14.3 Putting Your Photos on Display

For many people, getting their very own artwork into a gallery where the general public can view it is a wonderfully satisfying achievement.  Once you’ve got to the point where you think your portfolio contains a number of images that are either exceptional in some way or would likely be of interest to general audiences, you might want to consider putting those photos on display in an art gallery or other exhibit.  Doing so can involve a very considerable amount of work, but for many people the chance to reach a wider audience is worth the effort.
    The first possibility you might consider is participating in an art show hosted by your employer or your school (if you
re a student).  Many employers support such events, viewing them as low-cost methods for improving workforce morale.  If your employer doesn’t have a yearly employee art show, consider approaching management about the possibility of starting one; all thats really needed is some after-hours office space and some volunteers to help organize the event (some wine and cheese can be good to have on hand as well, and neednt cost much).  My first public photo exhibit was at an employee art show hosted at a hospital, which afforded me the satisfaction of knowing that not only were a large number of people being exposed to my artwork, but also that by participating in the event I had the opportunity to possibly ease the suffering—no matter to what small degree—of the ill and the infirm.  Donating your artwork for auction by a non-profit organization is another way to contribute to the needy—whether needy humans or needy birds.  As just one example of the latter, some raptor rehabilitation facilities (such as the Carolina Raptor Center) depend on contributions such as these for much of their funding.

Fig. 14.3.1 : My photos on display at a local museum.  Small museums often have space
dedicated for rotating exhibits of local artists.  Sometimes they’ll even allow you to sell
prints of your works in their gift shop.

    Another promising avenue for getting your photos publicly displayed is to approach your local museums, cafes, and even doctors offices (especially veterinarians).  My first exclusive, multi-piece exhibit was at the local science museum.  Small-town museums very often have space dedicated to rotating exhibits of local artists.  Local cafés and coffee-shops (or similarly hip sandwich shops or the like) often will give local artists priority when choosing artwork for their walls.  Many small-town veterinarians will also take donations of animal-centric artwork from local artists.  Though I’ve yet to try it, I think frame shops (i.e., businesses that frame artwork) may be another good venue, especially if you happen to be a customer: an especially good piece with a frame installed by that shop may earn an extended claim to some bit of wall space in that shop.
    An especially promising venue is any local conservation group or outdoor club
whether youre a member or not.  These types of organizations often rely on sales of calendars or other visually-impactive media to supplement their funding, and free donations of quality bird images to these should be met with grateful acceptance.  Keep in mind that as a novitiate nature photographer your most valuable currency may well be exposure rather than monetary gain.  Once the people in your district, city, county, or state come to recognize your name as that of an accomplished (though perhaps still rising) local nature photographer, they may be rather more willing to invest in you by purchasing your printed works.

Fig. 14.3.2 : One of my photos on the
cover of a calendar put out by a local
nature association.  Small, nonprofit
organizations are often desperate for
donations of royalty-free images.

    Another important opportunity for exposure is via community art shows and local or regional art fairs.  Art fairs can be great places to both show your works and to sell prints.  They can also be great opportunities to meet other artists (whether bird photographers or otherwise) in your community, and to collect information about other local opportunities for getting your work displayed.  Many visitors to these shows are curious about the many details involved in getting the shots on display, and will ask numerous questions about your technique and your equipment.  If you like talking about your photos with other people—whether about the technical or artistic aspects—then doing art fairs should be right up your alley.

Fig. 14.3.3 : My booth at a local art fair consisted of part of a furniture
store that also happened to sell art and frames.  Many people came looking
for art but ended up buying furniture—and vice versa.

    Art fairs do tend to be somewhat labor-intensive.  First, you have to carefully pack your artwork, transport it to the fair, and then set up your display (sometimes under time constraints).  Then you have to stand around for six or eight hours and answer questions from hundreds of people—very often the same set of questions over and over again.  If your pieces are mounted on easels, just keeping an eye on them and trying to keep people (especially children) from knocking them over can be more than a bit nerve-wracking.  I once had someone kick out the leg on an easel that had five pieces mounted on it; none of them were damaged, but it made me a bit more nervous throughout the rest of the day as I watched the visitors file by. 

