Client Project: Relaunching

Michael Eastman is an internationally collected photographer who lives in St. Louis, my hometown. I knew his work before meeting him, as he’d been a collaborator on several projects with the writer William H. Gass, his friend and neighbor and an author I pay an inordinate amount of attention to. It was actually at a Gass event in 2007 — the writer was receiving Saint Louis University Libraries’ Literary Award — where I met Eastman for the first time. I’d been working for about six months as the editor of St. Louis Magazine, and I asked him if he might consider being interviewed for a profile. He agreed. Many interviews and gallery visits later, I published “Eastman’s Eyes.”


During the year that followed, I was very pleased to have Eastman (and Gass) actually come into the St. Louis Magazine contributors’ fold. Before I left my editorship in summer 2010, I’d been able to publish “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” a Gass/Eastman exploration of Martin Luther King Boulevard; “Second Act,” an exclusive portfolio of the Kiel Opera House; and “Interstate of Mind,” documenting a major (and psyche-warping) highway project. We got along well, and I like to think he thought I had a good feeling for his work.

Since striking out on my own with The Schenkenberg Studio, I’ve been actively transitioning away from journalism and media and into general communications, with a particular focus on the web. As I’ve talked with acquaintances and potential clients during the past few months, I’ve found myself taking an extra minute to explain that they may have last seen me as the editor of a print magazine, but I’ve been doing communications work — including digital communications work — for more than a decade. My first website-management duties date back to 1999, when I was the first web editor for a non-profit near Chicago. (Odd side note: The college student I hired at the time to take on freelance web development is now the famous Cheezburger-having Ben Huh. I imagine he’s making more than I paid him then.)

I bring this up because Eastman was one of the people I was trying to explain this transition to. During a conversation a month or so ago, he said he wanted to hire me, but it was still on something writing-focused. He wanted a new series of biographical statements that he’d share with galleries, museums, the media, and others. I went to work writing. But as we talked about his website, he expressed a few minor frustrations (visitors on PCs would sometimes email to say photographs weren’t loading; he felt a little overly dependent on the talented web developer—whom he likes and respects, I should add—who built it several years ago to make any changes or additions) and a desire to create something new. He handed me the reins and hired me to manage a full relaunch. One thing he emphasized: No bells and whistles.

I spent a week or so looking into content-management systems used primarily by photographers. I’ve used several CMS’s in my own experience (Squarespace, Typepad, Tumblr, Virb), but never one specifically aimed at photographers. liveBooks looked liked one of the best, so I signed up for a trial account, imported about 30 of Eastman’s actual photos, and played around. Polished. Great importing and titling features, which makes sense for a service aimed at photographers. In the end, I felt like Eastman was going to be a little limited as to what additional pages — as opposed to portfolios — he could create for publications history, press mentions, etc. Also, liveBooks sites I looked at seemed to have longer-than-desirable load times, due to intro and transition effects that, while slick-looking, seemed unnecessary.

At the same time, I created a temporary website using Virb, which I’ve greatly enjoyed using for my work website. Though not strictly for photographers, it’s got a strong focus on enabling beginners to build and present portfolios. Again, using Eastman’s actual photos, I set up a site that was a combination of portfolios and content pages.

I went through both test sites with him over email and the phone, explaining the pros and cons of the two systems. He ended up leaning toward Virb, which I was comfortable with as well. (Price wasn’t a determining factor for him, but it’s worth noting that Virb charges $10/month and Livebooks $39/month.)

So we pulled the trigger on Virb, and I did a massive import of photographs, as well as some new writing, editorial clean-up, and structural reorganization. I also set out to have my first experience with Typekit, integrating the Gesta typeface into Virb’s backend for all the type. Though I ran up against one coding obstacle on the font, a solution came quickly from Virb’s support team. (The #header h1 wasn’t being correctly affected by the type; it turns out the script tags needed to be added below the <virb load=“css” /> tag.)

An important point for me to make here: I am not a web designer. My NetNewsWire feed and Twitter Following list are probably a quarter-filled with web designers whose work I frequently admire. This particular client — and there may be others like him — wasn’t in the market for a highly designed website relaunch or an overall rebranding. If he was, I would have had many suggestions for high-level professionals to pull it off. On a more modest level, I helped him move into new online house that (to our eye) looked clean and sharp, where his photographs could hang beautifully (his ‘website’ should fall away, in my opinion; the visitor should be thinking about the photographs), and where he could make some small modifications and additions himself, if need be. So how do I identify my role, if I’m not a CSS-knowing, hand-coding web professional? I gave his web presence a modest-sized, modern makeover, one that — to continue the metaphor — provided rethought circulation between the rooms.

As you’ll see in the below screenshots, it’s certainly modest in look — 'minimal’ if you like it, 'plain’ if you don’t. And modern in terms of what the move to this CMS is allowing Eastman. A few examples: The integration of a blog; clean URLS — his Italy portfolio now resides at rather than a /string-of-letters-and-numbers (the case even with liveBooks, actually); Virb allows for quick creation of password-protected pages, which the photographer is able to use for file exchanges with contacts across the world (bypassing his FTP folder); users on (e.g.) iphones and iPads can now tap through galleries photo by photo; and there’s a user-friendly backend system where he can feel comfortable making updates and additions himself. The day after we relaunched, actually, Eastman consolidated two galleries, added new content, and swapped out the photo on the homepage. He would have done none of those things with his old system.

It’s true I don’t get paid when he’s the one making the updates, but empowering him was part of the point of the project. He seems happy, and so am I.

Home Page, Old & New



Biography Page, Old & New



Exhibitions Page, Old & New



Publications Page, Old & New



More of the New SIte: Portfolio Page


More of the New Site: Individual Photo Page


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