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websites with character

  • Jim Feuerstein

Creating a photographer's website

Al Rendon is both an artist and a commercial photographer. His artwork -- documenting the Mexican culture of South Texas -- is in the Smithsonian. His commercial photography has appeared on the covers of Newsweek and People magazines and in national ad campaigns. We designed a website to showcase both sides of his work.


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You’d think that it would be easy to create a website for a great photographer. Just show his work, you’d think.

But there were two problems with that.

First, Al was both an artist and a commercial photographer, and he wanted his site to show both sides of his work. He wanted to display his art, but he also needed a site that promoted his business. That added some complexity that also plagued his old site.

When we first spoke with Al about this project, he already had a website, but it was getting old. The biggest problem was that the site had evolved over time, and, in the process, its structure got lost. It wasn’t well organized, and it was hard to navigate. We wanted a site where the structure was intuitive and where no gallery of his work was more than a click away.

The second problem was curation.

Early on in our design process, we asked Al to give us a list of his commercial photography competitors, and we took a close look at their websites. The style and quality of the sites varied a lot, but they all seemed to share one critical problem: Poor selection of photographs. It’s not that the photos weren’t good, but the galleries were too big and the photos were repetitive.

In every case, I got bored scrolling through the galleries. I forced myself to keep going, but I didn’t think I was learning anything new. I’d look at a photo and think ‘Haven’t I already seen that?’

We wanted every photo in Al’s galleries to be there for a reason, and we wanted to keep his galleries short. Not an easy thing when your client has thousands of terrific photos.

So we spent time with Al curating his collection. And the great thing about Al as a client is that he listens. He wanted to hear what photos we preferred. We didn’t always agree, and when we didn’t, Al’s vote won, and we usually realized later that he had good reasons for his choice. Typically, it was a photo that none of us considered great art, but it was the kind of photo that commercial clients request, and Al therefore wanted to include an example.


To get started, we created a shared, online folder for each gallery we planned to create, and Al uploaded photos that he thought we should consider for the gallery.

Next, we created an offline database into which we imported all those photos. As each photo was imported into the database, our software captured the filename and the intended gallery for that image, and it also recorded the pixel dimensions and orientation of the image.

We then created a user interface for the database that enabled us to click through the images, ‘scoring’ each one according to our (initially rough) idea of its suitability for the gallery. At the same time, we tagged each photo with content categories. Using the database, we could quickly determine where we needed more images, where we needed fewer, and whether we had — for example — more landscape or portrait orientations.

When we had made our initial selection, we asked the database to ‘suggest’ an ordering of the images in each gallery. We looked at that, made some adjustments, and then uploaded the images (along with all the database information) to the website’s content manager.

At that point, to create a gallery, we simply designed the layout and then connected it to the database, telling the gallery to select the photos we had tagged for that gallery and to sort them according to the sort order we had defined in the database. Then, with the gallery live, Al could look at it, we could look at it, and we could make adjustments.

Sometimes the adjustments were replacements — Al would remember a better photo to substitute for one in the gallery. Sometimes we re-ordered images, perhaps because two photos in close proximity didn’t look right. But the bottom line was that we didn’t load every great photo Al ever took. We chose photos, and we kept our galleries small.


We considered three options for the home page: A slide deck that would present a series of full-screen images; a ‘sectioned’ layout, where each section would highlight a different category of Al’s work; and — the one we finally chose — a special gallery that illustrated the full range of his work, along with ‘title cards’ that identified the categories.

This home page gallery not only displays a sampling of Al’s work, it also acts as a supplemental menu. Each photo represents an interior gallery — click on a portrait, for example, and you’ll be taken to the portrait gallery page; click on the photo of Rod Stewart, and you’ll go to the Rock & Roll gallery.


Al has built his career documenting the life and culture of San Antonio, especially the Mexican life and culture. The result is that he’s got a terrific archive of photos that tell stories — everything from Selena in concert to an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe in a prison tattoo. For quite a while now, he’s been diving into his archive, finding an interesting photo, and re-publishing it, along with the story behind the photo.

We built a special gallery of those photos, where each photo is linked to a dedicated (dynamic) page with a large version of the photo and the story that goes with it.


We featured this site because of several special features:

First, we’re proud of the design. We managed to take a complex requirement — a site that promoted both our client’s art and his commercial photography — and present it in a simple way. At the same time, working with Al, we curated a collection of his work that we think is more effective because it’s selective.

Second, with all the photos that were available to us, I don’t think we could have done the job as quickly or effectively if we hadn’t built an offline database to organize, select, and sort them. We have a strong background in databases and custom software that gave us an edge.

Third, we also created some of the content for the site. Our content is scattered throughout, but a big chunk of it is in the recent ‘stories’. The older stories were prepared by another writer, but the most recent ones were written by us. The way it works is this: Al chooses a photo, we get together by phone so he can tell the story, we write it up, Al edits it, and we post it.

Fourth, we created the favicon, and we kind of like it.

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