Photographers making it hard to exhibit

As I’ve been making changes to how I work, I’ve started to realise that photographers are their own worst enemies. Are Photographers making it hard to exhibit as they look around at other photos in galleries?

As you know, I am looking at exhibiting my work more and part of that is that is talking to galleries. If you want to exhibit you have to know the state of the art world.

The news isn’t good.

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Photography is very hard to sell

This is something that most of us already know, I think. Many photographers have tried to sell images online and realised that it is a very hard thing to do. People just don’t buy photos, and those that do sell some are often basically giving them away.

One thing you hear from gallery owners all the time is that photography is hard to sell and part of the reason is that people walk into galleries and say ‘I could take that’. How do you get past that attitude?

Though, having said that, I know a lot of people who walk into galleries with abstract paintings and say exactly the same thing. However, it doesn’t stop galleries from showing paintings.

shop-front-reflections-leannecole-melbournePhotographers make it hard to exhibit

Have you ever done that? I would be surprised if you hadn’t. I know I have. It was part of the reason why I got seriously into photography many years ago. I had a photographer take photos of my children and he missed the mark of what I wanted by a long shot. I watched and thought, I could do this. It was an unreasonable thing to think now, as I look back. He had a studio, lights, the whole set up. I was naive. Perhaps ignorant.

We are all going to silently say it to ourselves, but if you ever go to a gallery and think you could do the same images, don’t say it out loud. In fact, we all have to stop thinking like that. Look at the work and learn from it. Decide if you like it. What are the merits?

We need to change the way photography is viewed and valued.

Portrait Exhibitions

I don’t know how it is in other countries, but here in Australia one of the problems I see is that most of the exhibitions are of people. I was reading an article recently that said if you want to sell your photos, don’t put people in them. Makes you wonder why galleries keep doing it then. Why are the majority of their exhibitions ones of people?

Perhaps this is because they want them to fail. I really don’t know. I did send emails to four galleries last week asking them and have heard nothing back. One was even a dedicated photography gallery, apparently. It is hard to get answers really.

The Solution

I wish I knew. With so many people trying to do photography now it is a hard one to crack. Hard to work out what will sell and what won’t. How do you stop people from saying ‘I could take that’?

You often hear how other photographers are selling images, and making money. One told me he had sold thousands of dollars worth of images, but I can’t seem to find anyone who wants to buy mine. In the last two or three years, I’ve sold one. That was to a friend. It is time to work out this puzzle. I love puzzles, so will see where this goes.


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40 Responses

  1. Hi Leanne,
    I used to have my work in a multi-photographer gallery around 20 years ago in a high-priced real estate market. The owners carried work of a photographer that operated two galleries of his own. His price points were the lowest in the gallery, and there were no images that made me say, ‘Wow, I wish I had been there for that!” The owners said he was successful in their gallery and that I should gear my prices and framing along his example. There were a couple occasions where I would peruse the gallery (anonymously) just so I could hear customers feedback – on my work as well as the others. There were several times I would hear people say, “Oh, I could have taken that”. This was before digital cameras really could improve what the average person could do with a camera. My real learning experience came when I overheard customers saying, “Those colors would really go well with our sofa”. I was dumbfounded. I was thinking “What about the photograph itself”? I learned that customers want a complete package – one that is technically perfect and professionally presented. Sales of a print by itself is difficult, especially when someone can’t differentiate yours from the other hundreds of thousands online.

    • It is an interesting experience being in an exhibition or gallery. The things people say, and they are usually people who have no idea what they are talking about. I have to say the experience of people picking an image to go with something in their house doesn’t concern me, as long as they buy it. I’ve looked into buying art and such, and really the big thing everyone tells you is to buy what you like. I’m not so sure the online galleries are good to do. I think the images are small and there is nothing like seeing an image blown up and framed. It always amazes me when I see it. I love it. Thank you Steve for sharing your experiences.

