Four Tips for Working a Photo Exhibition

Working a Reception (Photo Courtesy Mary Smith)
Working a Reception (Photo Courtesy Mary Smith)

My two-person show “Rhythms” opened last night in San Jose, and the reception was a blast. It can be a challenge to get the most out of a show of your photography, I’m often astounded by how many artists believe that their work will “sell itself”, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your photo exhibitions.

1. Make sure your pricing makes sense. Most venues will want about half of the gross of any sales of your work, which means that your half has to cover printing, matting, framing, labels, and oh, you wanted to make a profit, too, right? One of the biggest mistakes I see artists make is underpricing their work. If you don’t make it clear that to folks that your work is valuable, why should they believe otherwise?

2. Don’t even think about attending your opening without a big stack of business cards. Better, bring a small paper notebook, a pen and a microstapler if you can fit one. Get a card from anyone who expresses any interest and staple it into your notebook, make sure you write down anything you need to remember in terms of following up. Yes, have one of the traditional “sign up for my mailing list” reception books too. But it is the contacts you make, person-to-person, who will have the greatest longevity for you, and perhaps the greatest effect on your pocketbook. And when you get back from the reception, get those names, addresses and emails into your mailing list. Pronto.

3. Work the crowd. This is an art, to be sure, but it’s one you need to work on and perfect. Introduce yourself to folks at the reception (if you don’t know them) or stop by and say hello (if you do). Make your connections personal and unrushed. If you sense an interest in a particular piece (say, because they’re looking at it) start with discussing the image, what it means to you, what you went through to get it. But don’t stay too long in any one conversation, and more importantly beware of technical discussions. One of the primary hazards you’ll have to avoid at a reception is the guy who is sure the best thing you can be doing at your show is engaging in a 45-minute discussion of the optimal theoretical aperture of some new lens, or the specifics of Photoshop work. The guys who are that interested in the technical stuff without talking about your images aren’t interested in your images. If they want to talk tech, hand them a brochure and engage people instead who are interested in talking about your work or your experiences as an artist, those are the people who might actually crack a checkbook. Or even offer to correspond with them later. Just don’t get trapped.

4. Don’t get disheartened if you don’t sell, or if you do get disheartened, take a deep breath and try and get perspective. Very few people will buy a print the first time they see it. It’s an investment, and often people need to see a piece three or even more times before realizing they can’t live without it. Learn to follow up gently with these people, keep the conversation alive without going high-pressure. And part of the point of doing these receptions is that you’re building relationships with potential customers that may bear fruit weeks, months or even years later. It isn’t easy, but it is important.

Receptions aren’t easy for any of us, but there’re a critical part of the art photographer’s life. Learn to get the most from them!

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. I should have read this sooner. My reception’s tomorrow and I have no business cards. Eek.

  2. Thanks so much for this! I’m an amateur but I NEED my work to get recognised. I’d love to hold a reception/exhibition soon, but just looking at all my options.
    Once again, thank you. I found it extremely helpful =)

  3. I am getting ready my first solo exhibition in a few months and getting a bit nervous about it…
    Thanks for the tips and thanks for transmitting the good vibes!
    Really appreciate it!

  4. Very helpful and very kind of you to share your experience.

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