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Getting Your Work Shown - Henry Rowan

Getting Your Work Shown

Part 1 – Galleries

One of the more frequent questions we get goes something like this… “What kind of images should I submit to X Gallery?” It’s a tough question and determining the right answer requires a basic understanding of the realities of economic life…

Commercial galleries are not there to display your work. They are there to make money! (This simple truism applies to all businesses, but it is something we rarely think about.)

Create your own reality and let the gallery owner know that you see the world differently than anyone else!

For your work to be of interest to a gallery owner, it needs to have market potential for the gallery’s clientele. Thus, the first step is to analyze the type of images that the gallery promotes on a regular basis and decide whether your work is a good fit with them. If a gallery’s focus is large, expensive, color prints aimed at a commercial decorative market, then trying to convince them to show 8x10 BW street photography is probably not going to be productive.

Now that is an extreme example, but the same principle applies to any gallery. You have to offer them something that they can sell to their clients. If you approach a coastal gallery in Oregon that caters to tourists, they are likely to be much more interested in photographs of sea stacks than images of smoke stacks.

All of this may seem obvious, but you would be surprised how many people ignore it. You may have mad skills as a photographer, but gallery owners see the work of lots of great photographers on a daily basis. If you don’t give the gallery something they can sell, then they aren’t going to be interested.

Before moving on, we should discuss the elephant in the gallery. That is pricing and, unfortunately, the gallery model often doesn’t work for either the photographer who is just starting out or the gallery owner.

Most people who are just starting to sell their work price their photography too low. Often way too low. Think of it this way… generally, the commission charged by galleries is between 40-50%, with the higher number becoming more dominant. For the gallery, displaying and selling a $100.00 print has virtually the same costs as displaying and selling a $1000.00 print. In one case they make $50.00 and in the other they make $500.00. If their market will bear it, that makes it an easy choice. The point is that most higher-level galleries don’t want inexpensive prints as their primary display because wall space is expensive (rent, utilities, staff, etc.).

From the photographer’s perspective, you have to remember that you are only getting 50% of the selling price. If you price your work at $200.00, you don’t get $200.00, you get $100.00. If the print cost is $30.00 and the frame cost is $60.00, then you get to make $10.00 - assuming you think your time is worthless, you get free gas to go drop your prints off at the gallery, and your Fairy Godmother is buying all of your camera gear for you.

You see the problem? You have to get your prices up to a level where you and the gallery can both make money while not maxing out what the market will bear. Sometimes, that’s not possible. (It is also critical to remember that people who low ball their prices end up screwing up the system for everyone, which ultimately includes themselves. That’s a big deal topic for another day.)

The Margaret Todd is one of the most photographed schooners in the world, which means it is essential to come up with something a bit different... if you want an image with good sales potential.

Enough of the doom and gloom! If you want to the galleries to take your work seriously, you need to show them serious work. What do they want to see?

* Galleries want work that will sell. NEVER forget this!

* Galleries want images that are unique and striking. There are lots of “photographers” out there – what makes yours different?

* When you are showing your work to a gallery, don’t try to wow them with how many images you have. Instead, try to impress them with how good your photographs are. Limit your “Book” to a maximum of 20 great and diverse images. (See next bullet point.)

* Galleries want to see that you have a style and identity as a photographer. You can have 10 different subjects, but they shouldn’t look like they were taken by 10 different photographers.

* For gallery purposes, your portfolio or “Book” should be a combination of prints, a tablet (with a larger selection of images in case they ask), and a decent website. Why the prints in this day and age? Because you can’t swipe a print to move to the next one! The experience of looking at and handling a physical print is very different than looking at digital images. It is more intimate and immersive for the viewer (the gallery owner/rep) and can be used to create a more personal bond between the viewer and the creator. Start your book with your strongest image and make sure the first 5 or 6 are killer images. You are there to impress! Also, make sure your last image is visually stunning. You want to want to end on a high note and leave the viewer wanting to see more.