    • Agreed, online galleries do not really showcase anyone’s work. There is nothing like seeing great work on a larger, tangible scale. Since the majority of your work is monochromatic, framing choices are limited, and I have not seen many b&w images on metal prints that I have liked.

    • I agree about the large wall stuff, if you can show them what it looks like framed, then it helps them to understand what they work will look like on their wall. I’m surprised to here you say most of my work is monochromatic, actually it is nearly all colour. I hardly do any black and white, just for MM.

    • I’m not on Facebook, so I don’t see what you’re posting there. I was thinking about your blog, and thinking about what I’ve seen of yours in the last couple years. To me, the images of yours that stand out and set you apart are the b&w ones or ones where the color is minimalistic. There are some where you’ve explained the process from RAW to final product, and because of that, I can see your processing in some of the other photographs. If you framed your work in stronger colors, it would be a distraction from the art. I think your work is best suited in traditional white matting/black framing or perhaps gold or silver frames. I would be surprised if people told you otherwise.

    • Yeah, I do one monochrome image a week, for MM, but that is pretty much all. I do minimal colour, but still colour. I like colour too much. I would always frame my work with a black frame, I think anything else would detract from it.

  2. I’ve been thinking about what would make me buy a photographic print and the answer is very little, even from Steve McCurry who I admire greatly. However, I might buy a book of ‘prints’ from a photographer whose work I admire. I don’t fall into the group of ‘I could have taken that’, I might wish I could, but even so if I’m going to have contemporary photos on my wall I prefer them to be my own. There are exceptions, for example Sutcliffe’s photos in and around Whitby, of which I have several. Another exception might be a superbly hand printed exposure from a traditional darkroom (mono only).
    So, Leanne, you can only hope that I’m an exception.

    • So shouldn’t send you an invite to an exhibition, lol. I get that not everyone wants to buy images, and that’s okay, I am hoping that there will be others and yes, let’s hope you are the exception. lol

  3. realitytourist

    First, I’ve never seen a real art gallery in the US doing a show of portraits of people, unless it was Avedon or Newman or other famous work. Years ago, a photographer friend bought a small print, a photo of actor Will Geer by another local newspaper photographer, and when he took it home his wife said “I don’t want photos of people I don’t know on my walls.” I think that’s pretty much the sentiment elsewhere. Unless it’s dynamic street photography, it’s unlikely to sell.

    The other issue is that of photographing scenes that your potential audience already knows. There are some folks that might want a really nice photo of a setting they’re familiar with, but for the most part you might be better showing images of places or settings that are exotic to the audience.

    And there’s always price. In materials alone, you have easily $200 invested in a simply-framed 8×10 print, and most folks just don’t want to spend a lot of money on photography. There are those that will, but you have to work your way into becoming collectible on a small scale. Find a client, or a gallery, that really likes your work and is interested in helping you become more successful.

    Good luck.

    • I really wish it was the case here, in Melbourne most photographic exhibitions seem to feature people of some sort. It is hard to know what else will sell.

      That is true, if you want to sell to a specific audience, but then I’m creating work for others and not me. I have to be true to myself and what I want as well. I have an art practice and I do want to concentrate on that as well.

      Price will be set by a number of factors, but of that will be my experience and other things as well.

      Thank you, some good thoughts.

  4. Hi Leanne, Thanks for the article. I think that a lot of photographers find it hard to sell their work but on the other hand, we have just had a dedicated landscape photography gallery open in Canberra, the Scott Leggo gallery. Scott has had a successful online business for 10 years or so and has just made the jump to having a physical shop. His work features Canberra as well as Australia more widely. He sells to private and corporate clients. Christian Fletcher likewise has a beautiful gallery in Dunsborough featuring landscapes, mainly from WA. In Canberra there is also “The Photography Room” which is dedicated to photography and is run as an artists’ cooperative. So it can be done, but it isn’t easy. All three work very hard at promotion and focus on quality – quality images, quality framing etc and quality presentation.

