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?