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My very first gallery presentation was actually in 1976 when I was 18, which resulted in my first solo show in New York City. Times were very different in 2001 when I presented to a co-op gallery, to which my acceptance was already a certainty. With co-op galleries, if your work is of reasonable quality and they need another paying member, well…you’re in. But co-ops deserves consideration, since my show there eventually led to my first gallery presentation that “mattered.”
What brought me to this co-op gallery was simple — my wife. One of the attractions of our cute Hudson River town was the fact there were seven galleries near by. When we’d walk by a gallery, my wife would nudge me about joining one of them or seeking representation. Even though I was spending a fair amount of time shooting landscapes after rekindling my interest in it a year earlier, I’d usually dismiss the idea saying I really didn’t have that much time to spend on it. But to be honest, I was uneasy about being seen as a commercial photographer “playing” at being an artist. But my wife continued to encourage me, and I eventually showed them my work, handed them my check, and was accepted as a member. If only it was so easy at non co-op galleries!
A few months after joining this co-op gallery, it was my turn for my solo show, in April 2001. The day I hung the show was the first time I had been physically surrounded by my new work and the first time I noticed that I was already showing rudimentary signs of having a style. It was illuminating. I highly recommend that every serious photographer literally surround themselves with their work and give it a good look all at once.
The show opened and I have to admit I was extremely curious how the viewers would react. I pretended to be just another viewer while eavesdropping on people in an effort to hear their honest reactions. I was very pleasantly surprised. My fears of being chased out of town by torch-wielding townsfolk turned out to be unfounded. Not only was the work well received, I actually sold prints — quite a few in fact! By the second weekend of the show, I had made a very respectable profit, and it began to appear that I could make a living doing this type of work. I would no longer need an expensive photo studio in Manhattan and the pressure from such a high overhead. I was elated; however, one gallery would not be enough to replace my established commercial photography business. I would need more galleries.
First I did a little research to narrow down my list of galleries to ones that seemed to have an appreciation or interest in my genre of work. Just like showing my work to advertising clients: show your hamburger picture to MacDonald’s ad agency, your lipstick photos to Revlon’s.
Once I had my list of potential galleries in NYC, it was time to make calls. Some galleries were willing to see me for an in-person presentation; others just wanted me to drop off my portfolio. I had two 11×14” portfolios of my landscape prints, matted and mounted — one for drop-offs and one for in-person presentations.
On day, I had arranged to drop off a portfolio at a gallery and also had made an appointment for an in-person presentation at Edward Carter Gallery. Both galleries showed a lot of B&W landscape work, ECG at one point touting itself as the biggest collection of Ansel Adams prints. The morning of the Carter meeting I received a call from the gallery where I had dropped off my portfolio. They thanked me and said I could pick up my portfolio at any time. I was disappointed but arranged to pick up the first portfolio and then went to see Mr. Carter at ECG.
When I walked into ECG I was blown away with how beautiful the gallery was. It was not the typical white walls and emptiness. This gallery had dark gray, nearly black walls and the prints, mostly Ansel, just popped off of them. There was a seating area, double Eames chairs, and Mr. Carter asked me to sit. He removed an Ansel print from the small wall directly in front of the chairs and asked me to present my work in that spot — the same spot where the Adams’ print had just hung!
Now, I had a lot of experience, about 25 years worth, showing my work to people: art directors, creative directors, picture editors, etc. But this was different, it was my personal work. It’s one thing to show an AD who works on a cosmetics account your assignment work with other cosmetics clients, and something else entirely to show someone work that has much deeper meaning for you. And as I held each image in the spotlight for Mr. Carter to see, I couldn’t help but notice that I was facing several Adams prints, and behind me were several more, and I’m starting to think to myself, “Who am I kidding?” Whether you love, hate, or are neutral regarding Ansel Adams’ work, there’s no denying his contribution to photography. He’s not called St. Ansel for nothing. There’s actually a mountain named after him.
So I finish with my presentation, and the whole time Mr. Carter had been stone-faced, poker-faced, so I was not expecting a desirable outcome. I boxed up my prints, sat down next to him, and he turned to me and said, “I’d be honored to represent you.” That was not quite the response I was expecting. So, trying to be cool and acting as though no other outcome could have been possible, I ask him what the terms of representation were (good comeback!). Of course I started dialing my cell phone the second I walked out of the gallery, only to be frustrated by a lack of reception until I stepped outside onto Broadway. “Honey, I got an NYC gallery!!”
Coincidently, later that week I receive a call from the owner of the gallery where the staff had told me to pick up my portfolio. She asked why I had picked up the portfolio when she had been interested in meeting with me and talking about representation. Apparently someone on her staff had made an error. I had to tell her that I had just signed with another gallery — a real bummer since 9/11 ultimately put ECG out of business, and her gallery is still doing really well.
About a week after my meeting at ECG, I went with my wife, my parents, and my uncle (who was an avid photographer and had introduced me to photography) to ECG. There, next to prints by Ansel Adams, hung my own prints. It meant a lot to me then — and whenever I see my work hanging in the company of gifted photographers, it still means a lot to me.