The argument for photography being the most successful form of visual
Communication is supported by the fact that most of the estimated one trillion photos taken worldwide in the last 12 months were made for the primary purpose of sharing events and experiences with others. Most images today are taken with cell phones and shared with little or no editing. While fine art photographers use more sophisticated equipment and spend countless hours editing and fine-tuning their images, the desire to with others is equally compelling.
The Internet is a diverse and relatively easy way to accomplish this, just as it is for the casual photographer. But, if you are strongly enamored with the look and “feel” of large prints, and treasure richness, fine detail and clarity, digital screens are no substitute for the real thing. In this case, your most satisfying direction will be to exhibit your prints in public forums. This has been my direction, as I’ve been making prints for 64 years and still get excited by first-rate images on paper. If this describes your feelings, and you’re starting to explore ways of exhibiting and selling your prints, this article is likely to be of help.
I moved to Sedona, AZ in 2002 because it has strong environmental and arts tourism. A number of galleries feature work by the better-known local photographers, and it was not difficult to develop relationships with these galleries. Teaching digital photography at the School of the Arts in the Sedona Arts Center has also given credibility to my efforts. Credibility as an artist is crucial to developing gallery relationships.
Small arts-oriented towns give artists easier access to galleries and stores that cater to visitors. Even if you live in a large city, the chances are good that there is a district that depends on tourism, and art galleries will congregate there. These will offer you the best likelihood of establishing working relationships. You will need to do some research and legwork to find the right opportunities. In the meantime, here are some pointers:
1. Find a good match.
Spend time investigating which art galleries already display photography. Trying to convince a gallery owner who features paintings to exhibit your photographs is usually a waste of time. Personally visit each of these galleries and see the types of images that are on display. Do they present a variety of subjects? Do they specialize in one category such as landscapes, wildlife or human interest? Does a particular gallery work with emerging artists or does it only display work of established and historic artists? If you find a gallery with work that is analogous to yours then you are on the right track.
2. Prepare a portfolio before contacting gallery owners.
Select ten or twelve of your best images that are comparable to what you’ve seen in the gallery. Dry mount 8×10 images of your selections on 11×14 boards. It is best if your selection shows a body of work that clearly presents your vision and style. This can consist of a dozen different but related images in one category, or two or three categories of four to six images in each.
A small “collection” of related images
The following three images share a common theme of Sinaguan ruins with graphic rock overhangs.
Before meeting with the gallery, make sure that you are familiar with the sizes, prices and presentation styles of the artworks presented there so that you can knowledgably discuss how you would work with them. You should be able to state how long it would take to fill a custom order and replace sold items.
3. Prepare a one-page art biography
Of almost equal importance is composing a concise art biography that covers the highlights of your photography experience and achievements. This allows the gallery to see if you fit their requirements, and also serves as a sales tool for the gallery to help sell your work later on. Arts education, participation in other exhibits, awards and publication of your work are important to show in the bio.
Be selective and stay within one page.
Important gallery considerations
Gallery commissions: Almost all galleries work on consignment, with sales commissions usually ranging from 25% to 50% of retail price. Galleries with good locations and traffic are more apt to charge 50%. This has some cost implications, which will be discussed later.
Print size: Image size varies greatly between galleries, typically from 11×14 or 10×15 to 24×30 or 24×36 inches. Keep in mind that wall space is always at a premium, and you may have to choose between one or two larger pieces and three to five small to medium pieces. Choice of frame and matting is a factor here. The wider the frame and mat borders, the more wall space the artwork will require. Many galleries place upper limits on outer dimensions of framed pieces.
Almost all of my images cover a wide range of print sizes up to 24×36 inches without losing image quality, as I use high resolution cameras, currently a Pentax 645Z MF camera and a Sony A7r M2 ILC with 50 MP and 42 MP respectively. This simplifies matters as I often get custom requests through the galleries for non-inventory print sizes. Furthermore, some images look great in large prints but lose their impact in small prints. Most of the time you can make adjustments to contrast, vibrancy and sharpness to regain the lost impact.
Framing and mounting displays: This is an area that requires close attention. If you are paying 50% gallery commission and you spend $200 for framing your print, the price of your artwork has to increase by $400 in order to recapture your framing costs which could result in your work not selling. The solutions are first, to find the most reasonable framer (some photographers do their own framing); second, consider printing on metal or canvas which has other costs but don’t require expensive frames. Another consideration is to use durable framing materials that show little shop wear and can be re-used for a different image if the first one doesn’t sell. Anodized metal frames hold up better than wood in this respect, and are also more compatible with most people’s home and office décor.
