What photographer doesn’t dream of seeing his or her images displayed in a fine art gallery, preferably in a major city? Making that dream a reality is not for beginners. It takes the years of practice and experience of a mature photographer to produce works that have any possibility of being accepted by a gallery. That’s not to say that some galleries won’t feature the work of a serious amateur. Some galleries even encourage it, such as the Verve Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which has an emerging photographers category.
Few, if any, photographers make a living with just gallery work, and even those that are displayed regularly had to work for years refining their art and submitting it again and again to numerous galleries.
Of course, the Internet has created a different kind of “gallery” for photographers; and many are able to sell images strictly online. Since anyone can put photos on the Internet, having them appear in a traditional fine art gallery takes your reputation (and ego) to an entirely higher level.
To become a successful gallery photographer, you want to establish a relationship with a gallery. That only happens when the director or selection committee sees qualities in your work that matches the gallery’s mission or specific niche of subject matter. The submission and acceptance process is very similar to interviewing for any job or as a staff photographer at a publication or studio. You must sell yourself and make sure you follow the submission guidelines of the gallery.
Research is your first step. Visit as many of the galleries in your immediate area to see what kind of photographs they display. Travel to galleries in the nearest major city (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.) to expand your understanding of gallery quality images. These are just research trips, not opportunities to approach the gallery personnel as a photographer.
Your research then extends to the Internet to immerse yourself further into the gallery culture, by viewing sites of galleries, gallery photographers, gallery magazines and gallery photo critics. You’ll also find blogs and forums in which you could learn more from other gallery photographers. Two specific Web sites that will be helpful are Photograph, a bimonthly listing of New York and international galleries, and the Association of International Photography Art Dealers.
Once you’ve spent some time learning about the photography fine art culture, you can then select a few galleries as targets for your submissions. Although local galleries may seem to be the best choices, your list should be galleries (some of which may be in your area) that appear to accept photos that you can provide.
Now that you have a list of target galleries, access their submission guidelines. Many will probably be online, but others you may have to call. With the guidelines and your research, you are then ready to select which of your photos to submit. Although your strategy is to match your style of photography with the gallery, don’t be too specific in the images you select for submissions. Galleries, like fashion publications’ photo editors, for example, want to see a broad representation of your work to judge accurately your qualifications to be displayed.
Although not a hard-and-fast rule, expect galleries in major cities or international locations to require a recommendation from another photographer, critic, gallery director, etc. to accept your submission.
It’s important to remember that a gallery may be happy to have your photos, but for its inventory of images for sale, not necessarily for display in the gallery. Often, these inventory images are also added to the gallery’s Web site, as another sales channel.
If a gallery accepts your work, then don’t be surprised if it asks for exclusivity in a geographic area or during a period of time. Overlooking this detail could cost you money. A gallery’s exclusivity agreement could include a percentage of any sales of your photos at another gallery.