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September 3rd, 2009

Building your first gallery exhibition – Ryan Pyle’s ‘Chinese Turkistan’

Posted by Ryan Pyle

As China-based photographer Ryan Pyle says, first exhibitions can be daunting affairs for any level of photographer. For his recent Toronto show of documentary work from Chinese Turkistan, Ryan walks us through the endless tasks he had to navigate — and the rewards that made them worth it. For more info, check out Brian Kosoff’s posts about his first exhibition after leaving commercial photography, and Ryan’s earlier post about making photos on an extreme Tibetan trek.

I recently had an exhibition of my work from Chinese Turkistan, or Xinjiang, China, in Toronto, Canada. It was my first solo exhibition, but similar shows will happen in Europe and China next year. Putting on a gallery show can be a very trying experience for any photographer, emerging or established. But as I learned, the rewards outweigh all the hard work that goes into it.

In the early days of my time in China, I realized that I had a strong connection to the province of Xinjiang, the mainly Muslim region in northwest China. The Chinese portion of the Silk Road, once known as Chinese Turkistan, is changing before our eyes. Ancient mud brick homes and labyrinth-like towns are being torn down in the name of “progress.” I had traveled in the region often and felt an immediate passion to tell the stories of its people, but I didn’t actually make images there until some years later, in 2005, when I visited the region on assignment.

I’d made the images for myself, but wanted to share them with the world. I like to contact the galleries I’m familiar with by email and set up face-to-face meetings to show prints. Some galleries are very open minded and want to meet emerging photographers. Most galleries don’t even reply. It’s a competitive, in some cases cut-throat, industry — and the economic crisis has made it that much more difficult to get started.

The galleries that were interested in my work and wanted to collaborate believed that the topic is important and that the pictures were strong. But perhaps more importantly, they believed that my work, over the next few decades, would provide an important historical reference to the change taking place throughout China. They wanted to begin what could be a very long-term relationship earlier rather than later.

Contracts with different galleries can vary, but usually it’s a 50/50 split on sales, and the gallery is responsible for publicity and marketing. Photographers who are good at promoting themselves shouldn’t sit back and explect the gallery manage the entire process, though. The contacts a photographer can call on are often totally outside those of the gallery, so photographer-led marketing is just as important as what the gallery does.

“Photographers who are good at promoting shouldn’t sit back and expect the gallery manage the entire process.”

Editing is obviously a huge part of this process, too. When I was creating an edit to send to galleries I was interested in working with, I chose to highlight the culture, the religion, and the beauty of this region. I have such a long-term view for documenting this area, so I didn’t try to make my edit the final say on the topic. My edit for a publication, on the other hand, would include fewer images and would not have the luxury of such a long-term view. Each image I show to a magazine has to convey the conflict and the emotion of this historical moment.

For this exhibition in Toronto, the curator and I discussed what we wanted to show. We decided that this first show shouldn’t try and do “too much,” meaning tell the entire story of Chinese Turkistan in 20 or 30 prints. Instead we simply wanted to introduce people to the region. Our edit was a celebration of the region’s culture and less about the ideological conflict. Ultimately we want to look closely at the change the region is going through — but you can’t show people how a region is changing without showing them the region and culture first. The next show will be more of a mix of culture and change.

Once the images for the show were chosen, I moved on to printing, framing, and shipping. My Kodak TriX 400 negatives were sent to my printer in Toronto, who hand-printed the show in a wet dark room — yes, just like back in the old days. What Bob Carnie can do with a 35mm negative is remarkable and inspiring. Once the print is dried and flattened, it’s mounted, signed, and framed. Because my printer was in the same city as the exhibition, he managed the entire process for me, but often prints have to be shipped internationally, and the gallery will sometimes help with framing and other details.

During this long process, all while watching costs and collaborating with the gallery on a guest list, there were a few times I wanted to scream: “I just want to take pictures, not deal with all of this other crap!” But just about at that moment, it was time for the opening. So I put on my suit, remembered to shave, and talked with the audience at the gallery about my passion, my dedication to my subject and documentary photography. Because my work is from a remote and often misunderstood place, I try always try to give a 20-30 minute lecture prior to each show for those who are interested.

I was very touched during this most recent show when a couple, both Uygur refugee’s living in Toronto, thanked me for caring and educating people about their homeland. The couple had not been in touch with either of their parents or their two teenage children, who are still in Urumqi, the city which experienced ethnic riots in early July.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Do you have stories from your first exhibition? Or questions about how to produce one?

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