Getting Into Galleries

How to catch the eye of a curator and get your work exhibited

Many photographers have aspirations, secret or otherwise, of hanging our finest works on the walls of an acclaimed art gallery. But how do we make that dream a reality? Outdoor Photographer sat down with Jolene Hanson, director of The G2 Gallery in Los Angeles, to discuss the practical steps photographers can take to catch the eye of a curator and possibly make it into a gallery.

“Getting work into a gallery really depends on two factors,” Hanson says, “what the gallery is looking for, and what is unique about your work. As you can imagine, galleries are bombarded with artists interested in exhibition or representation; we get no less than one inquiry a day. As a result, there’s a clear way in which galleries look at potential work.

“Most galleries will have an application process,” Hanson explains, “or they will send out a specific call for artists. Some will require a proposal. The gallery, via their website or from the receptionist, will tell you how they accept submissions. Provide the gallery with exactly what is requested. The most important part of filling out any application is to respond to all questions even if you don’t have an answer; put in N/A or the reasoning behind not having the answer.”

Whatever the application process, be sure to follow it to the letter. Leave no “i” undotted, no “t” uncrossed.

First and foremost, galleries show the work of artists they already represent. That means very few slots are available for exhibition. Much like ensuring your résumé won’t cost you a potential interview, following application instructions is essential. Curators are bombarded with submissions, especially in photography after the digital boom. Ensuring your work stands out from the crowd is the best way to catch the attention of a gallerist.

“Curators live for those rare moments when they’re surprised by something they see,” says Hanson. “They have studied their industry and see a lot of artists’ work; it’s rare to see something new or different. I look for a solid body of work, a clear style or vision, and consistency within the work as a whole. There are very clear distinctions that can be seen in the body of work of an amateur or a student, a photographer who’s beginning to get their legs and a photographer who has found their niche. The latter has worked out the inconsistencies and is continuing to hone their craft each day.”

A common mistake Hanson says young artists often make is they attempt to paint themselves as more established. It’s important to be honest about where you are in your career and your craft, she says. An experienced curator looks at so much work that they will see through any posturing, and your work simply will come off as that of a poseur.


Hanson says photographers may try to present an image via a portfolio or submission that differs from their broader body of work. This, she notes, won’t work because curators immediately examine websites in order to understand the bigger picture of you as an artist.

“You may have sent me literally the only six images you have that fit with our theme,” Hanson says. “I need to know what I’m dealing with before making a leap so I go right to your website. The work needs to be cohesive; each portfolio needs to be able to hold up on its own, yet fit together with all the other portfolios on your site. The website needs to be easy to navigate and free of clutter. I see a lot of sites in which an outrageous amount of information is plastered all over the home page and I immediately get a sense of chaos—which does typically then reflect in the portfolios. This can be avoided by editing yourself.”

Learning to edit one’s work remains a difficult challenge for even the most seasoned professionals. Because we’re so close to our own images, we see in them all the effort it took to create them rather than simply the photographs themselves. This makes impartial criticism invaluable when editing a portfolio.

“The image you think is the best,” Hanson says, “most likely, it’s not. It’s very easy to get attached to images for various reasons, but that attachment doesn’t mean it’s your best image. Even the big-name photographers have fallen into this rabbit hole. This is where photographers need to facilitate a way to get feedback from the outside world.

“Don’t rely on your partner’s or parents’ feedback,” she continues. “They love you, but they may not give you the best critique. I recommend to early-career photographers who want to get into print sales to take a booth at the local craft fair or market and work it themselves. Watching how people respond to imagery will tell you a lot about what’s hitting and what isn’t. Attending portfolio reviews is another great way to get a critique from professionals in the field. Plus, it’s hard to get the attention of a curator or editor; a portfolio review is the best way to do that.”

While paring down a portfolio to only the best of the best is a good start, it’s only part of the process. The work that remains must fit together as a cohesive whole, each piece complementing those that come before and after.

“The first step,” Hanson explains, even before editing, “is for the artist to realize their style of photography. What is it that makes specific photographers stand out? Look at the greats—Watkins, Adams, Weston, Porter. What is it about their work that made it stick in people’s minds? What makes it reliable? Then evaluate your own work. Find that thing that exists in every photo you take. Marc Muench, for example, his thing is light. I can see an image and tell if it’s his before looking for his credit. He has a clear style, and it’s unique to him.

