Life through a lens

Learning from my first exhibition

Me and Robin at "John, I'm Only Dancing"

Now that the dust is settling after Friday’s opening to “John I’m Only Dancing”, an exhibition by Robin Burgess and myself at The Virginia Gallery, I can now take stock of things and look back the whole experience of getting together an exhibition- which has been thrilling, frustrating, intense and very educational, with many lessons learned.

  • You need more work than you’d expect

Previously, I have taken part in group exhibitions, submitting a small amount of work to a group of a number of artists, organised by a gallery owner. There’s no real pressure to fill a large amount of space. That was not the case with “John I’m Only Dancing”! I was ready to produce a lot more work, but the magnitude of the change of scale in the contribution required was much larger than I had initially expected.

Three weeks before the exhibition, I had met Jonathon Pryce of Les Garcons De Glasgow, who was photographing street fashion for his own project for Cruise, which would collect together street fashion images together from different cities. For this, he hoped to get over 100 good images from his different cities. When you consider how many photographs and talking to people to get these kind of results, you can appreciate how much work this for a art project! I remember saying to him that I kind of know how he feels.

Luckily I had enough work already done for my project. Indeed, myself and Robin had produced more than we thought was necessary, and it only just about filled the wall space. Indeed, we ended up adding some extra work! By this time, of course, we were getting a sense of how much we needed.

  • You’ll have more work than you think you have (ie you do have a body of work)

Over the past couple of years, I’d taken photos of so many events, I didn’t step back to consider I actually had a large body of work to choose from.  One of the benefits of working on this exhibition was the chance to take stock of my work over the years and realise that, yes, I had this body of work, and there was more than enough of it to be represented in this exhibition. Writing phrases like “my body of work” still feel a little funny, but now I realise that they are not an exaggeration.

  • It takes time to build up momentum

At the start of the project, about three months ago, it seemed quite daunting the amount of work needed, and indeed early progress was quite stop-start, and slow moving. However, each of these steps generated their own momentum, and by the last month things were starting to come together quickly. This wasn’t due to a last minute rush, but was made possible due to the momentum generated by those early steps. The old saying about the journey of a thousand miles beginning with the first step applies here. It’s important to start as early as possible even if it’s just a few small steps.

  • You learn quickly about the paperwork and organisation behind an exhibition.

I already had an inkling of some of the organisation required through my submissions to group shows, but it was only through taking part in the organisation of our own show (With the help of Robin, and Drew Bigglestone and Ian Diamond from The Virginia Gallery) that I realised how much work is really needed. People do tend to have this image of artists as being a bit indolent and airy-fairy. However the acts of creating has a technical aspect which is as important as the intuitive and experimental aspect. I wouldn’t have made my best photographs if I hadn’t paid attention to the technical aspect of how to work my camera, and in addition to that there was also the aspect of getting out there and taking photographs in as many situations as possible, and looking for scenarios and potential shots. Similarly Robin wouldn’t have done his paintings without the understanding the technical aspect of painting, and spending effort on bringing these paintings to fruition. As Seth Goldin of the 99% Club (Itself a reference to the famous quote attributed to Edison about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration) observes that creative worked are not paid to create, but paid to ship. It’s a very similar story to bringing about the creation of works for an exhibition.It’s also a similar story to organising the exhibition itself. Once a slot in the schedule of the gallery has been agreed, then after the works are completed, they have to be catalogued, labels made, and then hung in a way that is representative of the subject matter. In the case of our exhibition, which was about a specific subject matter, we also experimented with various ideas for the presentation of the exhibition. We also specifically wanted this to work as a single body of work rather than the work of two artists.

Then there’s the publicity. Obviously you want as many of your friends to know, but also the exhibition has to be publicised to a wider world. Although Drew and Iain were more experience, neither myself not Robin were experienced at PR, but we learned pretty quickly about who to contact at magazines to get listed, and having to go round various venues to give out flyers, and basically sell your exhibition to anyone you come in contact with. As the last week came, I started a countdown on my Facebook and Twitter, and, as with talking to people face to face, this generated a surprising amount of interest. It’s reckoned that only a certain percentage of people who say they’ll turn up actually do, so it’s useful to let as many people know about an even as possible. By the time the exhibition was coming around Robin and myself were much more confident about publicising our work and we had a more rounded perspective on the means and channels needed fr PR.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help

With the PR, we definitely needed help and advice, so we bit the bullet and asked. However, sometimes you can get help for unexpected things. For example, I mentioned to a friend that I needed to get some photos done as a large sized poster, but my usual channel was a bit expensive, and I might have to get it from a cheaper online company. She immediately recommended an alternative company that was cheaper and more local.

The point is: you never know what you can get if you don’t ask.

  • Always listen to advice, but don’t be surprised if you know more than you think you do.

I’ve had so much good advice from many people over the past few months. A surprising amount of it was confirming things I had already thought of. This is not to belittle the advice, by the way- often that’s what good advice does- and it did increase confidence in my instincts. (I’ll still listen to advice though!)

  • You’ll think of creative solutions to any trouble that comes up.

From working out ways to make my cataloguing and labelling of work easier, to methods of printing and framing, to ways of arranging and lighting work, I’ve pressed to come with instant solutions of loads of little problems. One example is on the day of hanging, I had a section where I had many little shots of locations arranged around a larger image depicting a map. Wondering how to arrange them, I had the idea of connecting the locations to the map with string. Upon the initial hanging, we noticed this looked a little like a clock, except that there were eleven locations. Luckily we had another print of similar size, and added that, and there was our “clock”! Similarly, I had a sequence of four posters to introduce visitors to the exhibition, but the last two posters would have been in a place that had very little light. Looking for a temporary lighting situation, I found a cheap led spotlight that could be stuck on the nearby walls.

  • You might be surprised at how many people are interested in your work.

Maybe it’s because I’m too close to my work, but I didn’t really know how people would react to it. However, the exhibition opening brought a lot of people who hadn’t seen either my work or Robin’s work, but were interested in it, and interested in talking about it with us.

  • Different people see different things in your work

This is something I started to learn almost from the beginning of the project, and is one of the major things that resulted from it being a collaboration with Robin. If this had been a solo show of my work, then my choices of images would have been noticeably different, picked according to what I would have considered the “story” of my photography. What’s interesting is the way Robin saw things in many of the images that would not have fitted in this story, and how he built on them. Indeed, the way he built on them affected my choices of additional works, which were designed to reflect his colourful interpretations. And Robin isn’t the only one. So many people have commented on elements of my work that reflect a different way of looking at my work that I might not have considered before.

As a result, I’m looking on my body of work in a slightly different way now.

John I’m Only Dancing” is on until Sept 12th at The Virginia Gallery, below Luke & Jacks, 45 Virginia Street, Glasgow. You can see my photos of the event here.


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