Thoughts on Exhibiting Photography
I told myself never again. Never again would I participate in another solo exhibit of my work. It’s a money losing proposition, always. A simple case of not enough return on investment. So, it was with surprise to hear myself agreeing to an exhibit of my work that is currently running at a local venue. Fifteen pieces went up, and I fully expect 15 pieces will be coming home with me when it ends. I believed that would be the case the moment I was approached last spring to exhibit. So, why did I say yes? Am I a glutton for punishment, a sadomasochist? Quite possibly. Am I just stupid? Most definitely. However, that’s not why I agreed to it.
I’m certain this sounds familiar to many working photographers. How many of us have stacks of beautifully framed photos leaning against the wall of our home office? Hundreds of dollars of inventory just sitting there, collecting dust. Seems like not the brightest of financial moves. But, what are our options? In the digital age social media is obviously the most popular platform for showing our work, as imperfect and crappy as it is. Most of our photos will be nothing more than bytes on a computer. Think about it, how often do we see our work in tangible print form? I would love to print my work more often, but to what end? I simply can’t afford to do it without a reason. An exhibit gives me that reason. It’s an opportunity to display my work the way it should be. Beautiful prints professionally framed. Even I am sometimes wowed when I see the final product. Yes, it makes little financial sense, but as an artist we can’t always think with our wallet. Clearly, we do this for reasons other than financial. No artist has ever chosen art as a way of life for the money.
Over the years I’ve thought often about exhibits and how the general public perceives landscape photography. Do they consider it an art form on par with painting and other media? I have participated in an annual juried group exhibit at a local arts center for many years now, and it’s given me insight into what types of landscape/nature photos sell, at least in that market. It’s a mixed media exhibit, with paintings comprising the majority of the pieces. I always include one black-and-white photo and a color photo. The black-and-white pieces never sell. Which tells me, when it comes to photography the general public wants photographs based in “reality.” Ironically, I believe it’s this desire for reality that prevents photography from being sold. It too closely resembles what we can see with our own eyes. Why hang something on our walls that looks like what we see out the window? Van Gogh’s Starry Night looks nothing like reality, but because it’s a painting it’s not expected to, whereas photography is. Painting by its nature is abstract, photography is not. Consequently, do people perceive photographs as less artistic than paintings because they are based in the literal? Most photographers know what photography can be, but does the general public, those that will be (in theory) buying our work? Are they willing to accept photography that is more personal and goes beyond objective representation? In my experience, the answer is no.
As artists I believe we are at least partially responsible for this disconnect. It is our job to educate our audience, to inform them of the potentialities of photography. If we show them nothing but the spectacular, how will they learn to appreciate subtlety and nuance, to find beauty in the mundane? Through example we can show them that photography can be a tool of creative and personal expression. We can produce photos that are subjective in nature and have deeper meaning beyond obvious appearances and location. If we do that, perhaps our audience will not only become aware of what can be, but will also be more accepting.