I walked into my local coffee shop recently and noticed a new photography exhibition on the walls. Most were fairly large (20″ x 30″) images of urban landscapes featuring trees, footpaths, and other similar scenes. They were mounted in nice wooden frames with a standard white mat.
At first glance, I liked the perspectives the photographer used for many of the images, using a wide angle lens to create a dramatic perspective. Get close enough to a tree, as several of the images did, and the branches take on a life of their own, creating bold lines and repeating shapes throughout the image. It’s a perspective I don’t see often enough, and I appreciated the photographer’s vision in trying to capture the essence of the subject.
As I looked more closely, however, I noticed the paper was warped on most of the images. From an angle, it looked like the paper had buckled in varying amounts depending on the size of the print. I’ve seen this problem before, and it is usually due to
- lightweight and poor quality paper that warps and swells with environmental conditions, or
- poorly mounted and framed prints.
And a combination of the two is a recipe for poor looking exhibition. In my opinion, that doesn’t reflect too well on the artist.
The weight of a paper, or its grammage, is expressed in grams per square meter, commonly denoted as “gsm.” Most fine art papers are available in lightweight (150-200gsm) and heavier weight (300+gsm) versions. While there is nothing wrong with lightweight paper, it’s important to consider the paper brand. Papers from the best manufacturers use better paper structure, as well as better materials that resist warping and are more stable in varying conditions. Even so, there’s always the chance of slight warping of the papers surface since you can never predict the extent of changes in the environment.
I remember a few years ago we had an extremely hot and humid summer, something like 75% humidity and higher for about two weeks. After making some prints, I noticed swelling in some of the papers I had stored in my studio, which is partially below ground level. I now store all of my paper stock on the second floor of my home until I need them to make prints. This keeps them in a more stable environment and prevents any surprises after I’ve spent valuable ink making a print. Plus I only use the highest quality papers available.
I also prefer heavyweight paper (300+gsm) for several reasons. The paper lays flatter when framed, and its density and thickness helps keep it that way over time. But another reason is so that I can mount the prints to the backer board without dry mounting. This means the print is never compromised in any way, and simply floats between the backer board and mat. I use Lineco Archival Clear Photo Corners to hold the prints in place, and they allow a print to be removed in the future without any damage to the actual print.
If you’re using lightweight paper, and making fairly large prints, then the optimal way to mount them is by dry mounting. This creates a permanent seal between the print and backer board and eliminates any chance of warping or buckling. Of course, this is a permanent process, and severely compromises the longevity of the print, as well as its value to potential buyers and collectors. But if those issues are not important, then it’s the best looking presentation for an exhibition.
As I thought about the prints on the walls, and photography exhibitions in general, I thought I would share some principles that I feel strongly about.
- First, if you decide to exhibit your work, take pride in your work. Learn what differentiates a good paper from a mediocre paper, a good framing job from a bad one. Show that you care about excellence – it makes a difference.
- Second, just because it’s your first show doesn’t mean it’s any less important than your fifth or fiftieth. It’s critical to create a positive first impression. I totally understand improving over time and refining your presentation, but in todays world of limited attention spans, you need to put your best foot forward at every opportunity. As I’ve said many times, show the work you’re proud of, without excuses or explanations about missed opportunities or subpar print quality. If that means you only show half of the images you normally would, then so be it – but make every one count. Quality always trumps quantity.
Maybe I’m being too hard on the photographer. Maybe I’m missing the point of exposure and getting feedback. He/she was trying to do something courageous, which is what exhibiting your work is. Just showing your work in public can be a huge step for many, and I congratulate him/her for taking that step. But don’t hamper that courage by taking shortcuts, or worse not realizing how simple improvements can make a huge impact in how others perceive your work. In a world of perception, that often makes the difference between just good and truly great.
I obsessed over my very first exhibition and made sure it was the best I could produce at the time. That was one of the best things I ever did for my career. Photography is hard enough when things are out of our control, so make sure what you can control is the best it can be. That small margin will make all difference.
People ask me all the time for advice about how to be successful as a photographer. One answer I give: make every detail count.