    • No problem Helen. I think there is a market, it is about working out where it is and going for it. Opening up my own gallery really isn’t an option, unfortunately. I also wonder if Melbourne is the wrong city. I’m starting to take more notice of what the galleries are showing. I will have to look up those photographers and see what they are selling. Thank you so much Helen, I appreciate your words. I’m concentrating on printing and framing right now, making sure they look great. I know I have to be patient.

  5. My tuppence worth.

    Having a selection of ones work in a browser or elsewhere in an art gallery may seem great but the truth is that at best perhaps one in three of your images will sell. After deducting the gallery’s commission and the cost of unsold work there is little if any profit in it.
    People go to cafes and restaurants to eat and drink, not to buy art or photography. If a sale is made it will be an impulse purchase and have to be priced accordingly.
    Photographs of people do not tend to sell at all unless…. Read more at

    https://lightiseverything.co.uk/how-to-sell-photographs-to-the-public

  6. Leanne, first of all , I thank you for your post, second I totally feel with you. Here in the USA, it seems to be the same situation approaching galleries and so on, it seems like you have to be know in order to get into galleries. I have sold some amount of my work, through friends and admires. As well I participated through out the last years at Art Shows and Art Festivals, okay great, getting tons of compliments of my work and so on, yet the fact is that it is hard to make a living of it. I came to realize that I need an agent to present my work. Also I realized that I need to think bigger, meaning to go to places where people have the money, in my case going to high end wellness centers, since my work is more spiritual photography. Any how, the key is to think bigger. I believe that going overseas with your work, that there might be a bigger success, yet every photography work is so very individual. It’s the key how to invoke peoples interest and desire to purchase our work and this is the hard part. Leanne let’s keep in touch with our experience. Our work is very valuable to be shown to the World.

  7. He Leanne

    Most of the small towns around Sacramento have coffee shops and carry photographs taken of nearby sites. The photographers don’t have to be local, and they seem to sell. That may be a way to start selling. We also have a local photographer that puts his photos in small town a gallery. Sometimes they give him exclusivity on certain weekends. We also have Viewpoint Gallery in Sacramento that is totally dedicated to photography, and carries photos of local photographers.

    Good luck, this sort of change takes time.

    Anne

    • Hey Anne
      Nice to hear from you. We have shops and cafes that do that as well, but I don’t think people sell much, unforatunately. There is something about photography in Australia, could be the small market and we have a lot of photographers here. Maybe I need to give up, I can’t help thinking that I should try something else. I am trying a few other things and looking at some other options. Time will tell.

      Thank you Anne.

  8. My People at Work solo show opened on Saturday night. I knew it wouldn’t be a money maker. A few people purchased their own portraits but I wasn’t surprised. I’ve worked on this project for at least five years.
    I can’t really explain why I continue to photograph what I find interesting- people- but I do. I know a woman who sells landscapes and nature photographs.

    • It is sad that you have worked on it for 5 years and you didn’t get the results you wanted, maybe you need to try some other places.

      I think you said it, you have to do what interests you, maybe you should consider doing portraits for people ruth. Artist portraits. Thank you Ruth.

  9. Leanne, I feel your pain and confusion. I don’t have a sure answer for your situation, but I think you need to find someone who can help you with marketing advice. Your art is beautiful, and Im sure there is a market for it. But as you have discovered, the difficulty is finding it.

    I have followed a artist here in Vancouver who has (as far as I can tell) discovered success by displaying in her own gallery. Her name is Karen Cooper http://karencoopergallery.com/. You might consider contacting her for some advice.

    • Thank you Don, yeah, I’m not what the answer is either. I am working with a couple of people so hopefully we can figure it out. Someone told me that if I was overseas I would have no trouble selling my work, who knows. I need to start exploring lots of options.

      Yeah, I don’t think getting my own gallery would work, that would require money. Thanks for the link I will check her out.

