Todd Atteberry is the purveyor of History and Haunts, a group of sites devoted to historic and haunted travel locations. Todd's writing, digital artwork, and photography have been featured in numerous books, periodicals, videos, and web sites, as well as graced the walls of swanky homes and offices throughout the country. Todd spends his free time lecturing, growing poisonous plants in the garden, and heading up The Green Man Advertising and Design Studio. Green Man is a certified SmugMug customizer, and also offers more traditional advertising and design services.
How did you find your focus on historical photography and ghost stories?
When I lived on Long Island I started hiking again, which I hadn't done in years. But my health demanded I get off my butt and get outside. That got a bit boring, so I started taking a camera with me. Prior to this my experience with a camera was capturing subject matter to draw or paint later.
I was hiking in a place called Mt. Misery on Long Island, and a guy I worked with told me about UFOs reported in the area back in the seventies. I looked it up on the Internet and found tons of folklore and history about the place, as well as Sweet Hollow Road nearby. So I started taking photos of the places associated with these legends and posted them online.
Eventually I branched out into shooting re-enactors at historic sites. They make great subjects because they’re used to having cameras pointed at them, and don't react. You get natural looking poses without any of the work. That appealed to me as I’m really just a frustrated Dutch-genre painter at heart, so I decided to focus on historic sites.
Later I got to looking at Google Analytics and saw that my photos related to legends and ghost stories were getting tons of traffic. I decided to focus on haunted sites that had ghost stories or other folklore associated with them. Since most historic sites tend to have ghost stories as well, it’s a good fit.
Did SmugMug’s service help you consolidate these two subjects?
SmugMug was very helpful. It’s great for storing images, and when I do a blog post, I don’t upload photos, I use SmugMug’s Get a Link feature. With every image I also include a line—“For more images click here”—and it takes you to my SmugMug site. Those two links have been great for boosting my SEO.
Choosing a target audience is also key for SEO. I get ten times the traffic on my spooky stuff, but 90% of my income comes from the historic images. So combining the two with SmugMug helped me capitalize on both pieces in one place.
I also create travel guides on my site to bring in additional traffic. People in the north head south for vacation, and they're on the hunt for places to stop along the way, or looking for places nearby, off the beaten path. Instead of stopping for the night in a Holiday Inn, they can sleep in a historic old inn, which likely has a ghost story or two.
The younger people are into the paranormal aspect and tend to land directly on an image. So I’m in the process of building a store for products other than prints—T-shirts, mugs, cards—and SmugMug makes that easy. Plus they share stuff like crazy, which builds links that are great for SEO.
What features do you use the most?
All the galleries on my site are smart galleries. And they’re all populated through keywords because you might want an image from a house in Salem, Mass., to be in a gallery associated with photos from the witch trials but you might also want it in a gallery of first-period homes. The more galleries and images you have, the better chance you have of getting the sale.
Most people never land on my homepage; they land on an image related to their search terms, or from a direct link. It’s important to have related images around it because visitors may not like the one they landed on, but they may like the one right next to it. Once there, you have to get them through the rest of your site without getting lost. SmugMug’s been a lifesaver for that.
I chose SmugMug because they are a family company, and I like the service. I didn’t want to trust my work to someone who could sell the business at any time and potentially change things or even shut it down. You live and die by search engine results as a photographer. If all the links on your site suddenly change, your SEO starts over.
What do you think of the new SEO enhancements, like keywording at folder and gallery levels?
It’s great. I’d noticed some of my terms that ranked well before were no longer getting as big a pull, and the additional keywording helped with that. And you can easily create a blog on SmugMug now using Pages, so I use this new function for print sales.
On my site there’s a section called “Prints for the Walls” which is essentially a blog. A big difference between people looking to buy a print versus someone just looking at images is they want to see how the image will look on the wall. If they land on an image and there’s a picture of it in a frame, with sizes and prices available, they can visualize what it will look like in their home, which increases the chance for a sale. And the chance to get text related to the image on the page is great for SEO.
The new SmugMug has really opened up a lot of things, especially with multiple galleries. I was locked into the previous format of two levels of categorization, and when they branched that out into multiple levels, it became easier to create more galleries.
This is great because Google has poor taste when it comes to photographs—it can’t see them. The only thing Google knows about a photo is what you tell it. With SmugMug before, you could put a caption under an image, or you could build an HTML page and get a lot of text in that way. With the new SmugMug and the ability to drop in text boxes on pages, you’re now able to put a lot of words on the page. And if you put a lot of words on the page, you have a bigger chance of getting people to your site.