Fig. 14.3.4 : Setting up at an art show can be a lot of work.  Here are my
thirty-seven canvases (in the boxes) before I unpacked them and hung
them on the walls and on easels.  I was lucky in this case, in that the hosting
site had plenty of wall space and tables; some sites require you to bring a
portable booth and/or tables for all your display needs.

    In terms of the positive aspects of art fairs, one of the most satisfying for me is just hearing the high praise heaped on my works by visitors seeing them for the first time.  Any praise coming from a non-birder member of the general public is very high praise indeed, since most people aren’t as obsessed with birds as I am; to impress the average person with a photo of a
mere bird is therefore very encouraging.  When the average person steps up to your booth and suddenly says Wow!, you can be reasonably sure that the compliment implicit in that first reaction is genuine—something that’s hard to be certain of with the calculated opinions of friends and family (who will naturally say nice things about your photos just to make you happy).  The honest assessments of your works by total strangers visiting your booth at an art fair can (either individually or averaged over the aggregate) be extremely valuable in terms of future decisions (e.g., deciding which of your photos to enter into a contest, or to send to a magazine). 
    There are a number of technical issues to consider whenever you place your photos on display in a gallery or at a fair.  There’s obviously the issue of optimizing the visual impact—i.e., choosing an ideal printing medium (paper versus canvas, glossy versus matte finish, etc.), an ideal frame (if any), and an ideal size and matting proportion.  The effect of these choices can, unfortunately, be very context-dependent, not only in terms of the piece being prepared, but also in terms of the display environment.  Pieces look different on an easel versus on a wall.  The lighting in a gallery can also have a very significant impact, with some lights imposing a yellow cast or even a glare (for glossy prints under strong lighting).  Visiting the gallery beforehand and taking note of the lighting, wall color, and even the display height (since glare is typically angle-dependent), can help you to prepare your pieces for optimal visual impact in the target setting.  If glare is an issue, then choose a matte finish; if the wall color conflicts with your composition, then use a wide mat and/or frame; etc.  It may seem like a lot of work to fine-tune your photos to the individual exhibit environment, but keep in mind that most visitors to the gallery are unlikely to adjust their perceptual instincts to account for the variables of the environment.  Viewers like what they like based on what they see; if some aspect of the viewing environment works against that, then it’s unfortunately up to you rather than the viewer to address that issue to the extent possible.
    For gallery placement, be prepared to approach a number of different galleries before having one or more pieces accepted for display.  In many locations there are more artists (including both photographers and other sorts) than gallery space, so competition can be very high.  If any of your photos have been previously published (such as in a birding magazine), be sure to mention that fact to the gallery manager, since it may increase your chances of receiving a favorable decision.

Fig. 14.3.5 : A plaque with a clever title and other information can help
to generate more interest in your artwork.  For photos taken locally,
listing the exact location can also generate interest, especially for
visitors familiar with the area.  Any information you provide about
the image can potentially increase its value in the minds of viewers
by making it seem less like a random snapshot taken by some
 anonymous photographer.

    For your very best pieces you should put some effort into crafting a pleasing title for each, since galleries will typically want to post a small, printed plaque with the title, artist name, and possibly other information such as medium, date, and location.  A catchy name for a piece may help to strengthen the memory of a particular work in the mind of a viewer who may later become a buyer.  Sometimes a short description of the piece, including technical or anecdotal information about the capture, can help to pique the interest of the viewer.
    In terms of framing and media, I’ve been increasingly drawn to the use of canvas as a printing medium, and have received only positive feedback from viewers of my canvas-printed works.  Birds printed on canvas often take on a classical aspect, as of an original study by an oil painter of yore.  Gallery-wrapped canvas pieces produce a three-dimensional viewing experience, which can be further enhanced by a high-gloss finish.  When properly saturated, a canvas print can take on the appearance of an original painting, which many viewers find simply stunning.  The ability to produce these types of works via mere digital processing is nothing short of a technological miracle.

