Is the Dominance of the Gallery System Photography’s Biggest Handicap?


General Photography


Here’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a while: Is the Dominance of the Gallery System Photography’s Biggest Handicap? This is certainly not how I would have phrased the question, but there are a few things to talk about here. (more)

When I read that question, my first reaction was to ask “Is the gallery system so dominant?” That didn’t seem to make sense to me. What is more, I could easily think of a bunch more handicaps photography is facing today, many of which I’ve discussed on this site before. But there is something very valid about the question, because, let’s face it, you just have to talk to the right people to realize that a gallery show is often seen as what it takes to… Yeah, to what? I suppose to be something like an established photographer. If you go to New York City, there is a lot of talk about gallery shows and about whether or not there is a gallery in New York City representing a photographer.

Gallery shows also often trigger coverage in the media that do not regularly talk about photography. The big question inevitably seems to be whether there will be a review in New Yorker magazine or whether - the Holy Grail - the mighty New York Times will publish a review. It won’t surprise regular readers of this site that I think that as nice as seeing one’s name in print might be something like that cannot really be the criterion for whether or not a show is a success, can it?

Maybe it’s my past as a scientist talking here. In academia, recognition by one’s peers is what matters. I would like to think it’s the same in the world of photography, and you might want to add the show’s perception by the general public as well.

Make no mistake, I love a good exhibition. Whenever I get the chance I go to photography galleries to look. I want to see images on the wall, because once you’re in the presence of something special the experience is most sublime. But I also know that a gallery show is just one aspect of photography. There’s a lot more. I’ve talked almost ad nauseam about photobooks over the past years - one could probably get a better idea of contemporary photography from photobooks than from gallery shows, simply because the chance that some photography will make it into a book is much larger.

There used to be that old Catch 22: To get a gallery show you were told you needed a photobook. To get a photobook you needed a show. Now that photobook making has exploded, now that there are so many options, I don’t know whether that’s such a problem any longer: You can publish your own book.

Of course, there is also the fact that if you want to sell work then that (still) runs through a certain machinery galleries are a very important factor of. But then that becomes a commercial aspect. I’m interested in photography and not in how it sells. I understand that selling one’s work is an important aspect to consider for a photographer, but somehow it just seems as if there was a little bit too much emphasis on the selling and a little bit too little on that, which really makes photography interesting: The photographs themselves. It’s just naive me talking here, but I think if we spent a lot more time talking about photography - and less about selling it - we might get more people interested in photography.

What I don’t want do, though, is to pretend that it’s the galleries’ fault. Galleries have a very specific purpose, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Which brings me back to my original problem with the question, namely the problem with the word “dominance”. Are they really so dominant? Or are they only dominant when you think about selling work?

There is a connection to museums here, too, but I need to ask: As nice as having a print in some museum’s collection might be is that why you take photographs? (just as an aside, many of the photography shows at museums I’ve seen recently were incredibly underwhelming)

So my answer would be that I actually don’t see a real problem here (especially not since the web has now given us another very powerful tool to disseminate photography). And even if there is a problem (feel free to email me and tell me what the problem is), it doesn’t seem to be getting into the way of truly amazing photography being produced right now, does it?