What is your process for sharing photographs?

I'm always interested in the holistic practice people make of taking photographs (the whole process) or of "being" a photographer. The people I know whose work I most admire seem to post their work, have their work published in editorial magazines, and also show their work in gallery settings often. Each venue has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, its own levels of emotional safety and danger.

Taking images is a nice personal pursuit and there's nothing wrong with taking many, many images and not showing them to anyone. That's the way a lot people practice at being photographers. The advantages of not showing real, personal work (as opposed to "proofs of technical mastery" e.g. Cat Whisker Sharpness Test, Fill Flash at Twilight Test, Non-Moustached Brick Wall Test, etc.) is that one will never have to deal with criticism. There are harsh critics and there are kind and well meaning critics but in the end the conversation usually revolves around something that you think you did well (or you wouldn't have shown it) and external influencers think you have done poorly or could have expressed your intent in a better way. While you don't always "invite" critiques I've found that most people are happy to supply them.

When the sharing happens on the web things can get nasty quickly. That's because the critic can be anonymous and it's frustrating to joust with a person whose credentials are unstated and whose analysis may be deeply flawed by a too shallow depth of experience and knowledge. Especially knowledge about modern art history. The happy sides of posting images on the web are several: You never have to have a direct conversation with a critic, physically face to face. You can always blame the technical shortcomings of your techniques on the vagaries of image compression, image size on the web or arcane color space anomalies. Pushed, you can always blame your art's shortcomings on the quality of your critic's monitor (especially easy these days with 70+% viewing most of their web content on mobile devices...).

A different kind of sharing happens when you put work into a gallery setting. Unless you own your own gallery you will have to submit your work to a critic with power; the gallery owner. If the gallery owner is experienced about photography he or she will be judging the content, composition, style and all the technical qualities of your capture and your print. That's a lot to put on the table and for those with fragile egos it can be like the common nightmare of showing up for that organic chemistry final and realizing that you are wearing only your underwear.  Any flaw that tips the gallery owner's opinion into the negative category can disqualify you from sharing your work in their space.

This may be why such a tiny subset of photographers ever get around to approaching a physical gallery. Work that may pass muster on the web, where there are no economic or face to face consequences may not come anywhere close to what's required in the physical world. And the fear of that "in person" rejection is always a specter hovering over someone's shoulder.  Should you pass the test and get into a gallery show you get to face the next blessing or curse, the opening reception.

By this time you will have spent enormous amounts of time and probably enormous amounts of money having your work expertly printed (or you will have waited patiently for numerous Federal Express Packages with printer ink inside them.... so you can handle the iterative process of inkjet printing on your own---- ah, the world's bumpiest learning curve) and then having each piece matted and framed. You will have shared the cost of marketing your show with the gallery and perhaps even shared the cost of the cheap wine and the Costco cheese squares, celery sticks, crackers and other reception fare. You will have gone back and forth with the gallery owner about which image to use on the invitational postcard. Perhaps you've also had a disagreement or two about how the show gets laid out. But in the end you stand ready and the crowd swells in the front door to see your work, eat your cheese, drink your wine and, ultimately, to offer up their opinions. Worse case? No one shows up at all.

What have you accomplished at this level of sharing? You've convinced a gallery owner of the value of your output. You've gone through the process of editing your own work down into a manageable and, hopefully, stylistically consistent collection of images that work well sitting next to each other. You've mastered presentation. Ultimately you've shown your best work in the best way in the best light and in the most appropriate space for viewing your work. If you wrote an engaging manifesto you've added a life preserver to whatever unique point of view you've put on display (and why display work that looks like everyone else's???).  This is a high level of sharing.

This is a big moment and a big milestone for most artists. It's like one's first public speech in front of a crowded auditorium that hasn't yet quite decided whether they like what you are saying. There's always the chance someone will be rude and say something derisive during your opening but self-preservation tells one to pack the crowd on that opening night with friends and allies....

This is deep sharing but a different venue is having your work published in editorial magazines. Magazines that pay for the right to use your work. In that situation it means that you've passed the litmus test of quality and vision with the art director or photo director and you've been hired to produce because you have displayed attractive work in the past. In the editorial arena you are approved before you even show the work you intend to produce.

