Showing Your Work: On the Wall
The challenge is first defining a body of work, or a theme, and then building a set of images around it. That theme can run from the sublime to the ridiculous, and be composed of seemingly disparate elements that somehow come together as a group. It may be portraits, street scenes, a location or a point of view. Once the theme has been established, the work has to be created to a very high standard.
Perhaps the greatest demands on overall print quality are made when you first present work to those who might hang it. This can include walls in libraries, restaurants or public spaces. Those who view the work as curators (people who organize shows and create a marketplace for photographic images), as well as those who consider the work as art “consumers” generally have a high degree of visual sophistication. Assume they do and it will guide your approach and execution.
The gallery world looks at every print for surface flaws and weakness of technique. Prints are often judged with a very critical eye. Gallery owners and curators may also view prints as “precious things” onto themselves, and often consider print presentation (the care in mounting and matting, as well as the smoothness and cleanliness of print surface) as a critical element in their evaluation of the work.
Unless the work is a retrospective of many years and styles of work, a cohesive approach to the body of work, including paper surface, print quality, and even mat and mount board consistency, may be part of what makes a good impression. This is particularly true of themes or essays. A highly professional presentation, in short, is the only acceptable approach.
This is not meant to imply that the work needs to be formalized or presented in a narrow way. The environment of the gallery or display area (be it a library, bank, restaurant or bar) and the tastes of its customers give the best indication of the type of work that is accepted, and expected. The person who decides if the work fits their environment can be helpful in this matter, as will the work that is already hung on the wall and the photographers that are shown. That makes a visit to the potential site invaluable, even before you present the work.
Lighting can be haphazard or merciless, though some environments may be lit as dimly as a cozy living room. When the lighting is intense, every flaw in tonality or print finish will be revealed. While the image itself will usually guide technique, consider the venue when creating work. Create a viewing area in your home or studio that might simulate gallery lighting. You can use a simple reflector spot, or use track lights to study the print and make any adjustments after careful inspection. It can be helpful to leave the print in that lit area for a few days and to take time to study it each time you pass.
Print size will be determined by the image, of course, but note that some venues cry out for larger prints, while others allow for a more intimate size.
The frame used is a personal matter, though most photographers choose metal sectionals or simple wood frames. If the aim is to work the display circuit, consider buying one or two standard frame sizes, then over-matting all work, regardless of image size, out to those standard dimensions. This will save money and allow for the changing of prints for different shows without making any further investment in frames. Though glass does transmit the image better, Plexiglas can be more practical if the show travels. However, Plexiglas does not always allow for the best appreciation of the image beneath, so base your presentation on what best serves the image.
Getting your work on a wall for others to see is a very satisfying accomplishment for photographers, and while it is a demanding process the rewards can more than justify all the effort involved.