Fine-Art Photographers on the Key Decisions that Helped Build Their Careers

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Fine-art photographers build their careers and sell prints not only by making outstanding work, but also by nurturing a network of people who support it. Photographers have to get their work in front of curators, gallery directors, publishers and others who are in a position to raise their visibility, recommend them for shows, residencies or prizes and, in the process, help them meet collectors and museum curators. How do photographers choose to get their work seen and noticed? To find out, we interviewed more than a dozen fine-art photographers about the decisions they have made while establishing their careers. 

Many of the photographers we interviewed emphasized that overnight success is rare. “People are a little trepidatious about investing in artists who don’t yet have a track record,” says Ron Jude. “The trick is getting those first couple of opportunities, and I think getting those first couple of opportunities requires a certain amount of tenacity and persistence.” Photographer Bryan Schutmaat compares his progression from small group shows to bigger shows, and eventually to showing in the San Francisco Museum of Art, to “paying your dues,” akin to “something a musician does, where you play the open mic, then you play the local bar and next thing you know you’re playing in the big concert hall.”

At each step in the climb, photographers had decisions to make about presenting and promoting their work. 

An image by Zora J Murff. Murff says he sometimes asks colleagues for feedback on works in progress, but his own experience publishing images when he was still an undergraduate taught him not to share a series publicly until he is ready to stand by it. © Zora J Murff

Photographer Zora J Murff, who teaches at University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, says his students are eager to show their work as soon as they have made it. With the internet speeding up the sharing of new art all the time, he says, “There’s an anxiety that if you don’t get it out there quickly enough someone will beat you to it.” He advises his students not to “latch onto their original idea” but to wait and see how a series evolves. Murff was still an undergraduate when a professor urged him to submit his images of kids in a juvenile probation program to a photo blog. “If you dig deep enough in a Google search, there are some terrible photos of mine out there,” Murff says. Since getting his MFA, he has at times asked colleagues for feedback on works in progress, but he no longer shows work publicly until he feels he can stand by it. 

Jennifer Garza-Cuen also cautions against the temptation to put work out before you are confident of the direction you are headed. “Consistency of vision is important,” she says. “If you come out with one look and then the next day come out with something completely different, people often think: This person’s all over the place, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Photographers who move from assignment work to the fine-art world have to learn to think about organizing their work “in a physical way, not a digital way,” says Preston Gannaway, who has shot editorial assignments. For commercial photographer Reuben Wu, that meant not only learning how to print and edition his work, but also how to put together a cohesive series. He was offered a chance to exhibit some images he had shot for himself, but after he landed a residency at LATITUDE lab in Chicago, which is designed to help photographers “learn how to develop their art,” Wu began to “think effectively about my bodies of work.” Rather than exhibiting a collection of single images, he says, “I needed to go back to square one.” He embarked on “Lux Noctis,” the breakthrough series that he eventually published as a book.

© McNair Evans/Courtesy of Tracey Morgan Gallery
McNair Evans wanted to show images from Confessions for a Son, shot in North Carolina, to curators in the South. He submitted the work to the juried exhibition SlowExposures when the photo curator of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art was a juror, and won first prize. © McNair Evans/Courtesy of Tracey Morgan Gallery

There are numerous ways for photographers to get a body of work in front of industry people: portfolio reviews, juried shows or competitions, photography and art blogs and other publications. Which ones photographers choose depends on their goals and their resources. 

Most photographers assess a juried show or competition by researching the jurors. Murff, for example, asks, “Is it someone who is really engaged now in the field? Otherwise you’re kind of throwing your money away.”   

Rafael Soldi says that at the beginning of his career, he entered a lot of competitions. “I would think: Maybe this opportunity isn’t a total fit for me, but there’s a really great curator or an interesting person that I want to get my work in front of.” He applied for a show at Griffin Museum because Kathy Ryan, director of photography at The New York Times Magazine, was involved. When she didn’t pick him, he was disappointed until the Griffin’s curator Paula Tognarelli, who had also seen his submission, offered him a show. “A great opportunity came out of what [I thought] was a failure,” Soldi says.  

