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Why You Should Know Hanneorla

Hanneorla has to be among the most prolific amateur art photographers of the 21st century.  With more than 40,000 Flickr images that have been sorted into 517 distinct sets—each from a different location around the world, and mostly of art, architecture, and museums – Hanneorla’s photostream is one of the most important sources for art images in the 21st century, and why so many were excited about the potentials of  “Web 2.0.”

I first became aware of Hanneorla around 2007 when I was looking for Flickr users that were photographing artworks on the grounds of the IMA.  The set made for the IMA has 61 images in it and most of the contemporary outdoor artworks are documented. Although the sheer number of photos is impressive, what also interested me is the way the photos were taken: many of the works are shown from multiple sides, demonstrating that Hanneorla is skilled at looking carefully at art.

It was also around this time when Clay Shirky was getting a lot of attention for talking about how the Internet was ideally suited for us to spend our cognitive surplus doing something productive, rather than just watching television in the evening (Shirky estimates today this cognitive surplus is around a trillion hours a year for the adult population in the developed world).  Trying to harness but a sliver of a thumbnail of this surplus, we created the Wikipedia-and-Flickr-based project Wikiproject Public Art. While this continues to slowly grow, I’m always on the lookout for museum-based projects that tap into the cognitive surplus in a meaningful way.

So, to get to know the most productive art photographer in world better, I invited Hanneorla here for a discussion.

Richard McCoy: Will you tell me about your user name?

Hanneorla: We are a wife/husband team, so Hanneorla = wife (Hanne) + Orla (husband).  Original name, eh?

RM: What is your training as photographers?

HO: Well, we don’t have any. Our work has really been learning by doing all along.

We got our first digital camera in 2002 as a wedding present (a somewhat bulky Canon thingy) and were fascinated by the then-novel prospect that you could just shoot away, transfer, save, and view the images on a PC.  I remember taking our first digital pictures at a Gay Pride Parade in San Diego, standing on a chair in front of a café and trying to focus on the floats and (of course) the spectators.

Gay Pride Parade, Hillcrest, San Diego, California. Image: Hanneorla.

But we really got into photography when planning a trip to Santiago, Chile. Hanne was trying to find good images on the web of Santiago, but could only come up with old grainy ones.  We decided to take matters into our own finger-clicking hands, only to have our camera stolen on the last day in Santiago by a couple of very fast running teenagers. So from our debut as awesome globe-trotting photographers we don’t have a single shot!

RM: Can you talk about your favorite subject or photographic theme?

HO: We started out with a deep interest in modern architecture, especially skyscrapers and we still photograph those if they are spectacular enough.  Having been to places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and of course Shanghai, we have seen a few really breathtaking examples. Of course we also have images of a lot of boring bank buildings.

We have often been seen squatting on the pavement in front of a building pointing the camera towards the sky—and enduring people looking at us like we’re cuckoo.

UOB, Singapore. Image: Hanneorla.

RM: Do you remember when and why you first started uploading images to Flickr?

HO: That’s easy; it was in August of 2005. And why Flickr? Well, a friend found the site and thought it might be a good idea, so we checked it out and have been using it ever since.

RM: I really love the fact that you spend so much time creating detailed captions and descriptions for every single photo you upload, which makes your images tremendously useful to folks interested in the arts, and easy to find through search.  Can you talk about your methodology and purpose for this?

HO: That’s the hard and time-consuming part. Before we go anywhere, I (Hanne) spend many (really many!) hours researching the location, especially about sculptures (public and private), art museums, private galleries, and architecture.

I eventually collect the pictures and descriptions of all these objects in our own “guidebook,” so we know what to look for and where.  At this point, Orla usually groans when seeing this phonebook-sized guide book, or “to do list,” but usually ends up appreciating the research when we are on location!  But on many occasions, we have been out driving for hours and getting lost a lot before we find some measly piece of rusty iron that looked like a cutting-edge sculpture in our homemade guidebook!  After having gotten used to GPS technology we now find the artworks a lot faster. We often thank God (or whoever it is) in the sky for leading us in the right directions.

One thing that really irks us though (start of rant!): If you are a city, business, or person that commissions an outdoor sculpture or architectural masterpiece: maintain it and keep it clean!  In other words: TAKE CARE OF IT!  Many South American countries fail at this, as do several Southern European ones. For example, the absolutely magnificent Oscar Niemeyer-designed capital, Brasilia.  It’s a daring beauty in concrete.  A true wonder.  But it is dirty, unkempt, and really a disgrace. I think I’ll write to the new female president Dilma Rousseff and complain. Hey, they have enough money now, and certainly also well-deserved national pride. Asian countries are much better at this and they also have the courage to ask the most progressive artists (yeah, we know about Ai Weiwei and censorship), but modern Chinese art is a unique experience. And we cannot forget: The U.S. also generally has good maintenance of its outdoor artworks.  (Okay, end of our rant on that.)

RM: According to your Flickr stats, you’ve taken and uploaded 41,491 items.  This is beyond impressive.  Can you talk about why you like photographing art and museums?

HO: Allow me to quote from the Flickr profile:  “I am fascinated by contemporary visual art, cutting-edge sculpture, modern architecture, and futuristic designs.  To me the power of art is that it creates concepts and ’becomings’ intellectually and aesthetically. I’m always searching for the shock and delight of the new.”