Like I said earlier, I might have the House of Seven Gables in Salem photos, or I might have it in first-period architecture, or even in a gallery related to locations from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life. Now, instead of having it on just those pages, I can also build a separate page for individual images and load it with text. As long as it’s good content and relevant text, it increases the chances that image will be found.
You mentioned monitoring your visitor traffic. Has monitoring those results led you to pursuing any new historic places or ghost stories?
Absolutely. In Charleston, SC, for instance, my stuff is popular because there is a lot of interest in the area’s ghost stories and history. I did one article on the pirates in Charleston, and I noticed it really took off. So I did more articles on pirates in Charleston—and pirates elsewhere, like the story of the Screeching Lady, a woman killed by pirates who can still be heard screaming in Marblehead, Mass., on windy nights.
Basically, that’s what I do: write a shorter article on a topic to see what kind of attention it gets, and if there’s a lot of traffic I know doing more articles there would be good. This results in additional traffic coming to my site by introducing related content, which helps my images get found and increases the chance for sales.
A good example of this is my work in Sleepy Hollow. I’d always loved that story and never really thought about the place existing, but turns out it does. I went there and took a lot of photographs, which I put on my SmugMug site with articles. Then I got an e-mail from Time Magazine requesting to use one of my images for a feature they were doing on Sleepy Hollow. After they called, I tightened everything up on the site. Then the print sales started. And from there books, magazines, and things like that.
Did the popularity of the ghost stories affect your approach to photography at all?
Yes, for about six months I was influenced by everything UK photographer Simon Marsden did. From there, textures got big, which everyone says looks just like a painting—and that’s why I got into photography originally. I realized I could do a photograph that looked like a dry-brush painting a whole lot quicker than I could do a watercolor. That was eye-opening.
When it comes to stock photography, a lot of photographers will no doubt point out that much of my work shouldn’t be called photography, but digital art. I'm fine with that, since many of my sales go to people looking for work done in a more illustrative style. The advantage to that is stock photography is a commodity now—you can get a perfectly shot photo of just about any historic site for ten bucks. But when you take it beyond traditional photography, people pay more for the specialization. I'm not selling photography, I'm selling images.
For the ghost stories, I always liked the idea of shooting at night because night shots are spookier. If you take a picture of the House of Seven Gables in the daytime, it’ll look like a nice colonial-period home. At night, it’s going to look scary.
What’s the most popular ghost story on your site?
Ferguson Castle in Huntington Bay, NY. The heiress of the Armour family married Dr. Farquhar Ferguson, and she loved Italian villas, so they built a house that was a cross between an Italian villa and a monastery. They were a happy family, lots of kids.
And then the son died in WWI. Her husband died as well. After her son’s death, Juliana Armour Ferguson dressed a mannequin in her son’s clothes and sat it at the kitchen table. Every night she would come down to have dinner with this mannequin, pretending it was her son.
After her death, no one could afford to buy the house, so it eventually fell into ruin. Only the foundations remain now. Before a new house was built, people would see Juliana’s white, ghostly figure descending the staircase to have dinner with her son every night.
For Ferguson Castle, there isn’t much information about it online. When you start adding these local stories, you start building traffic. Visiting the historic sites, you talk to the folks there and hear some of the legends. Then I research them online to find out more about the folklore and the history behind them.
Sometimes it’s the tiny details that end up getting your stuff found. Like I’ll take pictures of old, local graveyards and people will buy prints of them because they have an ancestor buried there.
What’s your favorite ghost story so far?
My favorite is my adventures in Sleepy Hollow. Because I’d done so much work there, I caught the attention of Jonathan Kruk, the Sleepy Hollow storyteller. I ended up doing photos for his book, The Lessons and Lore of Sleepy Hollow and the Hudson Valley. From that, he got me into Washington Irving’s house, Sunnyside, which is just outside Tarrytown, NY, as well as Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow itself, which is actually mentioned in the original tale.
During my private tour at Sunnyside, I was upstairs shooting and the guide was downstairs. I was getting ready to take a photo of a woman’s shoes, and I heard this really high-pitched laughter. I thought, “Man, that guy laughs like a girl.” A few minutes later he came upstairs and asked what I had been laughing about.
Later I was having lunch with Jonathan, and he asked if I met Washington Irving’s niece. I said I didn’t realize any of his relatives were still alive. “No,” he said, “every once in a while people will hear her laughing in the house.” That’s probably my favorite story.
You’ve done well in honing your brand. What one piece of advice would you offer those who are still trying to identify their brand?
Figure out what you like to do as specifically as possible. You have to enjoy what you’re doing, and you have to keep it narrow enough so your interest shows. The narrower you can make it, the better.