  10. Peter Hill

    Contact me? Of course you can! 🙂

  11. Hi Leeanne

    First, I have been a fan for a long time and some of your photos are still fresh in my mind, such as your “unplanned” photo of a woman in  wedding dress rushing up some steps. Absolutely gorgeous, truly memorable.

    But I agree with your post, including the guidance to not include people UNLESS your art is of the Steve McCurry caliber.

    My first one-woman photo show at a local Audubon was back in 2009. At the time, the gallery head literally said to me that photography doesn’t sell because everyone with a camera thinks they can do the same. So one of the the tricks is making your art from a vantage point or subject that others are unlikely to access.

    Another suggestion is to NOT place your most special photos on the internet. Around 90% of the photos in my current exhibit have never been online.

    A helpful book I stumbled across some years ago is “Marketing Fine Art Photography” by Alain Briot. He offers solid advice. His early success was selling Grand Canyon photos to tourists. He tapped a market for “truly exceptional” photos there and has now branched into photo seminars on location.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. Looking forward to reading others’ comments here.

    Good luck. Best, Babsje

    • Thank you Babsje, I remember that photo, that was one of the first I took with my D800 when I purchased it.

      Yes, I think that people don’t want to buy photos of other people to put on their walls, unless it is some stylish thing, that doesn’t make it look like a portrait.

      I also hope that my style would stop people from thinking that. I am told that my work is unique, but making not.

      Actually funny you should say that about not putting photos up, I’m trying to work on some new things, and I won’t be putting any on the internet, not for a long time, I want it to be mine. So I will follow that advice.

      I will have to look for the book and take a look. Yeah, there seems to be something about selling to tourists, someone else said the same thing. I might have to look into it.

      You’re welcome Babsje, thank you for reading and commenting.

  12. Peter Hill

    I do think there may be a gallery in Sydney interested in what you do, but the problem might be if your images are obviously Melbourne-centric. I suggest looking at galleries in the regions, such as Yarra Valley. There is something about traveling and buying – the two seem to go together. My exhibitions are held in popular places for visitors from the CBD, namely the Blue Mountains where there are quite a few galleries. My next one is at Leura and the target market will be visitors from Sydney and overseas. The curator/director will be advertising in Sydney’s North Shore Times newspaper, for example.

    I agree that getting represented is essential for overseas success, and that is my own objective. But you need runs on the board and that means either awards or exhibitions or both.

    • I’m in discussions with some people about putting some work in places that might get some interest. Seems everyone is more interested in my country stuff than my city images. Maybe I need to start there as well. the only gallery I know in the Yarra Valley is Tarra Warra, and they are a different type altogether. I am just starting to look into it all, so it will be interesting to see what happens. I am also looking for awards to enter and that sort of thing. Hoping to get a group show with a couple of friends. I need to start building my CV up again. Looking after my daughter for the last 6 years has taken a toll.

      Thank you Peter, would you might if I contacted you sometime?

  13. You’re quite right, people don’t buy photos, they don’t buy paintings either. People buy either decorations or “artists”. You can see framed pictures, many are photos, in stores where furnishings, furniture, home goods are sold. People buy them to perk up their homes. Business buy them for the same reason.

    My local art gallery does not advertise “paintings”, but rather artists’ names. When you go to a museum you see Picassos, Matisses, Rembrandts. It should be thus with photographers as well. You put your soul into your images. Nobody else sees the world the same way. Your photos here are “Leanne Coles”, not photos of cityscapes or artifacts of man, but reflections of your vision. Galleries should treat photographers, fine art photographers, the same way.

    Oh, I would not be offended if somebody bought one of my photos because “it matches the new sofa perfectly”. People want to enrich their environments, and if a photo helps, more power to them.

    Now I need to go have a chat with my gallery proprietor, maybe show him some “Leanne Coles”.

    • Yes, that is the norm I think, people don’t see that art can be an investment. You really want the collectors to get out there and buy you up.

      That is interesting how they do it, I don’t know that it happens here, I might have to take a closer look. Interesting observation Ludwig.

