Plugged In: The art of knowing how to show

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

A reader recently asked how to put together solo photo exhibits and become a serious fine art photographer, from initially developing an exhibition theme through printing, framing and presenting the show.

That’s a pretty tall order. However, it’s certainly feasible, as evidenced by the many excellent photographs submitted by Redoubt Reporter readers for this paper’s photo competitions and for competitive shows at the Kenai Fine Arts Center.

Many of the best photos have been submitted by readers with regular daily jobs in construction, oilfield work, teaching and health care. These are people who take photographs for their personal pleasure, expression and development, reflecting a human impulse to creative expression that’s essentially universal, transcending recorded history.

To me, this is one of the best ways for everyone to take photographs, calmly using “art” as one aspect of becoming a well-rounded person.

One measure of the generally perceived importance of everyone personally participating in the arts can be found in MIT’s current undergraduate requirements. MIT is among the most practical and technologically focused places on the planet. Yet in order to graduate with any bachelor’s degree from MIT, including math, computer science or physics degrees, every student must first complete 12 courses in arts, music, humanities and written expression. That contrasts with only nine mandatory courses in calculus, physics, chemistry and biology. MIT recognizes that creativity in science, engineering and the arts mutually reinforce each other.

In some ways, photography is one of the easiest arts to undertake. Modern cameras usually make adequately exposed and focused images. Commercial photography labs, though not your nearest big-box store, routinely produce acceptable display prints. This approach is sufficient and entirely appropriate for routinely preserving family memories, legal documentation and general use.

Going beyond routine use requires judgment and at least some technical and artistic skill and training. Buying an expensive camera does not automatically result in producing exhibition-quality photographs that others will enjoy viewing as “art.” That’s happened, but it’s rare. Usually, a new user’s first results are the same sorts of photographs previously seen thousands of times, made in the camera’s default visual style and printed just like every other anonymous image.

That’s generally not “art” as your own uniquely personal expression. Luckily, falling into these ruts is avoidable with some knowledge and experience. So, with those basic thoughts in mind, here are my general suggestions to our inquiring reader and perhaps many others.

  • Make photos for yourself, in your own unique way, rather than trying to please the crowd. Only one in a thousand makes a decent living producing “fine art” for sale, so you might as well do what you actually enjoy and do it well.
  • The “art” is your message and emotional content, basically what you see and how you see it. So the most important skill is to develop your own mental approach and your “eye.” The rest is technique, though good technique helps you achieve what you “see” as well as suggesting new approaches and styles.
  • Don’t let your ego get so involved that it becomes simultaneously too big for the room yet fragile, demanding constant reinforcement. Not only is that unpleasant for others to be around, but those histrionics interfere with your objectivity and authentic “seeing.”
  • Study well-regarded work by others who haveve produced consistently good bodies of work in a variety of subjects and styles. Learn from these, but find your own voice and the styles and subject matter that best suit who you are. In that regard, some good anthologies, such as Phaidron Press’ “The Photo Book,” are helpful, as is Aperture, a quarterly fine art photo magazine.
  • Learn the rules of thumb about composition, such as the “Rule of Thirds,” and learn when to disregard them if doing so makes an image stronger.
  • Don’t force work. Forced work looks forced and its interest fades quickly. Rather, train yourself to see the world around you as it really is as you go about your daily life. Carry a camera and be open to every situation and experience.
  • Prize work that rings authentic and true.
  • Find some specific projects that interest you and use those projects to develop, over time, specific exhibits. In the process, produce some internally consistent bodies of work that fully explore a subject or project. Ask yourself whether a project is worth doing and whether you succeeded in doing justice to a worthy subject.
  • Themes can arise from a variety of stimuli. Not uncommonly, I’ll get an idea for an exhibition from a haiku or by noticing clusters of related photographs among existing work.
  • Take several examples of each shot of every subject, bracketing exposure, trying different angles, then retaining only the best ones.
  • Ruthlessly edit the work that you exhibit, showing only your best photos that fit the overall concept of your exhibit.
  • Pay particular attention to your “mistakes.” We learn more from our errors.
  • Technically, learn the following basic concepts, discussions of which can be found in this paper’s web archives:
  • The Zone System of exposure control and visualization, as well as how these concepts can be applied to digital photography and printing.
  • Expanded “color spaces,” such AdobeRGB1998 and ProPhoto.
  • Calibrating your camera, computer monitor and printer together so that your final print matches your intent.
  • Finding, testing and using quality optics suited for each situation.
  • Controlling focus, background blurring and depth of field.
  • Avoiding unwanted camera shake and subject blur.
  • Understanding the limitations of your digital camera sensor, especially its dynamic range and low-light/high ISO sensitivity characteristics.
  • How to use RAW format image files, especially learning how to post-process RAW files to best advantage on your computer using  PhotoShop, Lightroom or Apple Aperture.
  • How to recognize and make a really high-quality exhibition print. Good prints, especially larger ones nicely arranged together, have much more impact than a low-resolution image on a computer monitor. The Ansel Adams book “Examples — The Making of 40 Photographs” is something of a master class in seeing, capturing and printing the fine art photographs that have become iconic images of the American West.
  • Start making your own prints. A decent 13-by-19-inch digital printer, such as Canon’s Pixma Pro-100, costs less than $400 from Amazon including Prime shipping, and provides affordable printing experience as well as good-quality prints large enough to exhibit in smaller spaces. Epson’s 3880 printer, about $1,300, is quite adequate for professional use and ink costs per print are lower. I would use Canon’s prograde, satin-finish paper with the Canon printer and Red River Paper’s 75-pound Arctic Polar Satin with the Epson 3880 printer.
  • Before actually making final prints for an exhibit, make smaller contact prints and look at them where they will be exhibited and in the same lighting. Adjust the color balance and brightness of your final prints so they’ll look their best when displayed there.
  • Proper presentation is a crucial but largely a personal preference. I prefer to use bright white mat board and metallic frames in German-silver color, and all of the same size. Actually hanging an exhibit to best advantage is an acquired skill beyond this article.
  • Your actual camera equipment is not that critical. Most current-model digital SLR and mirrorless compact-system cameras will do, so long as you use optically good lenses.
  • Good technique, enthusiasm and persistence will be more important than your specific camera gear. Don’t be deterred by the many rejections that you will inevitably encounter and try to learn from each.

    Good luck!

    Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

    1 Comment

    Filed under photography, Plugged in

    One response to “Plugged In: The art of knowing how to show

    1. Nice article Joe! Was just exploring a similar conversation about the differences in rote learning, Bob Ross style, and in the real learning of how to paint, and this column articulates a similar stance quite eloquently. Good practices, and the willingness to learn the discipline actually creates higher opportunities for self expression. Keep up the good fight, brother! Sure miss your stop-bys and hope you are well.

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