Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Post-Gallery Opening Report

Stillpointe Theatre in its current configuration hosting my humble gallery showing. It is a struggle deciding whether I'm happy with the balance of the empty walls... arguably I want them completely empty, but then I would also need to figure out what to fill them back up with and that is something I do not want to rope myself into...

It's been a very busy several weeks, both in terms of work and ancillary projects commanding a greater dedication of time than originally expected. All great learning experiences, and certainly networking opportunities, however I'd be lying if I said I didn't greatly want some brief period of zero-expectations for some needed reprieve. Suspect such freedom from the shackles of obligation is quite out of the near-term picture, unfortunately, but even then it's a great test of my limits (or an entertaining opportunity to fall apart completely).

My last post here I mentioned an inaugural gallery showing of my work. The event has received some mixed reception. Opening night was dense with people coming to view each piece, varying from patrons of the hosting theatre Stillpointe to family and friends, co-workers, co-workers of friends and family, and even among friends the variety spanned social circles from high school pals to current photography partners. It was actually quite the struggle to navigate from the social perspective, so many different spheres not really co-mingling so much as existing beside one another, thus it was difficult as the only common thread in the room to engage each different group in turn. Can't help but feel I may have left some parties feeling abandoned or ostracized, but for the life of me I tried to give everyone the face time they were due for showing up to support me.

While I absolutely appreciated the turnout and was flabbergasted by some of the distances traveled, the comfort zones stretched, to come in at the gallery opening, it was not the kind of turnout I was entirely expecting. Perhaps my vision of how things would go were too lofty - My interest was in the arrival of complete strangers, engagement, interest, and sales made to people who otherwise did not know me and did not know my work. But the space was ultimately rife with people I knew, people who knew me, had seen my work and heard my stories before. There was nobody to whom I really had to play salesman to (which wasn't necessarily a bad thing), and everyone there who bought a piece I suspect knew they intended to do so already as a show of support. It was a hug box of sorts, a space entirely entirely safe and seemingly insulated against open criticism, and I was rather excited to engage with people who didn't like the work I chose for the walls.

This expectation was contrasted by the worst-possible-case scenario the following week - Open Thursday through Saturday from 6:00PM to 10:00PM, I was lucky to have seen maybe 4 or 5 people come in, grand total. Thursday night one of the local homeless "regulars" spent 2 hours conversing with me in the gallery lobby, and I bought him a pack of cigarettes for his time. Friday wasn't too dissimilar, perhaps 2 strangers wandering in, and Saturday some friends stopped by and a couple more strangers but certainly not the random reception I had envisioned and hoped for. My conclusion based on this post-opening experience is absolutely in line with my thoughts on gallery showing of work up until this point of weakness when I thought photography-as-art could ever be relevant and sell... Nobody cares. Outside of the hug box opening night, people really just don't care. And they shouldn't, because I don't care either. Call it bias for staring at the same pieces on the walls for so many nights in a row, but none of it compels me, it doesn't call out to me, it's not engaging. My first mistake was picking pieces that would look good on walls. They may as well be on the interior decor shelves at Target or Walmart.

The other trick I thought might pull people into the space involved co-opting with other businesses, specifically wine distributors and breweries. Baltimore is host to plenty of both such companies I would have loved hosting wine or beer tasting in the space, but legalities got in the way. Baltimore City liquor licensing specifically limits distribution of alcohol to the business' home address, and without the ability to sell along with the tasting no company realistically saw a benefit, which is just good business sense and the way the cards fell on that idea. This week I'm employing the desperation play of offering headshots to purchasers or those who donate to the theatre hosting the gallery. That will likely appeal to the actual theatre crowd in the area, but even so I don't expect to see pieces flying off the walls. At this point I suppose I feel sort of stuck with work I cared about before being forced to stare at it for 16 hours over 4 days.

Things did sell well opening night, though, but I'm still plenty shy of any sort of "profit threshold". This gallery is not a thing I went into with any expectations beyond hopefully breaking even (of which I am also still tremendously short of accomplishing). The financial burdens of gallery showing are very much a behind the scenes thing, and while art buyers may stare at a piece and be appalled at the pricing of what seems so simple and cheap to make (value of the artwork displayed altogether abolished from the equation), what they completely miss are the costs of the gallery space (typically a 50% commission on the sale price of the artwork), the sales and use taxes for every piece purchased (often burdened at the seller's expense to make for easier pricing and transactions in a gallery format), and of course the time spent manning the gallery itself lest nobody ever have the opportunity to come in and see/buy the art (or scoff at the pricing because they "could get the same thing cheaper at Walmart"). At the very least, a gallery shower must earn 60% on top of the cost of production to break even on materials/commission/taxes, leaving extremely little wiggle room for a New Name artist showing work to pad at all for profit. It's a bit of math I suspect not all artists take into account in their gallery showing aspirations, but it is absolutely a bit of knowledge I will pass on to every aspiring artist henceforth. Without a name of pre-developed base of demand, a gallery is a mechanism of debt with the expectation of being a networking opportunity. A way to make new business with new people. If one wishes to sell artwork for profit... Try Etsy.

Gallery aside, it's been a nonstop rush of the more common one-off business. Several weddings, which were actually quite fun to shoot for sake of being far less stressful in that they were not beleaguered by traditional format. Running a steady project of maternity photos for an old elementary school friend as well, which typically would be well outside my realm of interest but 2 shoots in I'm having a blast with the happy couple and am looking forward to a third session in a couple more weeks. Extending my restaurant photography services to new clients in new avenues as well, aiming to try and build a more local network in which to provide the service without always relying on contracting agencies for jobs (much how I took real estate work outside of the same sort of format over time, partnering with clients on my own terms). It's been a lot of work, and I'm sitting on a backlog of photos with no time in-between to process them. For obvious reasons that has me remarkably anxious, but folding to the stress would achieve nothing. I predict several weeks upcoming will be spent slaving over Photoshop and Lightroom. I have no time for personal artistic pursuits, save for the 1 or 2 hours spared every week wherein just a hint of that sort of freedom can be gleamed. Winter is coming, and it is my busy season (which still makes no sense to me from a business perspective).

To close on a pedestrian note, Photokina:

  • Olympus EM1 Mk. II is doing exactly what it needs to do in confronting the prosumer DSLR's only discernible advantage, continuous autofocus. Not relevant to me, but it will be a happy upgrade to my workhorse EM1.
  • M. Zuiko 25mm f/1.2 is the replacement I want and need for the 12-40mm f/2.8 (which is also a great lens but normal zooms have never felt particularly useful to my shooting style).
  • M. Zuiko 12-100mm f/4 is kind of tempting as a mid-range walk-about stand-in, but my use cases for it would likely apply to night shooting and I have doubts as to the ability of an f/4 lens to provide ample imaging feedback for decent composition at night (maybe in the city, but is that too limiting a use case for a $1600 lens?).
  • FL-900R = YN-560 with TTL metering. Cool, but I'm not convinced of the regularity of its usefulness.
  • Fuji GFX is a camera to instill fantasies of medium format real estate photography that looks amazing with the proposed 23mm f/4 and by god do I want it. Realistically, however, I'm not sure I am of the skill level to justify such forward investment, and I sure as shit don't have the computer to deal with processing 50+ megapixel RAW files without significant struggles.
Oh do I have such awesome fantasies about using that Fuji GFX, though...