additional albums are there, the time stamps can mark both the relationship between posts in an album (their order) and also the relationship between albums. I haven’t decided whether I want to bother with that second relationship or not, and if I do, how I will do it. Perhaps it would be worth attaching the album post dates to the dates the pictures were taken?
Whatever the case, the temporality of this blog is downright Ptolomaic: an overarching timeline places newest items on top while the albums (like epicycles) run their timeline in exactly the opposite direction. Pretty cool how complicated the basic structures making a blog work are.