When McNair Evans finished his project “Confessions for a Son,” which he shot around his family home in North Carolina, he hoped to interest museums in the South. He learned that Brett Abbott, then photo curator at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and Julian Cox, who had recently left the High to become chief photography curator for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, were judging a 2013 exhibition for SlowExposures, an organization that highlights photography from the South. Evans submitted his work, and when he won first place, “Julian and Brett did a juror’s walk-through, they spoke publicly about my work, and that gave me the opportunity to introduce myself.” He was also offered a solo show at the SlowExposures festival the following year. 

All Photos © Reuben Wu
Images from Reuben Wu’s “Aeroglyphs” series. This year, photo-eye gallery displayed Wu’s images at the AIPAD photo fair.
All Photos © Reuben Wu

Awards and residencies give artists “a kind of gravitas,” says Gannaway, who was an artist in residence at LightWork in 2018. “It’s a marketing thing. It’s about trying to get people to see your work in a certain way.” Awards also impress collectors. Though Bryan Shutmaat had already been in group shows and sold prints before he won the Aperture Portfolio Prize in 2013, he says, “After that [prize], I saw a pronounced shift in who was getting in contact. It was more people who had serious collections.” 

For some photographers, winning a prestigious award provided a “calling card” that helped them get meetings with galleries or museums. When Jude won the Ferguson Award from Friends of Photography in San Francisco, the non-profit offered him a solo show, which he could then mention when asking museum curators for meetings. “In the art world, pre-validation goes a long way,” says Jude.

But many of these opportunities require an entry fee. Being offered a show at a non-profit brings recognition and prestige, but the photographer is responsible for the costs of printing and framing. When Jenny Riffle was invited to be in a group show and then to have a solo show at the nonprofit Newspace Center for Photography in Oregon, she was glad for the opportunity. Around the same time, she had received the Aaron Siskind Fellowship grant, an $8,000 prize. She used some of the money to print her show, which then traveled to RayKo Gallery in San Francisco, the Griffin Museum of Photography in Massachusetts and Center for Fine Art Photography in Colorado. “It would have been so hard if I didn’t have that money” from the grant, she says. 

Garza-Cuen says, “Unless you are independently wealthy, that’s often the biggest decision: Where are you going to make your sacrifices? What are you going to put your money toward: Making more work or getting the work out there? Are you going to spend it on a portfolio review, framing for a show, or a new series?”

When Garza-Cuen was a student at RISD, her teachers advised her to go to lots of photo festivals “where you sit down and show your work to photo world professionals, publishers and curators.” At the time, however, money was tight and she was taking care of her aging father. “I wasn’t pursuing shows because I didn’t have the money to print and frame. Instead, I found another way to get my work out there through publishing in photo blogs, online magazines and eventually print media—which didn’t cost me money.” She also applied to organizations offering residencies. Getting work out takes perseverance, she says. “In my case, people often contact me directly for prints.” 

When Wu finished editing his personal series “Lux Noctis,” he says, “Rather than sending it to galleries, I posted it online and sent it to art blogs. I was able to get a lot of press.” The attention “boosted my presence outside of Instagram, which is important.” 

But more helpful in building his fine-art contacts, he says, was the advice photographer Jeffrey Milstein gave him to take his work to a big portfolio review. Attending Photolucida proved “an important link in the chain to getting where I am now,” he says. At the portfolio review, he met his future publisher, Kris Graves, who later introduced him to the director of photo-eye Gallery, which signed Wu this year.

Cig Harvey believes a portfolio review is a good bet for photographers who want to get their work in front of a lot of industry people. “If one of them could potentially highlight your career, then that’s a good investment,” she says. “I’ve flown to New York just for one meeting and it didn’t go well and I came home shuffling my shoes, you know.” She notes that it is important to vet both the reviewers and the portfolio review. “You have to do your homework and check which [portfolio reviews]are working for people, and that changes over time, too.”  

© Rafael Soldi
Photographer Rafael Soldi installing an exhibition. © Rafael Soldi

Some photographers, especially those focused on selling to museums, rather than individual collectors, prefer to represent their own work. And to some photographers, the business of commercial galleries can stifle their early career evolution. “I’ve seen people who got picked up by galleries straight out of grad school and have been essentially re-doing their graduate work over and over,” Soldi says. Photographers should continue to evolve as artists, he says, but “they’re unable to move on because they’re in a gallery structure that doesn’t really allow for that.”