The same can be said about Edward Burtynsky; he has a clear style and presentation. Your style will evolve as you do, but it should never be hodgepodge.


“Once you have a sense of your style,” continues Hanson, “you can begin to pull together your portfolio(s). Portfolio development is always a tough decision; some photographers do it by subject matter, some by location and some by project. I personally prefer project-related portfolios because it shows how you approach a subject or issue, and if the project is something you’re passionate about, it will come through in the imagery.”

After determining your style and paring down to the essentials, your portfolio still isn’t finished. In fact, it never will be finished. Hanson says you have to prepare for your work, and your portfolio, to continually evolve.

When you succeed at creating an organized portfolio that showcases your vision and your best work, you follow the gallery’s instructions and, against all odds, find yourself included in an exhibition, it’s important that you have realistic expectations about what that means. Being accepted for exhibition isn’t the same as a long-term agreement for representation.

“An exhibition,” Hanson says, “is for a predetermined length of time—nothing more. Treat being accepted for exhibition as the major accomplishment that it is—an end in itself. A very small percentage of our exhibiting artists evolve into long-term representation or follow-up exhibits at our gallery. Those who do need to be constantly evolving their work, and the work needs to be the right fit to our mission and our clientele. Just getting into a gallery is a start; it’s like your first audition. You may not land the role, but you learned something to take with you to your next audition.”

How To Edit Your Own Work
Jolene Hanson of The G2 Gallery says that the digital revolution has made editing more difficult for photographers simply because we’re now free to shoot so many images. “I think those who are still shooting film have it a little easier,” she says. “They’re spending more time determining the shot and have less options to pull from on the back end. So my first recommendation to photographers is to slow down, capture the shot, edit in the camera before you edit at home. Looking over the 3,000 images you took yesterday afternoon is absurd. Treat a shoot as if you have a limited quantity of frames, like you would have with film.” When it comes time to edit for a portfolio, Hanson offers these 10 tips to pare down a cohesive body of work.
1. Determine what you’re saying with the portfolio and what you want the viewer to walk away with before you put it together.

2. If an image has a flaw, no matter how much you love the image and how small the flaw is, let it go. Print it up for your office or your mom, then move on.

3. Is the image a duplicate, just like something else in the portfolio? If so, throw it out.

4. Print contact sheets of your already-edited work, then edit them again. Something printed can look completely different than it does on the screen.

5. Walk away. Go do something else for a while and come back to it later.

6. Make a decision regarding your images, yes or no. If it’s a maybe, it’s probably a no.

7. Does it fit in the place you’ve put it in the lineup of the photos? Does it flow and show your style while also showing your diversity? The flow is essential. If an image doesn’t flow with the others, it should be omitted.

8. Most importantly, get outside opinions. I can’t say that enough.

9. There’s no magic number of images for a portfolio, but I like the number 24. It shows that you have a solid body of work, but it’s not overwhelming. Fifty of more or less the same image is boring, but two dozen images that address the theme or content of the portfolio, reflect your style as a photographer, and show diversity and successful execution of the project or subject matter—that’s what you want.

10. Your images could be compared to restaurants. You may want to go to In-N-Out Burger, but it’s not good for you; you need to focus on the four-star restaurants. The drive-through diner is what it is; you may love it and you may be craving it, but it’s not going to provide you with the nourishment you need.


Do’s And Don’ts For Submitting Your Work To A Gallery

DO:

1. Follow the gallery’s protocol, i.e., read and respect the application process.
2. Treat the staff as you would treat the curator, director and owners. Galleries are a small family, and everything you do is noticed and shared within that family.
3. Resubmit annually. Your work is constantly changing and evolving, as is what the gallery is looking for. In addition, the curator will watch your work grow and this may spark their interest.
4. Have clear projects that you’re working on and evolving. Doing the same thing over and over again is a great practice to work out your style and vision, but once you have a sense of style in your imagery, it’s time to apply it to a bigger picture or concept.
5. Maintain a current website, and keep up with technology. Everything is digital now. Submitting actual prints typically is no longer accepted.
6. Edit your work, and ask strangers to edit your work. This is key. Friends, family and colleagues have a vested interest in you; strangers are unbiased.
7. Be prepared for rejection. It’s part of the job.