This is an image that looks great large but loses its impact when it is small. Choose portfolio images carefully!

As a side note, when I review people’s photographs I don’t want to be shown them on a phone. I don’t care how big it is… the experience is akin to “let me show you pictures of my kids” and yanking out your wallet. To me, it is a very unprofessional approach as I can’t even begin to assess quality on a 5” screen and it often forces the viewer and the phone owner to violate each other’s “personal space” as they share the image on the screen.

* Technically, your images need to be really good. You need a truly unique image to overcome blown highlights, blocked up shadows, and/or poor composition. If you are trying to play in the gallery league, you are playing with people who know what “good” photography looks like and that’s what you are competing against.

* Galleries NEED to know that the work you deliver is going to be professional in appearance. If you show your work digitally and then come in with prints from a budget Internet service or the drug store, which in many cases is about the same thing – don’t be surprised if the gallery owner has a meltdown. If you don’t know the difference between a print made on exhibition grade paper by an experienced craftsman (could be you) and inexpensive prints purchased from most of the Internet services, then you probably aren’t ready for the gallery scene.

* Prints should be matted and framed or otherwise presented in a professional manner. Color mats VERY rarely work (and that includes black). Frames from the mass merchant craft stores should be avoided like the plague. Seriously, don’t use them! To find out why, please see:

* Your framing should be simple and consistent. You are presenting a body of work and random frames become distracting. Black (or occasionally white) gallery frames are the standard for a reason. Don’t try to use fancy frames to decorate the gallery. Your job is to be a photographer, not an interior designer!

B&W images on black mats make me want to scream, and not in a good way! You will never see an Adams, Weston, or Bullock print with a black or color mat for good reason. PS. The same advice applies to 98% of color images as well.

* Make sure your mats are properly cut and the glass is clean. Seem obvious? One would think, but…

* Always respect the gallery owner’s time. Make an appointment to show your work. If you just appear at the gallery with your book in tow, ask for an appointment rather than ask for them to review it on the spot. Maybe you’ll get lucky and they’ll be willing to drop everything else just for you, but to expect them to do that is simply unreasonable.

* Keep plugging away. Every rejection, and there will be lots of them, should be used as a learning experience. Take comments on your work to heart. The gallery owners aren’t trying to hurt your feelings with negative comments, they are giving you valuable information that can help you grow as a photographer!

Part 2 coming soon

… Showing in exhibitions, art festivals, and public display areas.


Henry Rowan is a national award-winning photographer and the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Center for Photography (PCP) in Doylestown. In addition to being a working, professional photographer, Henry is a frequent lecturer and judge throughout the region and teaches a variety of workshops at the PCP. Henry’s work is frequently on display at galleries and shows and he has gained a following for his distinctive style of portraiture as well as his unique portrayal of manscapes, nature, and sports.

Photographically, Henry’s style is well defined but somewhat difficult to describe. He plays with movement, light, and color in unison to create images that are easy to identify as his. The driving theme of his work is his concept of Non-Existent Imagery:

“The images I create never existed and never will exist. They are combinations of angles, colors, light, time, lenses, sensors, and more, which produce images that the human eye can’t see and the human mind can’t process in real life. Unlike the photojournalist, I am not trying to capture a moment in time, but rather I am hoping to create a feeling in space that conveys the essence of the subject.”

Working within this framework provides a great deal of artistic freedom and fosters a worldview that is both individualistic and offers unlimited creative opportunities. Many of his images are the result of hours of work and are part of his CameraGraph® series, in which post-processing plays a major role to visually construct his “reality”. Regardless of the scene, Henry strives to reveal the essence of his subjects in a manner that is as unique as the subjects themselves.

You may see his work at or contact him at You can also keep abreast of what is going on at the Pennsylvania Center for Photography by visiting them at:, or on Facebook at:

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