I have spent the last 20 years building an exhibiting career in photography. I have had my moments but I’m a long way from being a household name. After working in Beijing in a major gallery, I re-examined the strategies I employed and the outcomes I got from using these strategies. This article is in part for young artists on the ascent of their careers and trained photographers who work in the commercial sphere looking to move into art photography, to give them some idea of ‘the game’ of art photography and how it is played.
The art world is not interested in beauty; it is interested in ideas.
If the idea is great then the work can be banal, as can been seen in much of the celebrated work of the Dusseldorf school. If the idea is great and the work is beautiful, it makes commercial galleries more interested. Since the 1970s, particularly in photography, there has been a split between the commercial and art sectors of the medium. This has shrunk again with artists/photographers like Anne Liebowitz having their commercial output exhibited and editioned. After all, private galleries are interested in sales, curators in public museums are interested in international reputation.
Each artist must stake out their territory.
This can be style (Warhol), colour (Klein - blue), method (Bernd and Hilla Becher - cataloging), a question (Mapplethorpe - what is beauty), identity (Tracy Moffat - contemporary experience of being indigenous). My own is: what is a man, and what can we learn from other cultures about who they conceptualise being a man? Not a particularly ‘now’ topic in international art circles, who are, currently, more interested in feminism as a challenge to masculinity. What I look at is masculinity’s internal crisis, where the hegemonic, media representations and the lived experience do not correlate.
The role of biography has become increasingly important.
White heterosexual males from upper and middle classes are no longer in favour, they still dominate the top tiers of the market. Getting the right pitch on how you tell your story is important; no, vital. Get this wrong and people will feel compelled to ignore your work. The more marginalised you and your experience is, the better. Remember the curators and directors of galleries are overwhelmingly western born, middle and upper-middle class and usually Caucasian. Interestingly in the Australian context art photography is female dominated. I’m told this is because the contemporary art positions are tightly held by white men.
Each practitioner needs to find empathetic curators and gallery owners.
These people share the artist’s vision and have a vested interest in the territory the artist has staked out. Mapplethorpe found Sam Shepherd for instance. Without Shepherd, Mapplethorpe’s work would not have gotten the attention it did. This can only really be done by making appointments and showing work. This is something I was never really comfortable doing. Further, curators and gallery owners are also staking out territory, so often the people you think should be big supporters, will react negatively, for reasons you’ll never fully understand. Do not be pushy. Make appointments, be organized, be professional. They will be judging your ability to produce a show on time by how you present to them. Participate in portfolio showings at photographic festivals. This is the best way to get your work in front of receptive audiences of the right people. Be aware that curators are like art directors in advertising companies; they get to see a lot of work and they get to be choosy. They also often only show work they love once. One of the more interesting experiences I had was showing my work at ChaochangdI PhotoSpring: many incredibly important art people from all over the world where there but they were there to see new Chinese practitioners.
The racial/identity politics in the fine art world are fascinating. The WENA (Western Europe and North American) galleries where most of photography’s gatekeeping is done, is dominated by people of European decent. They are very aware of racial politics and post colonial thought and how they might fit into it, this can affect which artists they choose.
Australian photography galleries come and go; only a few survive in the long term.
There is not a large market for photography in Australia. Further, artists working in photomedia want to be in galleries with painters. The prices paid for photography are low, compared to other media. For the practitioner, this means they will be asked to cover costs. So the photographs that makes the walls of many of Australia’s galleries are made by people who can afford to pay to have it there. There are exceptions to this, like Australian Centre of Photography (ACP) and Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) but how long they can continue to offer artists money to show with the Australia Council not having it’s funding renewed? There is not a lot of commercial sponsorship available for unknown artists. During the 1990s we had a major push in the photographic print market, particularly from Byron Mapp Gallery in Paddington. This gallery did shows by the biggest names in 20th century photography, like Cartier-Bresson and Salgado, with all the prints for sale. Most galleries specialising in photo media disappear after a few years.
The main venues for exhibiting photo media are publicly funded national, state and local galleries, or others such as the CCP and ACP which exist due to government grants. Others survive with a mix with donations and events, or are attached to other businesses. There is a revival of sorts happening now, with 10x8 and x88 galleries in Sydney for example, although X88 has not updated its website in some months. The model for starting a gallery is changing. x88 is attached to a printing house. 10x8 runs as a photographic education centre as well. Sun Studios rents and sells equipment. The old model of the gallery as a quiet place to sell work does not function well in photography. Even Bryon Mapp Gallery had a cafe and bookshop at the beginning. Pineapple Lab in Manila has a rental studio that doubles as a performance space most nights.
