Fine art photography is something that very few photographers can support themselves on. But what photographer hasn’t dreamed of trading assignment work for the life of an artist? Most commercial photographers continue to produce personal photographs of some kind or another throughout their career, and while a blog is all well and good, there’s nothing like the thrill of seeing your photos on the pristine white walls of a gallery. So how do you get there from here? Is promoting to galleries different than to commercial clients? I came to Wonderful Machine with a background in art gallery management, where I handled just about every medium; oil painting, sculptures made of teeth, bronze, and yes – photography. Gallery owners Brian Clamp and Jennifer Schwartz were good enough to answer a few of my questions about how commercial photographers can show their fine art work. And in addition to their insights, I’ll offer some advice of my own on how to get your foot in the door of an art gallery.
Commercial art buyers are accustomed to seeing “personal” or “fine art” categories on photographers’ websites, and in my experience they are generally positive on that. But how does the gallery world view commercial shooters? I spoke to Brian Clamp, owner and director of ClampArt, about how photographers can effectively move between the worlds of commercial and fine art. Many of the artists that Brian carries, including Jill Greenberg, Stephen Wilkes, and Manjari Sharma, are sought-after assignment photographers who also exhibit widely. Brian told me that while there was a time when commercial photographers weren’t taken seriously by curators, this is no longer the case. “I like to know that my photographers work commercially. Successful commercial photographers have artistic ideas that they can better realize with the resources they gain from assignment work. They also tend to have more business savvy than some photographers who shoot exclusively fine art. Experienced photographers understand that they are partners with my gallery; they have their own work to do to get pieces sold, and it doesn’t end when they drop off the work.” Collectors, too, like to know that photographers have created an ad or editorial piece that made a strong impression, which Brian says makes their work easier to sell.
So what are the actual steps you have to take to see your work on a wall outside of your own home?
1) Evaluate. Take a good look at your photographs. Do you have something to say? Do you have a unique, compelling, and cohesive body of work or just a mish-mash of “personal” photos without any unifying theme? Though it’s rare for collectors to purchase an entire series of photographs, a group of photographs that somehow relate to one another are much more interesting to galleries and collectors than one-off pieces. After all, it’s hard to make a profound artistic statement with one photograph. Successful fine art photographers tend to dig deep into a particular subject or style not only to make great art, but to build a brand. Cindy Sherman does self-portraits. Andreas Gursky shoots architecture and landscapes. Gregory Crewdson shoots elaborately staged scenes. What do you do? If you don’t see a cohesive body of work when you look at your photographs, keep shooting until you do.
2) Edit. Once you’ve decided that you do have something worth showing the world, you’ll need to select a finite set of pictures. I find it helpful to edit using tiny prints (the size of a playing cards). (My colleague Paul Stanek prefers editing on a screen using MoodShare.) You might start with a couple of hundred of them spread out on a big table or on the floor. Be open-minded about the editing process. Rather than thinking about how, when and where the photographs were made, let the photos guide you. Look for photographs that naturally go together and that add up to more than the sum of their parts. Edit down to a manageable number (30-40 images), eliminating the weakest photos, redundant photos and photos that don’t support the group. Next, work on your sequencing. People look at photos one at a time, but the order in which you look at them can affect the overall impact of the group even if there’s not a literal narrative. Start with one of your strongest images and one that exemplifies your theme well. Then see how the others fall into place. You might have a slightly different sequence for your website where you will typically display horizontals individually and verticals in pairs. Make sure that those pairs match up well.
3) Marketing materials. You’ll need some basic marketing materials to support your pictures, to make it easy to communicate with people, and to demonstrate your professionalism.
Most important is your portfolio. Commercial clients like to see photographs in book form because it makes it quick and easy to look at and it’s not so different from how they use photos themselves. Galleries will tend to want to see your photographs loose in a clamshell box. It helps them to see your individual photos as objects of art that they can hang on a wall and sell. Each photograph in that particular collection should be printed on the same type of paper. All of the prints should be the same size, which should match the size of the box. The images should have 1-2″ of white space around them. They should be unsigned on the front. The back of each print should be neatly labeled with your name and the title of the work (that way if you’re discussing the photos over the phone, they know what to call each print).
You’ll need simple stationery including letterhead, #10 envelope, crack-n-peel label, note card, and business card. If you don’t have a graphic identity already, working with a professional designer is well worth the investment.
You’ll need an artist statement. It should be just a few paragraphs describing your artistic journey in general and providing context for those photographs in particular.
You’ll need a website. There are so many excellent, inexpensive website templates out there now that there’s no excuse not to have one. (You can find a list on our Resources page.) It’s a great way for anyone anywhere to see your photos instantly. I recommend keeping it simple and elegant, with big pictures and intuitive navigation. The menu should include 1-5 sections of images, an artist statement page, a CV page, and a contact page with your name, email address and phone number (once you have gallery representation, you can substitute in that information).