If the magazine has a big enough audience and the story for which your images are being used to illustrate is popular enough then you've been given the stage to reach literally millions of people. And unlike the web, if the magazine is well printed and well presented you will have to have good technique to go along with good and interesting content. In fact, your technique will need to be very good just to survive the incremental attacks on quality made throughout the production and printing stages. And when you get that first spread in a popular magazine (and get paid for it----as a pro) you will feel even better, in some ways, than an artists whose local gallery show sells every piece right off the walls because you know that the audience is much wider.

But why share in the first place? I think it's because artists share the almost universal need for some sort of feedback. They like to be told that the work worked. They want an external validation of sorts. It's one thing to have a file folder on your computer filled with images you like but it's another thing to put on that Speedo and jump into a cold pool with a crowd standing around on the deck holding up score cards or stopwatches. If you know your work will be seen (and critiqued) by others it certainly pushes you to work at the highest level at which you are capable of producing. That alone helps to elevate your game. And having to share, either in your own web gallery, a physical gallery or in a magazine, gives you a feedback loop that helps you either stay on a good track or make necessary course corrections. Or, if you are the ultimate egoist, the feedback can tell you that you are the only person with taste left in the universe.

But the bottom line is that each level of sharing brings with it a rise in self-confidence that tells you repeatedly that the worst case probably won't happen. Sharing at each tier successfully gives you the emotional strength to show again, and again. And every time you show the process thickens your emotional skin while giving you the necessary two way communication every artist craves.

But more than that, every successful sharing episode opens up opportunity for the work to expand and in its expansion for opportunities to be presented to you. If no one sees your work nothing will come of it---beyond you personal enjoyment. When you share it to a wider and wider audience you'll find people who appreciate your vision and encourage you to do more and take more chances. You find customers, patrons and collaborators. You find new markets.  Every show offers the potential of something more. On my first show of portraits at the California Hotel gallery on 7th street in Austin, Texas I scrimped and saved (just out of college and broke at the time) and I printed 60 16x20 inch images on double weight fiber paper (Ilfobrom), mounted them on matte board and adhered them to a long wall that I'd spent two days painting fire engine red. The show was fun, the attendees were kind and a few days later I had my first two assignments for Texas Monthly magazine. One assignment was to execute of photo illustration for a feature article and the other assignment was to make a public relations portrait of the original publisher, Michael Levy.

Had I not had the show I might still have gotten assignments but certainly not as quickly or as effectively. I made a sacrifice, bared myself to the audience and waited to receive either the rewards or punishment of my artistic hubris. In this case I won, in other cases I've battled to a draw and in some (very limited) cases I've failed miserably. But in each showing or sharing I've learned something valuable that I stored away and pulled out the very next time I put my work on display.

That's the way the whole thing works. The only time I lose is when I let the fear that someone will not like my work keep me from showing it at all. I've now come to the point where I'd rather have an honest and scathing review from someone whose judgement I trust over just about anything else because the learning is bigger and meatier in that sort of encounter. And the bigger and meatier the lesson the more advantage I take away.

The image above is one I've shared many times. I've heard many things about the image from people at many different levels of my industry. I've also received scathing critics from amateurs. I know how I feel about my portrait work and I react now only to critiques from known sources who truly understand the milieu of portrait photography modern work and its place in the history of our medium. If I am doing anything wrong at this stage of my life it is creating work that is too safe. But I'm working on that too. What are you working on?


steve said...

I'm curious why/what would anyone say negatively about the photo at the top of the article, I think it's beautiful.

I usually share on flickr but they have changed the interface so much, I don't like the direction they have taken it any suggestions for a replacement?

I'm also a member of a small group called "darkroom pen palls" we print and send each other a postcard about every 6 weeks. It's lots of fun to see what other guys are getting up to in the darkroom.

Ray said...

I think you went from sharing to marketing. What was it that you were trying to convey?

John Krumm said...