Getting your exhibition written about is difficult.
Even with the rise in blogging, the amount of critical attention photo media exhibitions are getting is discouraging. This is one area that needs to be addressed. There is some amazing critical writing, but if we are going to grow the market this needs to be much more pronounced and coordinated. Having writer friends is important.
As a practitioner we need to come to grips with the new reailties in photography.
As one critic put it, we are in an age where we make photographs of everything and look at none of them. Photography is consumed and no longer pondered. The book is dying as is the idea of precious. We live under more stress, with our electronic libraries. We as practitioners want people to stop, and look, to see, and think about the work we make. In a way the print is more precious because we are making less. So what purpose does it serve? Partly as a link to great moment and a great idea, partly the link to an artist, partly decorative, partly an investment.
There is a relentless need for the new in the art world and a cataloguing of what has gone before.
I showed black and white gelatine prints for the last time in 2002/3. Analogue is a major statement if you choose it as a medium to present new work. Unless you made your name in analogue and have a supportive gallery. This has had the effect of closing off the edition numbers for most black and white fine prints. Being an artist is like surfing, you ride each wave as best you can and make the most of it. There is no guarantee of more waves.
The number of prints made by photographers has evolved.
The movement separating art and commerce which happened in the 1970s had another more profound affect on photography as art. Mid-century artists would print as many prints as people would buy, but with the more formal move into the art gallery there is a demand to limit the amount of prints. The most famous practitioners make between 3 and 25 prints, and usually stick to the lower side. This allows the prices to be pushed up. The artist indirectly benefits. They can sell for more at higher prices at the next show. it is worth noting that, now, as always, the rich, who have spare money to buy your work, wish to profit from it- they don’t really care if you do or don’t. This is problematic to most artists. When I set out I did editions of 25. This was stupid. As Sandra Byron explained, can you make more great photographs in the future? Then keep the number of prints low as they will sell better and you can always more more photographs (not prints). Now I wish I had made only 5 of any negative or file and will do that in the future.
Photography is a tournament, like most other careers.
The people at the top make huge amounts of money; those at the bottom work for free. By doing 25 print editions I thought I was providing for my future, but ironically it meant that I never got traction. I love the irony of counter intuitive realities. If I had only 5 print with staggered pricing, they would sell. Think this through: if I buy Print One at $500, Print Two is $750 and I feel great as I just made 50% profit. There is a compelling reason to purchase fast, or it will rise in price. I sell two prints and then there is urgency if collectors want to enter my market. The number of prints you sell at your first show will directly help or hinder your future. Sell out and you produce buzz and your next show will sell out. My first show sold one print. Going back and looking at the work again, and considering the audience at the opening, it should have sold better. My fault.
It is more important to get your work on the walls of collectors than in your cupboard.
I did a deal where a designer looked after a catalogue for me, and exchanged his time for prints. He hung the prints in his home alongside his Dupain and many of the early heroes of Australian photography. Each person who comes to his home see this. It is some of the best PR I ever had. If your work is being seen in homes of collectors, then people will recognise it as important.
Your goal as a photo media artist has to be in 5-10 years’ time, not one show.
Having exhibitions is only one aspect of making a success of yourself. It is all about the gatekeepers: the gallery owners, curators and collectors. When enough of them approve of your work, then you are ‘collectable’ and you can make serious money. Some people will rise quickly; others will make works all their lives and ever sell. I like to think of myself as a Van Gogh, that one day the importance of my work, in questioning the warrior and championing the scholar masculinity will one day be recognized. So to that end I’m entering contests, organising exhibitions, and finding collections to offer my work to. I make work because it helps me understand the world I’m in. I am compelled to make my art.
These are my observations from 20 years of seriously exhibiting without getting muchntraction. Some of what I have written is counter-intuitive. We dream of quick success and fame; it comes for few. If we want to be in this industry we need to understand the incentives and motives guiding the sector. Perhaps in this there is also a new model for a gallery that promotes photography. One that works with photographers to build up their reputation while the practitioner works with the gallery to gain the publicity and help in getting their prints placed on walls and in collections. Given the chance, I would do things very differently over the last 20 years.