      I wouldn’t be either, I have no problem buying an image for that reason. Thank you so much Ludwig, show them and see what they say, let me know. They might have some insight.

  14. Obviously I am not familiar with trying to sell photography but I can tell you it is a struggle in the art world too. Apart from the odd commission, I have not sold any art since I emigrated to the US (though, to be fair, I have not especially tried very hard either) but I am super familiar with that “I could do that” attitude from my own direct experience and from manning sales desks at exhibitions. I have also encountered so many people who expect to pay the price of an Ikea print for an original work of art. Someone once made me an offer that would not even have covered a quarter of the price of the frame. I don’t know what the solutions are but I totally get that there is a problem.

    • It is very hard, and I have no idea what the solution is. Oh yes, you have to love that attitude, it is quite destructive. That is terrible about the low price, it is really insulting too, it says they don’t value what you do. Thank you for sharing your experience Laura, I appreciate that.

    • There are also people who expect us creative people to give them our work for free as if doing something for the love of it should be our only reward.

    • That is so true Laura, a lot of people do expect that.

  15. Peter Hill

    Interesting article, Leanne. It brought to mind my reaction on seeing the work on offer in a new shopfront gallery of an “internationally renowned” photographer who’s name was new to me. Her work was definitely pointed to the low-end of the market – tourists – who wanted snaps as keepsakes. Her unframed prints were selling for $39 on A4 – she does her own printing – and I couldn’t work out the strategy there. Bottom line I was completely underwhelmed by it.

    I am preparing for my 6th solo exhibition, which opens next month. As with most of my previous exhibitions, this one will be all B&W. In my experience, there is a market for fine art photography, and that market is not wanting people in landscapes.

    If I did not at least recoup the costs of holding an exhibition, I would not hold them. Pricing is a challenge, as is size of your frame print. Another challenge is that you need to “hit” the market in the right way at the right time. I’ve found that if you leave it to chance that a buyer might just happen to stumble into your exhibition during the limited time it is open, you are dreaming.

    But, there I firmly believe there IS a market. Often I’ve sold a framed print because in the buyer’s mind it “fits” a space in their home, and even though my limited editions sell for 5-figure sums, I can honestly say not one person has ever queried a price. In fact the opposite used to occur.

    I’ve also been given much feedback on what and how to exhibit. Bottom line, if you value your work, you need to exhibit. Websites are back-up.

    To combat the “I can shoot that” reaction, I have found I need to convert that reaction to “wow”. When a photographer buys one of my photographs I know I am on the right track.

    Interestingly, the downside of combating the “I can shoot that” mentality is that if an image is good enough to challenge it, the immediate assumption is often that I have “photoshopped” it in some way. That grates so much it has created a need to explain clearly my philosophy and/or my processing methods in any marketing material.

    Finding the right gallery is a challenge, but I have rented space for pop-ups and they have been my most successful exhibitions, even though it means organising and paying for my own opening. When you have to attend the gallery all day, you get to speak to the visitors and help them understand how and what they are seeing.

    Recently I stumbled upon a fairly new gallery specialising in the works of one of Australia’s iconic B&W photographers. The director there is curating my exhibition to be held in his gallery. A fresh pair of eyes will be good, and I have been surprised by the photographs he has selected for printing and hanging. My usual curator has had to bite her tongue.

    It’s a different approach, but that elusive market requires it. I did consider exhibiting in Melbourne CBD at one time but to be honest, my market is not there. They are into people (as you note), colour, abstractism, gritty, edgy, OOF and confrontationalist images.

    • So I am in the wrong city for exhibiting? It is something I have suspected for a long time. I have also been told my work would sell overseas.

      There is market for what you do, but I have to figure out if there is one for my work. I’m talking to some people now about getting some work out there, but who knows if it will end in sales. Time will tell.

      I am so glad to hear you are having some success. That is fantastic. I need to find some for myself as well. I love how you talk about your curator. Do you think Sydney galleries would be interested in what I do?

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