Getting into galleries

By Lisa Densmore
You’ve got a few thousand bucolic scenics, another few thousand wildlife images and yet another few thousand macro shots of leaves, flowers and other flora. Why not turn them into a few thousand dollars by exhibiting them in an art gallery or two? Sounds like a great idea until you approach a gallery. Breaking into the fine arts scene as a photographer is not easy because photographs generally have a lower perceived value in the art world than paintings and because everyone has a digital camera and gets lucky now and again, taking a shot that’s worth framing. At least they think so. In addition, most of those editorial shots in your stock file that were good enough for a magazine to publish probably aren’t gallery material.
But don’t be discouraged. Most successful editorial photographers already have the skills to jump from the page to the wall. Here are some things to consider if you want to be successful as a fine arts photographer:

Picking the right images
The first step toward getting your images displayed is deciding which ones to present to a gallery. A fine arts image has to be special, so special that 99.9 percent of the people in the world feel they could not take the shot themselves, and the other 0.1 percent marvel at your creativity. A breathtaking iconic landscape in fabulous light, a unique angle on a common subject, an abstract with so much texture it doesn’t look like a photograph – these would qualify because they grab an onlooker’s attention and hold it. Be extremely critical of your work and only present the photographs you really love and never tire of looking at. That said, most galleries like images of local subjects presented in artistic ways because many people buy artwork to remember a special place or to give as a gift for a special occasion such as a wedding or a graduation. It’s OK to ask gallery owners what they are most likely to sell but don’t have, then give it to them if you’ve got it. If you don’t, shoot it.
Picking the right gallery
Art galleries vary by size, location, genre and quality. Some display photography; others do not. Before approaching a gallery with your images, scout it out. Your work should fit in, yet be different than what’s already exhibited. Can you produce limited-edition images that are matted and framed at a price point similar to what the gallery already carries? Be prepared to explain why your images will sell and how you might help bring prospective buyers into the gallery. It helps to offer publicity through your Web site or a tag at the end of photo essays in regional magazines that says something like, “To see more of Lisa Densmore’s images, visit her Web site or stop by Artful Things in Lebanon, N.H.”
Showing your work to a gallery
Once you target a gallery, call to make an appointment with the person who acquires its artwork, typically one of the owners. The images you show should be printed on archival paper with archival inks. Many galleries require photographs to be “museum mounted,” which means a white mat with black molding (frame) under conservation glass. If the gallery does not have a framing policy, colored mats and interesting frames are fine if they enhance the overall appeal of a picture. A mediocre picture can really pop in an unusual frame. However, there are two risks to creative framing: First, color can be polarizing and limiting when it comes to matching a prospective purchaser’s living room. Second, it may be too expensive to make money on it.
Most galleries advise their artists to keep framing simple. A buyer can always change the frame. It also helps to inquire whether a gallery accepts photographs for its bins. These should be matted then shrink-wrapped or placed in clear bags. Don’t forget to sign all your mats (with a lead pencil) whether in a frame or a bin, and number them if they are limited editions. While it’s OK to introduce your images in a portfolio, if you can show the gallery owner the finished piece, you are more likely to win his or her support.
Most galleries accept artwork, including photographs, on consignment. Their commission can range from 20 percent to 50 percent, with 40-50 percent the more common range. In other words, if you mark an 11-by-14-inch framed photograph at $150, the gallery cut is $75 if its consignment fee is 50 percent. If it costs you $75 to produce the piece, you break even, so it’s hardly worth the effort.
A simple pricing system is to multiply your cost by three. This same picture would then be priced at $225. If it sells, the gallery takes $112.50. You make a profit of $37.50. Though an excellent margin by retailing standards, that doesn’t sound like much to a professional photographer who can quickly pull a photo from a stock file and e-mail it to an editor for a minimum fee of $75 or $100 – and the gallery does not guarantee a sale.
Here are a couple more things to consider when pricing your photography for a gallery: Larger pieces – image sizes of at least 16-by-20 inches – are generally more salable at price points above $200 than pictures that are 11 by 14 or smaller. Small-edition sizes, of 10 or less, especially on large pieces, command the highest prices, sometimes more than $1,000 per picture from an established fine arts photographer.
Hanging your images in a gallery is, at best, a nice way to supplement your editorial and commercial photo sales, at least in the beginning. Is it worth the time and effort? Certainly! It gets your images in front of more people. It adds to your credibility. It can help drive traffic to your Web site and editors to your stock file if the gallery distributes a small brochure or puts a blurb on the wall about you. And there’s something exciting about putting your work on the wall for the public to see. It feels good to hear the comments, and it feels even better when a stranger mentions how delighted he is to have your photo over his mantle.
lisadensmore-webAn award-winning photographer, writer and television host/producer from Hanover, N.H., Lisa Densmore currently serves on the OWAA Board of Directors. She does two to three photo exhibits per year in addition to her images which are displayed in a number of galleries in the northeast. To see more of her images, visit
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