As a non-commercial, market free artist (ha, how do you like my new term for amatuer) I've participated in a few gallery hangings with my old informal camera club. It was fun to watch reactions, and mostly fun because It was such a social event, standing around with friends, drinking coffee, eating too many snacks.

Lately I've been using Flickr more. It's more about the image, and if you are careful with who you follow you can have some good exchanges about the work, though I wouldn't call them critiques. It's good to have a support group for people with shared visual interests rather than shared brand interests.

Racecar said...

There are (generally) two types of people: doers and critics. Doers don't have the time to sit around and criticise and critics have nothing better to do than find fault.

Mohammad Shafik said...

From a non-professional middle-eastern point of view, I just posted about this exact topic three weeks ago, so if you allow me to share the link (since it is quite long).

The stuff relevant to this topic is in the first half of the post.


amolitor said...

I share as follows:

Projects are designed to go in to book form. These days I am doing handmade books. These days the rule is:

One for me.
One for a friend.
One released into the wild.

There's not a lot of feedback inherent in this, but I don't really go for feedback these days. The scheme is subject to change without notice. It's very satisfying on a personal level, but not very practical past that.

Online is outright toxic. Communities essentially demand conformance, with a combination of carrot and stick. So contributors gradually start to produce the same lowest common denominator stuff.

It's also infinitely game-able. Select a community. Deconstruct whatever the local flavor is and start grinding that out. Watch the likes pile up. Ugh.

Cpt Kent said...

Well that post hit close to home for me.

I've tried to share in the past, family, friends and colleagues, but was never able to find an easy, meaningful or satisfactory way. Tried Flickr, FB, Dropbox, etc, but each had its down side. I've never really printed, I'm not sure what to do with my files, much less prints!

These days I don't share as much, largely because most of my photos are 'pretty to look at', but essentially meaningless. In my view, a photo has to have something to say to be of any importance, or worth sharing. Either something about the subject, the location, the time, technique or equipment. You, Kirk, seem to be adept at taking portraits that do say something about the subject. Worth sharing.

Presently, it's like most of what I capture is training for some future project I've yet to decide on, building my skills so that I'll be ready to hit the ground running when I finally decide what I want to say, and how I want to say it. Pretty photos, but not saying much. Lots of different subjects, styles, techniques, no consistency.

Maybe I'm just procrastinating, or maybe I am a photographer looking for a project.

So thats what I'm working on, what I'm looking for, something to say. Something to show. Then I'll worry about how to share it.

Kerry Glasier said...

A lovely portrait, one with an edge in the composition absent from a lot of your head shots. I am not a 'portrait' chap but found this one really quite affecting. Keep it up, and the words of wisdom of course.
Kerry Glasier. Cornwall. UK

Paul said...

I tend to use G+ to share and have just set up a web site to share my favourite photos (which reminds me I need to do some work on it).
Images are a mix of context, mood and vision of the photographer, mood of the subject(if it's a portrait), environment and limitations of any equipment. Unless a critic knows all the above their opinion is of limited value.

The client and photographer are the only ones we need keep happy.

If I took the image above I would be extremely happy.

George L Smyth said...

I have to admit that I have not had people throwing mud at my photographs - I doubt that this is because they are so awesome, but probably because few people look them.

I post regularly on my blog, where I have Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr and G+ point to the entries. I also post those images on Flickr and when I make a Bromoil print I put it on 500px. I'll show my work anywhere, any time, in the hopes that anyone will take the time to see what I have done.

I guess if I someday end up with an army of trolls I will be able to consider myself to be successful.

Anthony Bridges said...

I just recently challenged myself to do a self-published photo book. Waiting on the first review copy to see what changes to make if any before ordering more.

I normally share on FB.

Ward said...

I put my promising images on Flickr with some of the stronger compositions on Facebook. I do enjoy positive feedback but have no illusions that it will lead to sales. I, too, am compiling work for a self-published book. If/when it is released, I will set up a companion website. I am hopeful but realistic that the book (which would have very low margins) would help drive print sales.

Anonymous said...

I guess my initial impression of the portrait is, it is not difficult to believe, that person looked exactly like that when the image was taken.

It is a rarity.