DON’T:

1. Call and harass gallery staff as to the review of your portfolio.
2. Show up at another artist’s reception and monopolize the curator or staff in trying to show them your work. (This happens more than you can imagine.)
3. Try to connect with galleries that have a specific theme or subject that doesn’t fit with your work.
4. Get attached to specific images because of how you felt when you captured them.
5. Expect to make sales.
6. Let the rejection get you down.

Jolene Hanson Of The G2 Gallery On…

…Prints Vs. Digital Submissions
I only accept a digital submission for two reasons: That’s the way of the future, and we try to be as environmentally friendly as possible, therefore, (we) want very little paper coming in and going out. Some older galleries require print, but I do not. We do not accept anything in print. Check with what the gallery is asking for. Each gallery has its own protocol. For me, it’s digital.

…Attending Portfolio Reviews
Portfolio reviews are a great way to learn from a professional what’s working and what isn’t in your portfolio; it gives the reviewer the opportunity to show you visually (as photographers are visual) the flow and how the image plays a crucial role in it. Few galleries have portfolio review days anymore, but it’s a great way to be seen and to get feedback if you can find one.

…Being Unique
More of the same. One of the challenges, especially in the digital age, is that a lot of photographers are shooting the same locations and the same iconic images, and they’re doing it just like or very similar to how it has been done before. This is normal and necessary for student photographers, but once someone moves into professionalism, they need to have worked out their own vision and style, a new way of seeing and presenting these common subjects.

David Muench and Ansel Adams have influenced millions of photographers. They both show unique views of the natural world, and there’s a desire to copy it. It’s important to remember that they have already done it this way; now you need to do it your way.


…Unedited Work
Photographers get attached to images and want to show something for everyone. This may seem like a good idea—all types of clients will be able to look at your website and see that you can do it all. Typically, the response is, “Wow, this photographer is all over the place!” That isn’t necessarily a good thing. When your work is all over the place, you’re missing the most important thing: cohesion. A client and a curator both want to know what they can expect from you because photography is visual; the visual make-up of your presentation to them shows that. When the work is all over the place ,the client and curator don’t know what to expect and, therefore, are much less likely to take a gamble on you.

…The G2 Gallery And Artists
We receive artists in three ways: 1) People are recommended to us, and we contact them, send them a jury application and add them to the review roster; 2) People find us and send us a jury application; and 3) We seek out artists who are working in the environmental field on specific projects that we want to illuminate.

We have two very distinct types of work we are looking for. Our main exhibits address a environmental issue (nature and/or wildlife specific) and are photojournalistic. Our “Nature LA” series highlights Los Angeles County professionals who have artistic work with nature or wildlife subject matter.
For example, Robert Glenn Ketchum was recommended to us due to his work in Alaska with the pebble mine when we were first starting the gallery (at which point we were looking for artists as we had not been established). Robert is one of our represented artists as his work is cohesive, yet diverse; he has participated in four exhibits at the gallery.

Ron LeValley is a represented artist who was recommended to us for the environmental exhibit “On the Wing” (May 2009), which was partnered with Audubon California and focused on pelagic birds. In working with him on the exhibit, we learned of his ocean work and asked for a few pieces to try out in our gift shop; they’re one of our most popular sellers.

Jennifer MaHarry juried and was chosen to participate in our “Nature LA” exhibit series showing her work documenting the wild horses at the WIN Ranch in Ojai in May 2010. Her work was extremely well received and continues to be today. We just had her second exhibit in May 2012, as she has continued with this project and documented a BLM round-up in Utah. Her work is visually artistic, and she has a unique eye and sense of color when she prints. Jennifer has now, with the new work, begun limited editions, and she’s growing as an artist.

These are examples of three very different types of artists, from pricing to the style and subject matter of their work. The one thing they have in common is their personal commitment to the environment and the creatures that inhabit it.

…Nature Photography As Art
Nature photography is a tough sell in the art world. It has, in my experience, been questioned as art. There are artists out there who have made it work because the work is something more than an image of nature, but an art piece, a statement, a new vision. This is why we, as curators, are looking for unique work.

This is also why you need to determine if your work fits in a specific venue. For example, we have great success selling ocean-related work. Why? Because we’re just blocks from the ocean. When I ran a gallery in Vermont, we sold snow and fall leaves in the photography genre; it’s what people relate to.

The G2 Gallery in Los Angeles is one of the premier galleries for nature photographers in the U.S. Go to www.theg2gallery.com to learn more about the gallery.

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