When you pool through the folders of photographs on your computer, there are probably hundreds or even thousands of images. Depending on how serious of a photographer you are or want to become, you likely have a website driven by a Wordpress blog or SmugMug website or a custom designed one. You've selected a handful of favorites from each photo shoot and uploaded them for your fans to view on social media sites like Facebook or Flickr. If this is the extent that you want your photography career to go, that's absolutely fine. It's a personal choice. Many photographers are content with this level of display, feedback, and commitment. However, you might be a photographer who walks through exhibits in galleries and dreams of one day seeing your own prints on a large white wall. If that description screams you, read on...
Having your photos first displayed in a gallery is a code of honor. A rite of passage. It's what separates electronic displays from frames, mats and prints. And, it's an amazing feeling.
I can hear you now, "That's great, David. But, how did those photographers land their exhibits? I'd show if I knew where and how." Well, that's what I'm here to help you with... landing your first exhibit. Let's answer your questions as we take a stroll through the hallways and aisles of exhibits.
Where Do I Start?
Starting local is always a great place to start. Right in your own community are ample options for your photography to be on display. Think about the mom and pop coffee shop on the corner. Any photographs on the walls? Most likely, yes. As with restaurants, coffee shops love having local artists display their work because it covers their walls for free, provides (usually) monthly turn-over to keep things looking fresh and new, creates interesting conversations within their business, and it introduces artists to their customers. It's a win-win situation for the coffee shop, the artist, and the community.
The best way to approach a coffee shop is to have your portfolio on hand. In most cases, printed images still make a stronger impact over electronic ones, such as showing your portfolio on your iPad. Most mom and pop coffee shop owners are caught up in the daily grind (pun intended) of servicing their customers. They want to know what your images will look like in their shop, so paper is the best way to show them.
If you're a regular in the shop, you likely know the owner already. If you don't know them, what are you waiting for? Introduce yourself tomorrow so when you later show your portfolio, they're not talking to a stranger. If you do know them, let them know you're a photographer and ask what steps need to be taken to exhibit your work on their walls. Keep your portfolio handy so you can show it to them while you have their attention. Find out if there's a waiting list, how long each artist is on exhibit, and ask if there are any requirements regarding size (considering their wall space size).
Other places to consider approaching include libraries, arts and humanities organizations, hospitals, retail shops, community centers, and schools. Keep your eyes open as you are out and about. Notice who has photographs on their walls and ask about exhibiting. Think outside the box. If their images are ones that they bought and hung, that doesn't mean they wouldn't be interested in taking them down so that you can exhibit yours for a week or a month or longer. If your theme and images is a good match, they will likely consider it. Speaking of which, that brings us to the next question.
How Do I Pick a Theme?
You've found a wall for your images. The excitement blends with anxiety and nerves over which images to display. Likely you'll be able to show at least a handful of images. To do this most effectively, you want a theme, some continuity. Mixing street photography with mountain landscapes simply won't capture the attention you want. Choosing a theme portrays you as an artist with a vision and gives viewers a lot more to consider. A theme will draw them in and hold their attention longer than randomly chosen images. If you're a landscape photographer, your theme might be seasons. Or it might be the subtleties of land and the power of the sea. If you're a portrait photographer, perhaps you've traveled around the world and have captured people of different cultures. Keep the theme to one culture to show a connection. A good theme for portraits is always the old and the young. People love seeing images of children's youth and excitement coupled with the wisdom and wrinkles of the elderly. These are the types of themes you want to think about, while naturally coming up with one that suits your images and artistic message.
Do I Dig Through My Current Photos or Shoot New?
Depending on the amount of time you have before your exhibit, you may choose a theme that requires you to capture new images, or you may have chosen your theme based on your current portfolio. This is a personal choice that's based on what you have or don't have as well as how much time you're allotted before filling that wall. Of course when you dig into your archives in search of the perfect images, ensure that they are printable in large format. Some of your old images may have been captured on an older camera and the quality of those images will not be able to compete with any recent images from your high megapixel DSLR.
How Do I Know What Sizes to Print?
The answer to this will come down to a few factors: wall space and cost. If you're showing in a funky coffee shop, the space provided to you may vary, as it won't necessarily be a long white wall that you'd have in a gallery. In this case, you can go with different sizes. At a minimum, you want to print 11"x14", plus mat and frame. An image smaller than that just won't show as well. You want to take advantage of the space and let your images pop.
