Does Exhibiting Make You a Better Photographer?

26Is the gallery scene a useful medium for the commercial or domestic photographer?  It goes without saying that for the photographic artist it is a case of exhibit or wither on the vine, but in the case of many photographers there is little encouragement to display work in a formal environment.

Displaying one’s work in a studio showroom or display cabinet is not exhibiting in a gallery.

The concept of exhibiting requires the resolution of a series of questions and demands.  Firstly the topic or rationale for showing one’s images.  This may lead to an appropriate exhibition title, or a great title may lead to the choice of appropriate photographs. Rarely does a random selection of “best” images work in the gallery context. The posthumous retrospective by a prestigious national gallery is the best place for that – and you will NOT be involved!

A themed selection requires dedicated will power and tight assessment – the best exhibitions are rated on the work not hung on the gallery walls.  Assistance from a curator, or from a trusted impartial source is often useful in weeding personal attachments to images from strong visual statements.

Secondly, the process of sizing and printing for an exhibition is a time to reflect on the chosen images. A digital file only becomes a photograph after it is printed – sometimes a shock for a generation used to seeing photographs as pixels on a screen.  Some photographs are best viewed as small, intimate, personal, discrete images – think contact prints from 5×4/10×8” negatives; whilst others demand large displays of detail and drama that can only be obtained from a huge photograph.

Contemporary art practice leans towards photographs that are the size of paintings as a proof that square footage is equated with monetary value.  Not a theory to which I subscribe.

Finally the process of choice is a time for creative reflection. This is something in which all artists should indulge. And by all artists I include all commercial and domestic photographers – in this day and age of easily accessed photographic devices, the photographer who earns a living from their craft needs to have more than a modicum of art within their arsenal.  Choosing photographs to hang requires thinking about a cohesive theme, being aware of image tonality, having a story similar to that of a novel. A beginning, a middle and an end – sometimes you are able to direct the viewer in the manner in which they can view your photographs by way of gallery layout.  This manner of visual story telling is often the most critical aspect of your presentation. Remember, when you hang your photographs on the gallery wall you lose the ability to describe or defend them to the viewer.


The Viewer; © Ian Poole, 2011.

My thesis is that exhibiting is critical for all photographers as it creates opportunities to analyse and revisit photographic output via the eyes of a dispassionate viewer – a process that is both exhilarating as well challenging.

A challenged photographer is a better photographer!

This article is reproduced with kind permission from
f11 Magazine – issue 26  (see p 138)

3 thoughts on “Does Exhibiting Make You a Better Photographer?

  1. I doubt that galleries improve photographers. There are many reasons that people seek to establish galleries and become directors. Here’s a few:

    Some chase money. Trafficing in art can be gratifyingly lucrative.
    Others seek a venue from which to radiate their own artistic influence.
    A private gallery funded by others can be a cost effective place to market personal work.
    A gallery director has first pick of new work to enhance their own art collection.
    Being a gallery director is a fine excuse to hob-nob socially with the arty-farty and the glitterati.
    Megalomania is a nice gig in ones own art shop.

    But as for tutoring exhibitors to produce better work. I can’t say I’ve seen such altruism.

    The reverse can apply as well. A strong exhibitor can improve a gallery. Someone famous like the photographer Michael Kenna who insists on guaranteed sales target as a condition for an exhibition can prompt a gallery to lift its profile.


  2. “A digital file only becomes a photograph after it is printed…”
    What an spectacular and utterly novel claim! The coherent argument, and I assume there is one, that leads to this extraordinary conclusion must be a pivotal point in the philosophy of picture-making; perhaps a subject for a future blog.


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