Fotopedia Photo Stories Arrive on Flipboard, As Photo Curation Goes Mainstream

9/20/11Follow @wroush

The mobile Web is fostering a remarkable renaissance in traditional art forms such as photography—surprisingly, right alongside the explosion of videos, games, gossip, tweets, and other distractions. And if there’s one organization that has figured out how to use the Web and the latest mobile gadgets to showcase great images, it’s Paris- and San Francisco-based Fotonauts, creator of the online photo curation community Fotopedia and seven related mobile apps. I’ve been following this company for three years now, and I think they make the most elegant photo apps available for tablets and smartphones, including the marquee Fotopedia Heritage and National Parks apps and the more self-contained travelogues Above France, Dreams of Burma, Memory of Colors, North Korea, and Paris.

Today Fotopedia is announcing some big news—the company is branching out beyond its online presence and its one-off mobile apps to introduce a tablet-based photo magazine within the travel section of Flipboard, the popular social media reader for the Apple iPad. Starting today, Flipboard users can add the Fotopedia magazine to their favorites list and explore photo stories consisting of a series of images and captions on a single theme. The company plans to update the magazine with new images several times a day, drawing from its database of images contributed by the community of 30,000 professional, semi-pro, and amateur Fotopedia members.

With the Fotopedia magazine on Flipboard “the goal is to push the stories everywhere, so that we extend our ecosystem in a huge way,” says Jean-Marie Hullot, the Apple veteran who founded Fotonauts in 2006. “I think we are the only one in the industry equipped to deal with thousands of pictures, absorb them, make sense of them, curate them, give them the right structure, and distribute the product.” Even as it makes its Flipboard debut, the company is rolling out other publishing and business-model changes designed to make the venture-funded startup into “a photo platform for the 21st century,” in Hullot’s words.

Though the Fotopedia collaborative photo encyclopedia has been around for three years, most people probably know the company through its Heritage app for iPads and iPhones, which Apple recently named one of the top 50 iOS apps of all time. Heritage is a collection of 25,000 photos of UNESCO-designated world heritage sites, all used by permission of the Fotopedia members who contributed them. Apple likes the app so much that it’s installed it on iOS devices in every Apple store in the world, the better to show off the gadgets’ photo display capabilities. Cumulatively, Heritage and the six other Fotopedia apps have been downloaded 4.8 million times, according to Hullot.

As with all of the Fotopedia apps, the photos in the Fotopedia stories on Flipboard can be expanded for an immersive, full-screen view. Already, Fotopedia has 500 stories in the queue for the Flipboard magazine, on themes ranging from shipwrecks to ghost towns to body piercing. People without iPads can check out the stories on the Fotopedia website, a redesigned version of which is being unveiled today.

“The idea is to have all sorts of interesting, enriching stories spoken in pictures,” says Hullot. The stories will have “the same combination of immersiveness and the ‘Wow!’ feeling we always try to create with the Fotopedia apps,” he says.

Though Hullot is currently based in Paris, he’s also been a fixture in Silicon Valley, where he was chief technology officer under Steve Jobs at NeXT Computer and then CTO of Apple’s Applications Division. Fotonauts has collected $6.3 million in venture funding from Seattle-based Ignition Partners, Paris-based Banexi Ventures Partners, and individual investors Jeff Clavier, Ron Conway, Reid Hoffman, Joi Ito, and Saul Klein.

Up to now, the 18-employee startup has relied entirely on paid downloads in the iTunes App store for revenue—the Heritage, Dreams of Burma, Paris, and North Korea apps are free, but National Parks, Above France, and Memory of Colors carry a $2.99 price tag. With the Flipboard stories, however, Fotopedia plans to experiment for the first time with advertising.

You won’t see intrusive banner ads or pop-ups. Rather, Fotopedia will insert an occasional full-screen ad into the regular stream of photos. And the ads themselves will be pictures from Fotopedia—they might just have an added layer of text and links. The first advertising pages will probably be house ads featuring Fotopedia’s own apps, Hullot says, but it’s not hard to imagine Fotopedia selling ads to travel brands. Imagine an ad for Qantas, for example, mixed into a story with photos from Australia, or an ad for Canon cameras within a photo essay from one of Fotopedia’s pro photographers.

Pictures contributed to Fotopedia under a non-commercial Creative Commons license, of course, will never be used as ads. But whenever ad text does appear on top of a Fotopedia picture, the photographer will share in the proceeds, Hullot says. “In the same way that when we sell the mobile apps [the photographers] get their cut of sales, in this case they will get their cut of the advertising—which, by the way, may be much bigger,” says Hullot.

The parts of Fotopedia that consumers see—the encyclopedia, the apps, and now the Flipboard magazine stories—are all manifestations of the first of Fotonauts’ two big underlying assets: a huge custom database of photos with captions, geotags, license information, and other metadata. Having that platform means creating a new photo publication is as simple as grabbing a bunch of images from the database and pouring them into the template for an app or a story. “We use this structure everywhere,” says Hullot. “With one or two people, our tools make it so [new apps] can be done extremely fast.”

Fotonauts’ other asset, of course, is its community. Unlike most other photo sharing sites, the Fotopedia encyclopedia isn’t intended as a repository or backup site for every photo a member might take; rather, it’s built to showcase members’ very best photos. Christophe Daligault, Fotopedia’s San Francisco-based senior vice president for global business, calls this a “hypercuration” model—meaning that if I wanted to put my own photos on Fotopedia, I’d have to narrow down the 13,000 photos I’ve uploaded to Flickr to the best five or so.

Members vote on the quality of each other’s photos, and the highest-rated photos make their way into the apps and stories. Over the next few months, Hullot says, Fotopedia will be improving its voting system with new features like “karma.” “We want to reward people who are doing the right thing for the encyclopedia,” he says. “The more good things you do, the more power you get” to up-vote other members’ photos. Occasionally the Fotopedia staff will reach out to community members with high karma and great photos and offer them a contract. “For a semi-pro or someone who wants to become pro, this can be a big opportunity,” Hullot says.

The overall vision at Fotonauts, says Daligault, is that “the media is moving toward something more image-centric. You have mobile lifestyles, different form factors, and shorter attention spans, and that for some kinds of information, images can be the anchor. There was great demand for the apps, and now we are launching the magazines, and we will see how people like it. If it all works out, we will try to build a publishing platform that can be extended through various distribution partnerships—a virtuous ecosystem for photographers and media companies.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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