Notes from a Gallery Talk – Don't Quit Your Day Job

Blue water abstract from along the Texas coast, Port Aransas, Texas, Gulf of Mexico
BlueWater, originally uploaded by carolsLittleWorld.

This post might as well be entitled “Don’t Quit Your Day Job” because the world is filled with people who want to quit their day jobs, turn “pro” (whatever they have taken this to mean) and start making a “killing” shooting photography. After a wonderful gallery talk last night and, of course, over years of experience, I’d have to advise: Don’t Quit Your Day Job! Here are some of the details (notes really) on what I discussed last night.

There is a lot of good photography out there. Your work might very well be unbeatable but, before you quit your day job and just start “taking snaps” you need to ask yourself some hard, downright difficult questions. Who is going to buy it? Who will hang it on the wall? Who do you expect to sell your work to?

You have to know what might sell before you can even think about starting to sell. You have to build a market, build an audience, build a following, before you can sell. This is not always easy to do.

There are many reasons to take pictures. Some people like history, some like to document what happened when, some people like mementos, cherish memories, some like to visit landmarks. Each of these is a good reason to stop and take a photo, yes, I’m not saying don’t do that, I’m just saying it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible to pay your bills, put food on the table by doing that (and that alone.) Many of the people who are so-called “successes” of the industry have worked for years. (You’ve read here before how long I have been doing this, and also can probably gather that, not only have I been doing this for 20+ years now, I don’t have children or a lot of distractions and I live very frugally to allow myself the “luxury” of “doing” photography.) Even the Houston Center for Photography, sure it looks like a big place now, but seven years ago, they were about to close. There are shows, there have been in the past, where not one piece has sold. Big shows, in big places (bigger than what you are doing, I’m sure.) Take that to heart.

Many people assume art is an “event” and not a product. They don’t even realize, connect the dots if you will, that when they attend a fancy function, the artwork is actually for sale. Many artists go to gallery shows, get all dressed up, and only attend with other artists. You have to work (hard!) get the public involved. Too many people are disconnected. They think they’ve gone to a show and they’ve “done art.” It’s your job, as an artist, to work and change that, to build that following, to get people into that gallery that are there to purchase, not just peek, and not just other artists.

In the old days, the galleries were overrun (they still are!) with other photographers, asking about paper, chemistry, cameras, etc. It was almost like the space was divided into two groups: the photographers and those there to meet the photographers. Not one, not one single person buys a photo and cares about what camera you used to take it. This is important, so let me repeat that.

AHEM….May I have your attention, please! Not one, not one single person out there, will likely purchase one of your photos because of the camera you used. Buyers care about pictures, they are not interested in photography! (Get that through your thick head, no matter how hard it might hurt to hear it.) Yes, you spent tons of money on a great camera, I’m happy and proud of you, but the sad reality is that not one person will buy your work because you have a great camera. They buy the shot not the camera.

Nobody asks what kind of camera was used. NOBODY. Let me say that again. NOBODY ASKS WHAT KIND OF CAMERA YOU USE. If they are asking, odds are they are just another photographer and not a true buyer. Some buyers are drawn to things like “squares” they like square images, for example, and, yes, it’s true, many photographers use the same type of camera gear but your camera gear will not sell photos, you will. Use a pen and paper. Get business cards. Talk to people. Talk to a lot of people to sell work and don’t just talk to other artists.

What buyers do like, and what they can recognize is the BEST PRINT. Learn how to print. Master the print. Be the print. Anybody, almost anybody off the street can walk into a gallery and, when presented with two prints, will be able to pick out the best one. Invest in good prints, in a good printer, don’t cheat here. Learn how to do it right and do it well.

Tastes change over time too. Prints from back then now look dated. We tend to look at them and go, “man, that’s harsh!” Get used to it. It’s a bit like fashion. (Don’t bell bottoms look a bit silly now too?)

If you’re thinking about selling prints for a living, lay your work out next to a Keith Carter or a Jack Spencer or a *something that is selling* in your area (in your market.) Ask yourself, be honest…how does it compare? If you cannot A/B your work next to this type of work, if you cannot honestly look down at the table (with the two prints laid out) and think, “I’d rather have that one!” while pointing to your print, you will not sell. Nope. Not going to happen. Deal with it.

When somebody walks into a galley, or into one of your shows, one of these people who are not fellow artists (or photographers) have 1001 things to talk about besides art. That’s the key there: BESIDES ART! People coming in and buying are asking themselves, “what do I want to look at everyday?” Make art an outside circle. A successful show is almost always one where there are few other artists there but a lot of buyers. To get people to buy (and not just walk around) let people make their own connections to the work. When they feel it’s personal, when they relate to the story of the piece, that’s what they buy. If a piece touches the heartstrings, they are hooked and will buy. Aim for your art to be transcendent in this manner. Work that sells will hook ’em this way. Think about Keith Carter’s fireflies shot. In that photo it’s Keith and his brother (it’s not actually) it’s Whittliff and his brother, it’s you and your brother. It’s any man and his brother when they were kids. Bingo! There’s a top seller. The overlaps, the connections, are what draw people in. When they see themselves in your work, that’s when you know you’ve hooked them. When you evoke their memories, when they pick up on your vision, that’s when you know you have them.

It’s all about quality. Work hard to get the best prints. Spend the time. Branch out and do other stuff. Almost all successful artists do other arts as well. Ansel Adams played the piano. Many play music, draw, do lots of artistic things. Cross-discipline brings a lot to the artistic table so practice it. One of my favorite quotes from the night was, “it all goes together to make a gumbo,” and it does, it really does.

Jack Spencer spent years perfecting his printing process before he started selling. Now, he sells lots. He trained himself to varnish, perfected his “chemistry” and worked hard at getting just the right “look” before he started selling. Spend the time to do this and it will have its rewards. There are few overnight successes in this field. Just like music and acting, many other arts, you have to work long and hard at it. There are a lot of hours and lot of time spent doing stuff you would rather not do, but have to do to get ahead. Printing here comes to mind. You must perfect your printing, even if it means giving up some time shooting, but you must shoot too, so be prepared to just work, work, work at it all. All of this while your daily life goes on, marches on.

Finally, have so much work. Produce, produce, produce! The more work you have, the more you can edit, the more success you will have. Strive to have a lot of high quality (the best quality!) work and then work to sell it.

These are my first notes from the gallery talk, I will have more later, including my (new!) take on “cohesive” shows (aka “The Cohesive Body of Work is DEAD, Jim!)

Until next time…

1 Comment

  1. Great Grandma Lin
    August 1, 2012 / 7:26 pm

    interesting insider tips…

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