If you do have a long, open space, it's better to print the same sizes and have continuity like your theme. A minimum of 16"x20" prints, plus mat and frame, bode well to large spaces. If your theme requires more than a few images, then go for the smaller image of a 16"x20" and show more rather than only a few larger ones. The more images you can show, while sticking in the realm of visibility and what makes sense on the wall, the more people will have a chance to connect with your work. Every situation will be at least slightly different. Use common sense, factor in cost, and think it through. Visit the space so you can be very familiar with it and to see what others are doing with it. Looking at a wall that your work is going to be displayed on gives you a whole new perspective!
How Expensive is an Exhibit?
Between your prints, framing and any active PR you do, the cost can add up. Yet, there are ways to keep it down to a reasonable cost while having a quality showing. Order your prints well in advance to ensure they're what you want and look good. You can use an online site for printing to keep the cost down compared to a photography store's costs. If you have a website with a company like SmugMug, your prints are at wholesale and very reasonable to start with. Their frames aren't inexpensive though. For those, shop around for a good deal on the size you need.
You'll likely want a mat and not just the frame, but there are many frames out there that come with mats. It's also a good idea to keep the frames simple and the same. You want to show your images, not the frame. The frame is just that, an object that enhances, not takes away from, your image. A nice black frame with a mat (again, stay with the same color, such as an off-white) will allow your image to take center stage. Black is universally sophisticated and clean. In some cases, I've seen landscape photographers who use artistically based wooden frames. While these frames go with their theme of landscape, I noticed that the frames drew in my attention before the photos did and competed greatly for the viewers' attention. Not only will it keep your cost down, but by keeping the frames and mats simple, you let your photography stand out and be memorable.
Is it Costly To Promote?
PR is another cost altogether. Social media is one way to get the word out about your exhibit, but if you're like most photographers, a lot of your online connections are not local and likely won't be at the show. Find out if the venue does any PR around your exhibit. If not, consider letting your local newspaper know about it as well as photography teachers in the schools. Fliers can be helpful, but be sure they are of a certain quality that matches your work and message. Word of mouth is often very effective and it's free. Let all of your friends, colleagues, and family know about it.
If you're in a space that holds an actual opening, there may be costs involved with food and drinks. All of this should be found out ahead of time and factored into your budget and time frame. Coffee shops will likely just have you come in and hang your pieces on the first of the month with no fuss. Order a latte and enjoy the hanging ceremony!
Having your photographs on display is a great way to promote yourself to your own clients as well. Put a comment on your website, and tell new clients about it. It might be the clincher that causes them to hire you and not your competitor.
Will I Sell Prints and Make Money?
The venues where you'll be showing might or might not allow you to include prices for your work. They will, however, let you have a bio and information about your work on display. If you're not able to put prices next to the images, be sure to note in your write up that prints are available for sale. Include your website, e-mail address, and a phone number (if you're comfortable doing so) for contact information.
One thing to realize is that having an exhibit does not automatically translate to sales. This is your chance to show your work, and expectations of sales should be minimal. That doesn't mean you won't sell your work, it just means not to expect to. You're doing this for the excitement and rush of having your images in print on a wall in a public venue. That's a huge step beyond your Facebook friends seeing your photos blended in with all the other photographs in their Newsfeed.
What Will My Final Presentation Look Like on Display?
That's primarily up to you based on the images you choose, the framing, matting, size and organization of your theme. It also will depend on the lighting provided. Try and pick a venue that provides sufficient lighting for showing off your images. The big picture display ought to be a vision you've clarified all along. Some people do step out of the norm and go radical with displays. This would be appropriate in an eclectic setting. Consider your venue and your work as the biggest part of your vision.
What Happens Next?
The viewing period for exhibits varies by venue, but let's assume your work will be on display for a month. Don't stop letting people know about it after the first night. Keep people in the loop who couldn’t make it to your opening if you had one.
A month is a long time to have your work out there in the world. Take advantage of each day. Stop by on occasion and be sure it looks as good as it did the first night... that the glass on the frames is clean and the frames themselves are level. Respond readily to anyone who contacts you about prints (that should go without saying). Ensure that your bio sheet hasn't wrinkled. Ideally, you'll be able to frame and hang it as well, but there are times it will just be a printed sheet hanging below one of your images. It could get bumped and scuffed up, so check in with a freshly printed one ready to hang.
Consult with the venue as to which day and time works best to take your work down. Thank them for the show, and send a thank-you card when it's over. Personal contacts and kind gestures go a long way in a community for artists. You want to build the reputation that not only is your photography wall-worthy, but that you're an artist who is a delight to work with.
Last, but definitely not least, have a friend take a photo of you with your display. That's the photo you want to post on your Facebook wall.
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