4) Research. Get the lay of the land. There are many galleries, group shows and competitions out there, but they’re not all going to be right for you and your photographs. Some galleries don’t show photography at all. Some will be too competitive for you. Others will be not competitive enough. Before you contact anyone in the business, you should educate yourself about the industry and start to get a sense of how you might fit into it. See what’s going on in your local area and also nationally and internationally. There are lots of sources for this type of information. Every year, Art in America magazine publishes an extensive list of galleries, museums, and artists in North America. In September, they plan to launch an online version. Art-collecting.com has a great list of retail galleries by city and state. Wonderful Machine also has a list of galleries that show photography on our Resources page. Check with local arts organizations for exhibitions taking place in your area. And you can find opportunities to participate in group shows around the country through the Society for Photographic Education.
Younger galleries tend to be less concerned with exhibition history, and more willing to take a chance on a new photographer whose work they think is interesting and salable. Before you approach a more established gallery about carrying your work, it can be good to gain a bit of experience and exposure from group shows and contests. Jennifer Schwartz, owner of the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery in Atlanta, recommends that photographers consider entering even smalls shows at first. “But be selective about which open calls for group shows you submit to. Enter your work only to shows by jurors with a good reputation, and exhibitions that you are excited about.” She points out that nearly all of these require a submission fee, but not all are equally valuable. Consider the background of the organization putting on the show, and be aware that some are more about making money from those fees than curating top-notch work. As you participate in group shows, make sure you set your sites higher and higher. Galleries want to look at your CV and see that you’ve progressed to bigger and better shows over time. One group show tip from my own gallery experience: when participating in larger shows, sometimes you’ll be told to deliver work ready for hanging between “day x and day y.” This gives them time to deal with new inventory, but it can also mean that they plan to start hanging before the final deadline. Better to get your work in early and increase your chances of a prime spot!
Every time you discover a relevant gallery or industry contact, you’ll want to add them to your contact database so that you can refer to that information in the future. You might not be right for a particular gallery today, but at some point down the line you might be.
5) Submissions. Mass marketing can be an effective tool for commercial photographers. But you’ll need to take a more personalized approach in order to appeal to a gallery. Unless you’ve got a serious reputation already, I’d recommend starting locally. Compile a list of a handful of galleries that might be a good match for you. Then pick one and begin. Read their submission requirements carefully and follow them precisely. If they want to see your photographs on a CD, organize the photos in a way that makes them easy to view. Have the file name match the name of the image. Save them in a universally readable format like JPG or PDF. The files should be large enough to see clearly, but not so large as to take a long time to load or move around. Include in your package a hard copy of your cover letter, CV and artist statement and include digital versions on the CD as well. If they want to see prints, make sure you package them in a way that they won’t get damaged in transit and if you’re not going to pick them up yourself, make it easy for them to ship them back to you. At the submission stage, you don’t necessarily have to have prints framed and ready for hanging. There’s normally plenty of lead time for gallery shows, so you’ll have time for that. And the gallery may want to have a say in how big the prints should be and how they should be framed.
6) Feedback. If you’re doing your art strictly for your own pleasure or artistic expression, it won’t matter what anyone else thinks. But if you want other people to show it and buy it, you’re going to need to pay attention to how they respond to you and your photographs – and perhaps make adjustments along the way. Of course, you’ll have to take what any one person says with a grain of salt. Even the most experienced people will misjudge you from time to time. But the sum total of the feedback over the long term will tend to be pretty accurate. Keep in mind that your personality will play a big part in your success or failure. The way you interact with gallery owners and collectors will color the way they perceive your photographs. Everyone who buys your art is also buying a piece of you.
7) Pricing and editioning. At some point, you will have to start thinking about pricing and (gasp) editioning. As with advertising photography, pricing fine art is not a simple equation. Jennifer suggests that new photographers be prepared to price their work lower than they might like, in order to start building a base of collectors. She recommends that you consider your production costs and compare the price to similar artists’ work. When I asked Brian and Jennifer for some pointers on editions, the response I got from both was a cautious, “…it’s complicated.” Since (most) photographs are not unique objects, editioning is key to creating the perception of scarcity and value. But don’t feel like you have to rush into a finite number of prints before your market requires it! Brian recommends that photographers avoid printing in editions until they have a relationship with a gallery to help guide them through that process. Editions can feel artificial and limiting, but Jennifer points out that it does work in your favor; beyond rarefying your work and commanding higher value, prices tend to climb as an edition is sold off, giving buyers incentive to move quickly on a purchase. Keep in mind that editions are also made by size. The framed 18″x24″ print that looks great on the wall might not sell right away, but the less expensive, unframed 6″x8″, printed in a larger volume, might be easier to move.
8) What not to do. Jennifer Schwartz has written some helpful articles about how not to submit to a gallery that took me back in time to my days at the gallery. I received submissions just about every day, and they looked virtually identical: plain cardboard envelope containing a business card and a sharpied CD. The disc typically contained only images, no resume, no artist’s statement. Often the artist did not have website. Take the same care in branding your fine art materials as you would for your commercial work, and you’re already ahead of the competition. Time and space are precious things for gallery owners, so don’t think that you’re doing yourself any favors by going above and beyond the submission guidelines. Don’t send sample prints or finished pieces unless they’re requested. Most importantly, don’t drop by without an appointment and expect them to talk to you! Artists used to do this to me and it drove me crazy. Stick to their guidelines and work within them to create the most distinctive, eye-catching presentation you can.
For more assistance, contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone (610) 260-0200.