About our ridiculously high number of photos: Well, it almost looks like a neurotic obsession, doesn’t it?  But it’s driven by pure delight and excitement.  Case in point: after having walked, and in the end crawled, for many miles in Valencia, Spain, we were suddenly dancing, footloose and fancy free, when we saw the contours of Santiago Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences.

Here are some more numbers: this week we passed 7,100,000 view counts of our images on Flickr. Boy, that’s more people than live in our own country of Denmark!

Hemisférico, Museo de las Ciencias Príncipe Felipe, Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias, arquitecto Santiago Calatrava 1998 y 2000, Valencia, Spain. Image: Hanneorla.

RM: Will you talk a little more about the division of labor in your documentation work?  Who takes the photos, who uploads the images and who writes about them?  Do you each do a little of this or does one person?

HO: Well, Hanne is the slave. She does all the hard work pre and post. I play the Nietzschean part of the mastermentality while really being the slave. When we started out I usually said, “Why are you taking pictures of THAT, I already photographed it.” And she (very sensibly) replied, “Yeah, but sometimes your images are better than mine, and (most often) mine are better than yours”. So we both take pictures of the same pieces of art and then select the best shots to put up on Flickr.

RM: What if there were, say, 25 Hanneorlas out there documenting art and museums?  That would mean right now there would be approximately 1 million images about art and museums.

HO: That’s a great idea. Google Art Project is trying something, and they are to be commended for their efforts, but so far they have only about 12 museums.  It’s a good start. I guess we are trying to create a global, virtual universe of art. Presumptuous? Yes, of course! But we’re doing the best we can. We just need the 24 other Hanneorlas.

(Another rant!) Why, oh, why is it that so many museums around the globe are stuck in the digital Stone Age? Why don’t they allow visitors to take photos of their art? Instead they have these clueless bosses and guards clumsily preventing excited people (the Hanneorlas of the world) from sharing and spreading the pleasure of art!  We will drive MORE PEOPLE to visit your museums and boost your ticket sales and reputation by wetting the appetite of the more than 7 million people who have looked at our pictures from YOUR museum on our Flickr site. (Yes, we’re exaggerating a bit, but a LOT of people will get to know your museum—think about it).  We just don’t get it!

RM: Do you think it possible for there to be a kind of crowd-sourced documentation project in which all of the world’s art is documented by individuals?

HO: Oh, yes. Let’s just corral a couple of dozen Hanneorlas.

RM: Okay, this is a cruel question, but what would happen if Flickr suddenly went away and your account ceased to exist (as rumors have suggested might happen)?

HO: OMG! You mean a virtual Armageddon? Well, we have about 80% of our Flickr pictures on DVDs, so we might survive.

RM: Another tough question: Out of all of your photos can you come up with a top 10?

HO: Any of our many photos of the works of Claes Oldenburg, Fernando Bottero, Santiago Calatrava, Oscar Niemeyer, photorealistic painters, Chinese sculpture, and Tom Otterness. Plus a few more hundreds.

Claes Oldenburg 1976 "Clothespin," Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Image: Hanneorla.

RM: Care to say where you are going next?

HO: We’re already packing. We’re off to Paris, France. And probably thousands more photos.  And the hard part we forgot to mention: The demanding work after we get home. We have to do a lot of organizing, indexing, and captioning of the pictures which takes up an enormous amount of time. We are always two or three trips behind. Let’s see, there are Sao Paulo, Brazil, Dallas, Texas, and Iowa plus a few other states to do.  We need another holiday!

Filed under: Around the Web, Art, Photography, Travel

4 Responses to “Why You Should Know Hanneorla”

  • avatar

    It’s nice to see photographers on Flickr writte about, especially on a major museum blog. I am curious about Hanneorla’s reason for keeping copyright on all/any/most of her photographs. While I appreciate aesthetics, many of these images would be wonderful to have into the Creative Commons world to utilize on websites such as Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, Google Maps, Open Street Maps, and other sources.


  • avatar
    Hanneorla Says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for your comment. We’re not very familiar with the Creative Commons world, but will certainly check it out. Maybe some of our images might be useful in non-profit contexts. We certainly don’t mind it. We do mind if others are making money off our pictures. That just doesn’t seem right.

    All the best,


  • avatar

    Hi Hanneorla,

    It’s great that you’ll explore Creative Commons options. I also understand concerns about people utilizing your images for monetary purposes. Luckily, most of the artwork you have photographed is already under copyright, either by their respective artist or the institution who owned the works. Therefore, if your Creative Commons works were to be used for that monetary gain it would cause problems (for the one abusing your license).

    I also take photographs of artwork and share them in Flickr. Some I have released through Creative Commons for use on websites like Wikipedia, others I hold on to for purposes of my own creativity. The nice thing, is that all the work I have released thus far has been used for educational purposes, making the purpose of CC works empowering for the photographer, the subject, and those who utilize them.

    I look forward to seeing what images you chose to release. This will greatly impact the coverage of artwork on the English and Danish Wikipedia websites. On behalf of those of us in the arts world, photography world, and Creative Commmons world, thank you for considering this as an option.

    We’ll take good care of your photographs =)


  • avatar

    I never would have thought how much information you could find out there about this! Thank you for making it all simple to understand

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