Fig. 14.3.6 : Canvas prints (i.e., gallery wraps) are a truly amazing invention.
This 20x30 (inch) image of three egrets captivated many, many people at a
local art fair, many of whom insisted that it could not possibly be a photo.
Although the effect can be more or less dramatic for different images, in many
cases the resulting canvas appears almost like an original oil painting. A high-
gloss finish can enhance that effect by making the
paint look like its still wet.

    A important—if seemingly mundane—issue for art shows is the means of support for your photos.  Depending on the venue, you may or may not be able to hang your photos on an actual wall.  In some venues the artist is required to assemble his or her own temporary booth via modular cubicle-like wall elements that can act as walls for the hanging of photos; these can be very expensive and of course require assembly as well as an appropriate transport for delivery to the site.  Other venues may have wall space available, though the total size and the prior placement of nails for hanging may not be ideal for your particular pieces.  A potentially attractive alternative (with certain caveats) is the use of inexpensive, lightweight easels for the display of multiple pieces in a small space.  Such a display system is shown in use below.

Fig. 14.3.7 : Using inexpensive, folding easels to display multiple
photos at an art show.  When wall space is limited and you have
many pieces to display, a setup like this can be useful.  The top
pieces are looped around the center column via their hanging wires,
while the lower pieces are simply resting at an angle against the
foam core backing.  Note that this arrangement is very fragile!

    The setup shown above was extremely inexpensive ($12 for the easel on the right, $2 for the foam-core; the easel on the left was $35, and was slightly sturdier) and quite space-efficient.  Five pieces of size 11
×14 (possibly including one 16×24) can be accommodated, and the structure is both easy to set up and easy to transport.  The easels fold up and fit into a tiny bag; I purchased these units at the highly popular internet-based art supply store Dick Blick.  The foam core backing (at bottom) was purchased the local Kroger’s grocery store.  The top two pieces are held in place by looping their back mounting wires (not shown) over the central column of the easel, while the bottom three pieces are resting freely against the foam core which is supported by the front two legs of the tripod.  Note that this entire display is very fragile; as noted earlier, a passerby accidentally kicked out one of the legs on an easel of mine and caused the bottom three pieces to tumble to the floor (though none were damaged).  All easels are inherently susceptible in this way, so I don’t think my use of ultra-cheap $12 units contributed to this mishap.  I was able to increase the stability of the units by closing the legs somewhat and applying some masking tape to effect a cross-beam of sorts (not shown in the figure above).
    The nice thing about easels is that they will generally orient your piece(s) at a slight angle to the vertical, in contrast to wall-mounting.  Depending on the lighting in your particular venue (and on the finishing of the piece), somewhat more vivid color tones may come out at normal viewing angles when the piece is tilted back slightly, as on an easel.  This effect obviously depends on the height of the viewer as well, but for viewers without restricted mobility (e.g., in a wheelchair) it’s often the case that an easel-mounted piece with a high-gloss finish will allow for more exploration of the play of light on the image than the same piece nailed to the wall. 
    In terms of matte versus glossy finish, both have their advantages and disadvantages, though particular pieces can benefit more from one or the other (though venue lighting can enhance or negate this effect).  I do most of my canvases in glossy, because I like the way the colors seem to change subtly as I look at the piece from different angles, but for some pieces a matte finish is simply more natural.  For the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) canvas shown below, for example, the color composition of the piece dictated a matte finish in order to achieve an aged effect (i.e., of a painting dulled by age).

Fig. 14.3.8 : Canvas with a matte finish.  Though I usually prefer a highly glossy finish
for canvases (so that they look freshly painted), a matte finish can sometimes work well
by making the piece look liked an aged painting.