After Jennifer Colten had landed some exhibitions in the 1990s, she considered seeking gallery representation. But when she was raising her kids and slowed down her art-making, she stopped looking for a gallery. “I wanted the flexibility and freedom to make my own decisions and not be driven by someone else’s calendar” or exhibition schedule, she says. In the past five years, with her kids grown, she has shot new series, including “The American Bottom,” about the Midwest floodplain where she lives and teaches. She has also exhibited some of her Midwestern landscapes in free public spaces. In collaboration with The Center for Land Use Interpretation, she has shown the work in a mobile trailer, drawing “local communities as well as the art audience.” She enjoys opportunities to meet visitors who know the history of the landscapes she photographs. 

Last year, when the Denver Art Museum included some of Colten’s images in “New Territory: Landscape Photography Today,” she met several collectors at the opening. They asked who represents her. “I continue to represent myself, and said that. No one looked down on that at all,” she says. But their queries got her thinking about a gallery. “Possibly what I want is both: the ability to make the work that goes into the trailer and into the mayor’s office, and also in the gallery.”

© Jennifer Garza-Cuen
“Amtrak Waiting Room, Reno, Nevada,” by Jennifer Garza-Cuen. © Jennifer Garza-Cuen

There are now fewer galleries showing photographers, and some photographers are tempted to go with anyone who is willing to show their work. Others do careful research before approaching a gallery. 

McNair Evans, who is now repped by Tracey Morgan Gallery in Asheville, NC, and EUQINOM Gallery in San Francisco, says that to choose galleries to contact, “I went through websites to get sense of kind of work they did. That helped me create short list of people whose work and ideologies—what they value in art—was aligned with my own.”

“Different galleries have different ways of going about things,” Schutmaat notes. Some simply want to sell your work while others want to be involved in developing a photographer’s career. “You’re going to be indebted to that gallery in a certain way. And if that’s not the right person, you might find yourself in an awkward position in the future.”

Over time, as a photographer’s work or career goals change, a gallery may no longer fit. Looking back, Jude says the gallery relationship he had in the 1990s was not a good choice for him in the long term. “I think it was based entirely on one body of work,” he says. When his newer work didn’t look like his old work, the gallery balked. He explains that at the time he signed with that gallery, another gallery had also been interested in his work, but could not promise him a show right away. The gallery that would not show him right away “probably would have been a better relationship in the long term. I was young, and I wanted that New York show and I went for the one who wanted to give me the show in two months. They were a great gallery, and I still really respect them, but it only made sense for one particular body of work. That’s not a good long-term relationship.”

© Lisa Kereszi
“Disco Ball in Box, Connecticut” by Lisa Kereszi. © Lisa Kereszi.

Before graduate school, Lisa Kereszi worked in New York, at Lexington Labs, then at Nan Goldin’s studio. During that time,  Joe Amrhein at Pierogi Gallery, located in Brooklyn at that time, began to represent her. Later, after she got her MFA, Kereszi got a meeting with gallery director Yancey Richardson and they stayed in touch. Four years after they met, Richardson offered to represent her. That required a split with Pierogi that “felt like a divorce. It was uncomfortable, and unpleasant, and unhappy and sad,” Kereszi says. She had enjoyed working with Pierogi, she says, “But my ambition and my goal was that I wanted to show at one of the top galleries in Manhattan, so when that opportunity presented itself, I had to move on.”

Signing with multiple galleries in different cities gives a photographer a way to reach a wider, more geographically diverse pool of collectors. But it also places a burden on the photographer to be the intermediary among galleries who have different concerns. Cig Harvey, who is represented by galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, London and Rome, says she maintains a database so each gallery can track where all her prints are, how many prints in an edition have sold and at what price. “I love being out making pictures, that’s my happy place, but most of my day is spent doing spreadsheets and replying to emails and things like that,” she says. She adds, “The business side of working with galleries, while it’s not the most difficult thing, is something that is very important.” 

Related:
Fine-Art Photographers on Finding Their Career Paths

How to Sell Your Fine-Art Prints: A Primer

What (and How) Photography Collectors Buy Now

How to Put Together a Standout Submission for Open Calls, Awards and Juried Reviews

The Lessons and Influence of Great Photography Teachers


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