Routes in for the photo artist

David Drake, Director of Ffotogallery, Cardiff, spoke at the Symposium in 2014 and here outlines his concerns for the starting photographer.

I set out three different routes to establishing yourself in the art/documentary photography world, which are somewhat stereotypical but based on real experience:

1) the exceptional graduate who comes to the attention of the local gallery/arts centre, receives a small grant from the Arts Council and develops a strong portfolio, pays to attend a number of UK and European portfolio reviews, leading to an offer from a European photography publisher to make and distribute a book of the work for a fee of £15-20K. The photographer raises the money and the book gets good reviews and an editorial feature, leading to exhibition opportunities.

2) the Internet-savvy graduate who crowd-funds a self-published book, and with the enthusiastic community of interest around the book, it receives positive feedback on various influential blogs and comes to the attention of an influential ‘taste-maker’ like Martin Parr, who buys 25 copies of the book and declares it the most exciting self-published photo book of the year, leading to several European photo book awards and the entire first edition selling out. Second hand copies of the book change hands for silly prices, and subsequently there is an offer from a leading German publisher to produce a second edition.

3) the graduate who has produced a strong and coherent body of work, and responding to an open call from a European photography festival gets her work selected for a thematic group show. The photographer is required to supply digital files and inkjet prints are made by the festival for exhibition purposes. Exposure at the festival leads to interest from a UK gallery and that organisation offers a first solo exhibition. However, Arts Council cuts have left the gallery with no money for artist fees, and they can only meet half of the production and presentation costs so the onus is on the photographer to find significant funds to produce the work for the exhibition, which appears to be an important opportunity for increased exposure.

Whereas it is positive that there are many different routes to success in the photography world, it does concern me that the above three examples place almost all the responsibility for financing their early career development on the emergent photographer, who has already borne the financial cost of getting through higher education. I would like to see more equity between the individual photographer/artist and the commissioning gallery/publisher, with a fairer sharing of the financial cost and risk, and a commitment to work together over a period of time to achieve the best possible outcome, artistically and professionally, for both parties. Galleries and publishers should not act as privileged ‘gate-keepers’ who hold the keys to success; they should utilise their professional judgement and influence to help the most talented individual photographers to maximise their creative potential, and build sustainable careers.

I believe that good work will generally find its audience, one way or another. However, I feel the photography world is currently structured in a way that inhibits opportunities for the many thousand emergent photographers and protects the interests of the already established ‘names’ – a somewhat exclusive group of mostly male photographers and photo book publishers operating on a New York-London-Paris-Berlin axis of power. There are signs of change in the way that social media and artist-led initiatives have opened new routes for producing, publishing, exhibiting and distributing work, and through increased artist mobility in the form of residencies, commissions, international networks and collaborative working.

Finally, it pays to remember that immediate success is very rare, and photographers who want exposure and recognition need to strategically plan their career progression route, alongside building networks and supporters, producing excellent work and seizing good opportunities as they arise.