    When exhibiting at art shows, it’s important to both position your pieces logically in terms of the visitors’ natural path through your
booth, and also to position yourself so as to be available to answer questions while remaining otherwise unobtrusive.  People entering your booth will, hopefully, be drawn forward from one piece to the next.  Don’t insinuate your presence too strongly into this progression so as to disrupt the visitor’s viewing experience.  I recommend hovering just within view—but noticeably attentive to the viewer(s)—so that you’re ready to answer any questions or comments that are voiced.  What I try to avoid at all cost is the impression of an over-eager salesperson badgering the potential customer.
    Keep in mind that the way you organize your pieces can have a visual impact distinct from the impact of each individual piece.  When organizing a collection of pieces I try to avoid placing two pieces with a similar background color next to each other; instead, I prefer to maximize the contrast between adjacent pieces, whenever possible, because I think this draws the viewer’s gaze from one piece to the next, increasing the chances that they’ll take the time to look at each and every one rather than just glancing at a few and then continuing on to the next booth. 
    In terms of print size, I find that pieces in which the image (not including frame or matting) is at least 16
×20 (inches) can be viewed comfortably from perhaps four to twelve feet away, while images that are 11×14 or smaller tend to draw viewers in for a closer look—at say, two to five feet.  Thus, if the layout of your display space in any way restricts viewing distances, you may want to take this into account when choosing a print size for your display pieces.  For pieces that are framed, the frame size is influenced by both the image size and the width of the matting (if any).  Functionally, the mat provides a buffer between the image and the frame, and to a similar extent, between the image and the surrounding wall.  Depending on the image and the wall color, you may want a wider or narrower mat, and this will dictate the frame size (assuming you’ve already settled on a print size for the image itself). 

Fig. 14.3.9 : A wide mat helps to separate the world of the bird (as captured by a photo) from
the world of your wall (though an especially wide frame could serve that purpose instead).
Once you’ve chosen a print size for the photo, the mat size (if any) will then dictate a frame
size.  Conversely, if you’re constrained to using a particular frame size, then the presence or
absence of a mat will dictate your print size.  For photos that look like paintings, you might
prefer to not use any mat at all, and just stick with an ornate frame.

    Yet another possibility for getting your printed works displayed is via photo contests: the winners of such contests are often granted an exclusive photo exhibit in a highly visible venue.  Personally, I avoid photo contests like the plague.  They typically entail a fair amount of work, and the bigger the prize the greater the number of formidable competitors you’re likely to face.  Even small, local contests can be very disappointing, even though you might think that the competitiveness should be rather limited.  The problem with all art contests, whether big or small, is that they’re typically judged by a panel of one to three
art experts, with the criteria for winning effectively decided by the biases of these particular individuals.  Furthermore, those chosen to serve as judges in art contests are often people with a formal education in art, which means that they’re probably less concerned with how the general public would value your photos (i.e., how many honest working people would readily hang your photo on their wall) and more concerned with the esoteric dogma of modern art philosophy. 
    For nature photo contents, there often tend to be fairly strict rules that have to be followed, which may eliminate many of your best works from consideration.  First, many local contests require that the photo be taken locally, and that it be taken within a certain time period (e.g., no more than one year prior to the contest date).  State and national parks, for example, often hold nature photo contests; obviously, they won’t consider photos you’ve taken in locations outside those particular park systems.  Most nature photo contests place fairly stringent restrictions on the types of digital manipulation that can be applied to photos.  Manipulations that you might consider entirely
fair (such as adjusting the brightness, increasing sharpness or contrast, or selectively reducing noise) are often barred by contest organizers who themselves have little or no hands-on experience with digital nature photography.
    Ultimately, you should try to understand precisely why you’re interested in having your photos put on public display.  There are many potential motivations for seeking wider distribution of your images.  One is to increase your name recognition—i.e., to build up your
brand, to leverage in the future for various uses.  Another is for immediate monetary gain, such as via sales of prints, or from contest prizes.  For many people the personal satisfaction of having achieved such a level with their photography is a reward in itself.  Once you’ve honestly assessed your own motivations, you should be better equipped to select a plan for satisfying your specific goals.  In the next section we’ll consider the specific goal of selling bird photos for profit.