exhibiting – never again!

I’ve spent most of my life doing things that helped other people achieve whatever they wanted to achieve.  Sometimes this involved teaching people how to use computers or cameras, sometimes it involved moving location because of my husband’s job, sometimes it meant working hard to maintain a clean and welcoming home for my Airbnb visitors, or writing newsletters for someone else’s company.  But slowly, over the last couple of years, I’ve gradually come round to thinking that it’s my time to do something for me – I feel the frustration of a lot of unfulfilled potential..  So for the time being I’ve dropped most other things and am trying to blow my own trumpet a little.  I feel uncomfortable with this – I don’t really like being in the spotlight – and I also miss the satisfaction of feeling that I’ve helped in some way.  Helping myself is both harder and more guilt-inducing.

It’s been a big learning curve, both in practical terms and in terms of my own reactions and motivations.  My first step forward was to set up an Instagram account.  I began to get followers and ‘likes’ almost immediately and am now up to 134 followers.  I like Instagram and will continue with it, but I’m also aware how little all these ‘likes’ and followers mean.  I’d noticed that my follower numbers tended to go up and down a bit and, naively, I hadn’t realised that a lot of people will follow just so that you follow them back.  This doesn’t work with me, because I’ll only follow work that I really like, hence the up and down figures.  But it also highlights just how meaningless the whole thing is and I wonder how many of my 134 actually care about or like my work – but that’s social media for you!  (Please have a look, if you like – you can find me using #gillywalkerimages)

The other thing that I’ve been involved in is showing my work, which has begun with taking part in Nottinghamshire Open Studios throughout May, and which has now progressed to my own exhibition at beloved@thebarn in Southwell in July.  For the Open Studios I only had to produce a few pieces; for the solo exhibit I needed to fill a whole wall.  I’m so relieved I had this gentle run-up as there’s been a lot to learn and even so, things have gone wrong.

My first problem was the cost of framing.  Even if you find a cheap way of framing and mounting your photos, it remains very expensive if you have to do a lot of them.  I’m still in a state of shock about it all.  I was lucky enough to find an online framing supply place that does good quality budget frames as well as all the other accoutrements you might need for any framing purpose.  (If you’re interested, they’re called Brampton Framing and I can recommend them.)  To begin with I stuck to A4 prints, which I can make myself at home, plus ‘value’ frames and mounts.  There’s a limited choice of the budget frames – you can get black or you can get white – and you can specify the width of the simple wood frame.  They come with mounts in the price, and there’s a choice of 23 colours.  I settled on two combinations – white frames with Smoke (mid grey) mounts that work for most images, and black frames with black mounts that work brilliantly for a few of them.  The white and pale grey combination looks fresh and modern and I’m really pleased with it, and the black makes the right images glow out of it.

So far so good – but these are quite small pieces and for my solo exhibit I needed some larger pieces.  Larger prints are straightforward – I get these from Digitalab who do a very good job at reasonable prices.  However, the framing was more of a problem – see above, about cost!  I upcycled one frame that I already had, sticking to the white frame/smoke mount combination, ordered another largish square frame, and had another long horizontal frame custom made to hold a sequence of three prints that worked well together.  But I had been asked to produce a large statement piece.  I had the idea of upcycling a very large, professionally made frame that I already had and which contained a print that I didn’t particularly like, which seemed like a good idea at the time but turned into a bit of a disaster.

First I had to take it apart.  Peeling the tape off the back and scraping the remnants of it from the wood, took quite a while.  I bent back the metal pins, and managed to get the backboard out, but the mount and print wouldn’t budge.  After some closer examination, I realised that the mount/print had been taped to the glass in a kind of sandwich.  With a bit of help I managed to run a knife round the edge and cut through the tape binding them together, eventually removing the mount/print.  Next the glass, but it wouldn’t budge – it almost looked like the metal pins had been put in after the glass and it was obviously going to be impossible to get the glass out.  Never mind, I thought, I’ll paint it with the glass in place, although this was going to be a slightly precarious exercise as the frame was so big that the glass was very vulnerable to breaking.

In the meantime, my larger prints arrived, having taken quite a bit longer than usual.  On trying out the largest print with the mount and the frame, I found that somehow the mount had been cut about 3mm larger than it should have been and didn’t fit the frame.  That was fairly easily solved and I used a sharp craft knife to trim the edges.  However the aperture in the centre, which should have been about 3mm smaller than the print, was exactly the same size and the print was falling through.  I have no idea whose fault this was – I thought I’d been very careful with measurements, but I’m notoriously bad at measuring things so it might well have been down to me.  I solved this problem by sticking the print to a much larger piece of paper and then fixing the whole thing to the back of the mount – not ideal, very amateurish and I wouldn’t sell it like this, but it got the job done and looked fine.

I was on the home stretch by this time, but panicking wildly as I only had a few hours left to get it all together as the prints only arrived the day before I was due to hang. (Please note: this whole story is a great example of how NOT to prepare for an exhibition)  The masking tape I used to protect the glass had stuck to the paint on the frame, so I had to run a sharp knife around it to get it off cleanly.  Finally, and with great relief, I placed the mount/print in the frame and tried to insert the backing board.  It was really tight and I struggled to get it in, and while I was doing this the glass – the glass that no way would come out of the frame when I tried – came partially out of the frame.  And I couldn’t get it back in.  You may have guessed the rest – I got all of it in except for one corner which refused to budge, and of course it ended up breaking.  There was nothing I could do except take along the rest of the work and promise to sort something out regarding the big piece.

Blue leaf reflection

Disasters aside, choosing which images to show has been really difficult.  First off, there’s context – my work is being shown in a space that’s half gallery, half craft/gift shop, so it needs to have some commercial appeal while at the same time being images that I feel happy with and that are representative of my work.  The second and more difficult issue is that I tend to work in series, or themes.  This means that a lot of what I do doesn’t terribly lend itself to showcasing single shots – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and would be better displayed as a book or slideshow.  Also, some of the work I’m best pleased with is unlikely to be popular with viewers and buyers – eg, I’ve done a lot of recent photography in Newark Cemetery and people don’t really want photos of gravestones on their walls.  I wouldn’t, either!

This has forced me to go back in time for a lot of the images I’ve used.  However, what I’ve done is reworked many of them as my skills in post-processing and my access to useful software have both increased since these were taken.  It also makes them feel fresher to me and rekindles my interest in them. And while, at the time, I was still adhering to the ‘least processing necessary’ view, I now don’t care about that and am only interested in the final result.  It doesn’t matter to me how I get there and I feel I’m moving towards what might be called photo-based art rather than photography, the latter raising all sorts of expectations in people’s minds that I don’t always fulfill.

This whole process has been – at varying times – frustrating, enlightening, infuriating, motivating, panic-inducing and educational.  There have been times when I wish I’d never started on it.  However, it does feel good to see my work nicely presented, on a wall where other people can look at it.  I’ve learned an awful lot from the process.  I haven’t managed to fill a great deal of space even though it’s cost me more than I can really afford, but I now have a basis for building on and adding more work.  I’m glad I did it – but I’m not in any hurry to do it again…….

If you’re in the area, you can see my pictures at beloved@thebarn, King Street, Southwell, Notts, NG25 0EH, from now until the end of July 2018.  The gallery is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

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