Guest Contributor Neal Rantoul On Art In Photography


Art in Photography… Showing: Gal­leries, Museums and Elsewhere

Here I am on Photoweenie, which is a real honor. Some of you may know my work or my blog which resides at: I have also been on Lenscratch a couple of times and I wrote a short piece on working aerially for Luminous Landscape recently and then, as these things go, it was picked up by dpreview.

At any rate, I wanted to write here about showing; galleries, museums and all things art in photography. Am I qualified? With over 50 shows over my career and two up right now in the Boston area (Panopticon Gallery and the Danforth Museum) I at least can speak from experience as to what to expect and what you get.

Almost always less than what you need, to coin a phrase from the Rolling Stones song.

Simply put, that if you expect fame, fortune and critical acclaim for getting your work shown you may not be living on this planet. Does it happen? Yes, I suppose it does. As an example, when the Starn Twins burst upon the art scene in the eighties, there was a flurry of activity and excitement. Or earlier when Diane Arbus emerged in New York in the seventies. Her work was clearly a break through for the medium and for women too. But it is rare and mostly art trudges along as a somewhat lower level of activity with artists working hard, producing new work, galleries and museums paying occasional attention to some or all of it, then moving on to the next person’s work and so on. There is real value in perseverance, of being out there with good work again and again with a proven track record. Even the heroes in our field, the Lee Friedlanders, the Bruce Davidsons, the Sally Manns and the Emmet Gowins have to keep plugging away, need to show new work that is alive and visceral, work that reinvigorates the concept of who they are in the discipline while being respectful of where they’ve come from. The appetite for new work is, of course, large but there is also some baggage inherent in being someone with an established career. By this I mean that often a well known artist is well known for something they’ve done practically in an earlier former life. This can be hard when he/she is disillusioned with that work and seeks to be known for a completely different kind of work they are doing now.

Regional Verses National
Most art is shown and made regionally. By this I mean that most artists have a regional fan base and their work seldom goes national or global. Most will get a show or be in a show somewhere else from where they live but it seldom amounts to much. Galleries particularly are susceptible to this, large museums less so.  Some art markets sit way outside this definition, of course. New York is at the top of this list, but other large cities fit into this as well. In those markets I would bet that being local could even be a liability and for certain it makes it really difficult for the new and mostly young local talent to get noticed in such a large sphere.

As a for instance, it was always almost impossible to get any traction with work in the Boston area, if you lived there. I believe this is less of an issue now than when I was younger in the 70’s and 80’s but it certainly was true in my case.  One popular tactic was to get your work shown successfully in New York so that you could bring it back to Boston because you were now an established artist.

Galleries and Museums
Of all the avenues for getting one’s work out I believe galleries are the most fluid and adaptable, flexible and enterprising. Galleries are, after all, small businesses and they are trying to compete in a large market that requires real enterprising business acumen. Museums, on the other hand, are slow, large behemoths that move at a glacial pace and do not take chances often. There are exceptions of course, as in when the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston chose to show the photographer Herb Ritts. This was by all accounts ridiculous as Ritts was a high-end advertising photographer with little credibility in the art world.

Group Shows Verses Solo Shows
There is another line of distinction that needs looking at. Representation of work in a group show verses having a one person show. All younger artists do this, submit work for group shows. Some more well established artists do as well but I think of this as more of a placeholder than something that furthers a career. By this I mean that if the show is in a category that is your own stock in trade, so to speak, then it would unconscionable for your work to not be represented in that show. As a younger artist one of the ways that my work was different and known was that I photographed in black and white infrared. For my work to not be shown in a survey that looked at contemporary black and white infrared photography would be bad and could cause my career some damage.

Solo shows are better, of course, particularly if where you are shown in a “one person” is an excellent gallery, at a good time of year, with good publicity and a gallery backing you and your work every step of the way. But even a show in a restaurant or a bar that is only your work, has clear advantages in that you can list it as a one person show, you can Facebook and Twitter it as one and you can email your friends and contacts about it.

Do You Know”
Specifically, getting your art shown is a “do you know” game, meaning that places that might be likely to show your work aren’t gong to if they don’t know you or have only met you at an opening or in passing. This is where the cold call comes in, taking the initiative to establish a working relationship with those that you want to show your work. Rebuffed, turned down, blown off, told to try again in six months or a year? Suck it up, do try again if possible but be okay about moving on to plan B, whatever that may be. If you do get a chance to show your portfolio, congratulations, you have crossed a very large hurdle.

As a young artist I’d had some initial success getting my paintings exhibited and sold in galleries but when I switched over to photography full time, galleries didn’t seem very interested in my work. This did upset me but artists need to have thick skins. I just moved laterally, to places that would show my work. In early days I had considerable success showing my work in academic galleries. I had one man shows at Harvard, MIT, Hampshire College, Dartmouth and so on. All those places and most other schools have galleries or small museums and need a constant flow of work to hang on their walls. Would my work sell? Seldom. Would the school pay for the framing or my travel? No. Would the show get reviewed by a major newspaper? No. Was it worth it? Yes.

As I said when I started out: You seldom get as much as you need. But you might get the satisfaction that you got your work up, that people saw it and thought about and perhaps were enlightened, enriched, affected, moved, concerned and impressed by it.

That may just be good enough.

The facts:
Neal Rantoul is a career artist/photographer/teacher with over forty years of experience of teaching photography and exhibiting his work. He is a professor emeritus from Northeastern University, where he retired in 2012. He now devotes his full time to making pictures and working to increase awareness of his work to a national and international audience. He lives in Cambridge, MA and his site is:

Top left and above: Neal Rantoul, Dunes, 2013

Neal Rantoul, Salton Sea, CA, 2013