Exercise control over the choice of mattes and frames. They are part of the finished artwork and greatly influence salability. A good mounting presentation subtly suggests quality and balance, but does not divert attention away from the image. Your framer may have good ideas. But you have more at stake. Not every image sells, so select frames that will complement a variety of images, as you will have to re-use some of them.
Another framing choice that compounds the cost problem is whether to use anti-refractive glass or plain glass. On a large artwork this can add another $100 to the cost and $200 to the sales price. But, the presentation is far better, particularly in a gallery with hard to control lighting that causes glare and reflections.
Some galleries allow sales of unframed matted prints that are shrink-wrapped. This has a number of advantages. Buyers are attracted to the large display pieces, but appreciate it when they can buy a smaller more moderately priced version. Unframed matted prints take up less space in the gallery making it possible for you to offer a range of images. They are also easier to ship and easier for the buyer to take with him in a car or on a plane.
Pricing: Retail gallery prices vary between geographical markets and between galleries as well, depending upon clientele and location. It is your job to become familiar with price points pursued by galleries of interest, and also to know something about the customers that patronize your gallery including why they’re visiting and what motivates them to acquire art during their visit, whether they’re locals or live in a different area.
As a starting point, the final retail prices that I set follow a rough formula, which is $0.75 per square inch of print area plus twice the cost of framing and matting. If I am selling to a gallery that charges less than 50% commission I may lower my price proportionately if that gallery is not in the immediate market area of the higher commission galleries. As a rule, it is advisable not to place your work simultaneously with galleries that compete directly with each other.
Special Gallery Exhibitions: Periodically, galleries stage themed exhibitions in which you might be asked to submit one or several pieces, and also annual or semi-annual judged contests requiring art jury review and acceptance. This is an easier way to start out with a new gallery, and doesn’t require inventory keeping and replacement. However, participation often requires you to help promote the event and to notify people that you know who might attend.
If you develop a successful relationship with a gallery, you may be invited to exhibit a small collection of your work for one or two months. Your body of work will typically range from six to twenty pieces, again depending on gallery size and the size of your artworks. This is good to include in your bio and is also a great ego booster. It also requires large framing and production expense outlays. In this event, you should prepare a realistic budget and then make some hard decisions.
Narrowly targeted images versus variety: In your early shows you are most likely to create and exhibit images that are similar to what the gallery usually displays. This is wise, since the gallery owner has experience with the tastes of his clientele and knows what sells. But almost every artist reaches a point where he or she is tired of doing the same things and wants to create and display something fresh and different. If the gallery visitors have a deeper interest in art regardless of subject, such as in Santa Fe NM, there will be little impact on salability. But, in those locations where visitors primarily shop for reminders of their visit, as in Sedona AZ and in other small picturesque towns, departing from the “same old” is more likely to interfere with sales. There are exceptions, particularly when an image has more universal appeal or is an exceptional artwork. But, the percentages are low. Recently, one of my images of an affectionate King penguin couple won second place in the professional division of an annual juried gallery competition. It didn’t sell during the next two months. One of the gallery workers told me: “It’s a wonderful photograph. But, penguins just don’t sell in Sedona.”
Examples of targeted images that sell well:
Over time, the Sedona art market has broadened to include images of other western locales popular with tourists, particularly other Arizona locations.
And, my best selling image of all time was taken in Utah. But, it has a compelling western theme as well as red rocks.
Exceptions to the rule:
The beauty and grace of egrets is appreciated by almost everyone. They are common throughout the American Southwest.
Every fine art photographer should experience exhibiting his or her work in art galleries. But, beyond initial ego gratification, the larger issue of financial return and time and effort required must be weighed before continuing in this mode. The facts are that in today’s commercial art environment a fine art photographer should consider himself lucky if he gets his cash investment back with little compensation for time and effort. This is true even for many established photographers who receive most of their income from non-gallery sources.
I have exhibited in galleries for 13 years, and have sold hundreds of fine art prints. Considering sunk costs in non-selling inventory, this is not currently a moneymaking proposition. Eight years ago it was, but not presently. Withdrawing is not a good option as it takes years to re-establish presence after being gone from the market place. The alternative is to be selective in choosing exhibit participation, to reduce outlays by restricting image size, and to re-use frames.
Kevin Raber asked me whether I measure success in gallery sales or in the number of viewers. The answer is a little of both. But, there is an overarching consideration to which years of gallery exhibition have contributed. The need to continually refine and adjust my work to sell in a tough market has definitely sharpened my vision and skills. I have seen a more definable style emerge as well. The exposure has lent cachet and has laid the groundwork for more publishing and possible art museum exhibition. In that larger sense, I consider my gallery participation to have been both rewarding and successful.