Saturday, January 14, 2017

How To Land Work In A Museum

Placing artwork in museum collections is a long-term goal of many photographers, and for good reason. A museum confers respectability, archival filing, posthumous storage, and possible viewing and scholarship opportunities for your work. Museums are great gigs all around. 

OK, Fine. But how do you get your images into a museum? What are some tricks of the trade? As a photographer who has installed a shit-ton of work in museums —some of which remains on display— I get this question a lot. This simple answer is that it's not easy. In fact, becoming museumified can be a formidable task. But with hard work, perseverance, and a little luck it can be done.

What follows are a few simple tips for photographers that I've developed over the years. Note, these are not guaranteed methods. Situations vary. But for most photographers and most museums they should lead to successful submissions. In my experience these are the only methods with a proven track record. Other ways may also work, but I've found them much less reliable.

1. Submit materials appropriate to the venue. In order for your submission to remain on a museum's walls, it must look like part of the surrounding show. Don't just install photos blindly. Instead you should cater your work to a particular exhibition's display context. For example, if a museum is showing large black and white photographs, a smaller color print is likely to stand out, and will probably be removed by the authorities. Museums often post information online regarding exhibition specifics. A little background research will potentially pay off with a display of longer duration. 

2. Night or Day? Think carefully about when to submit work into a museum. The advantage of a daytime submission is that most museums are open during normal business hours. During daytime you should be able to enter the museum easily with your artwork carried in a small portable container like a mailing tube or protective fileboard. Once you're positioned in the interior, the artwork can then be deployed. The disadvantage of a daytime submission is that museums can be crowded during the day, and this can make it difficult to avoid observation during your submission.

A nocturnal submission is completely different. The chief advantage is that since the museum will be empty, you'll be under less direct surveillance, allowing for potentially easier installation. Of course you should be aware of surveillance cameras and take precautions to avoid them once inside the building. But if proper measures are undertaken, night hours generally have less eyes on you. The disadvantage of course is that you'll need to break into the museum to gain entry. This might require the skills of a locksmith or strength coach. It could also place you in legal jeopardy if you cannot convince a jury that you're making an artistic statement. To see more about artistic statements, please see Tip #9.

3. Don't be afraid to reach out. The odds of a successful submission can be greatly enhanced with carefully planned teamwork. Your friends can create a distraction while you install, or vice versa depending on particular talents of the group members. In the unfortunate event that your submission is interrupted by authorities, an escape to the exit is often easier with the help of accomplices.  

I realize that asking friends for help may feel uncomfortable at first. Many photographers do not like to delegate or put themselves in the vulnerable position of depending on others. In my opinion this is a mistake. Open your heart. Open your arms. Reach out for that submission hold and you'll find that most friends will be happy to pitch in for an important task like submitting to a museum. If your friends seem reluctant, make sure they're aware of museumhood's potential financial benefits for all involved. 

4. Technique. While submitting your work, the primary technique is to remain inconspicuous. If submitting during the day, dress as a normal museum patron. If submitting at night, dress in darker clothing. Choose an uncrowded wall space for your submission which has plenty of room. Position your piece so that it follows the spacing, height, and theme of the artwork already on display (see Tip #1). When submitting your piece act quickly and naturally to minimize the probability of detection. After submitting, exit the museum in a prompt, orderly manner.

5. Less is More. Excess images will call unwanted attention to your weak ones, while a smaller quantity is more likely to remain on the walls undetected by the authorities. Keep it simple. Choose just one or two of your best images for submission, then get behind them with all your artistic cunning.

6. Identify Your Work. This step may seem obvious, but many photographers neglect to sign their prints or otherwise establish a traceable link of authorship. In a conventional exhibition this fault might be overcome because artworks are generally accompanied by identifying captions. But unless you plan to install a caption facsimile with your artwork —an inefficient (See Tip #8)  and potentially reckless step— you'll need a signature or stamp on the back. This will help the authorities credit the piece after your installation is discovered. 

7. Be Authentic. Your work should clearly express the purpose behind it. In the case of a museum installation, the purpose is to be installed in a museum. Don't ever forget that. Your submission as an artist should reflect that goal honestly and directly, through choice of materials, subject matter, presentation, and historical references.

8. Be Efficient. When submitting your work to a museum, time is of the essence. A difference of just a few minutes can make the difference between your piece hanging proudly on the walls of a world class museum, or you being led away in handcuffs. For this reason efficiency of planning, thought, and action are crucial for a successful submission. When submitting your work, do not get bogged down. Plan parking, staff movements, security complications, and all physical handling ahead of time. To gain efficiency it may help to plan and practice the installation in a private setting before the real thing. Only move to the museum setting after you feel you've achieved peak artistic efficiency.

9. The Artist Statement. Most successful submissions are supported by a well-reasoned artist statement. This statement should explain the idea behind your piece and the process of creating it. Ideally it will frame the work in an art historical context. The good news is that, in the case of a successful submission, it's likely that you've already done most of this work already. That's because the submission itself is the statement. Your work is in a museum, at least for now. Fuck the doubters. You made it. That's your statement and you're sticking with it. I advise against making any other artist statements before first consulting with your attorney.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


Source Photographic Review's Best Photobooks list is worth a look. I know, I know. You've got to take these things with a grain of salt, especially when they promise grandiose material like GREATEST PHOTOBOOK OF ALL TIME. Trying to pick the greatest photobook of all time is like voting for greatest color of all time or greatest house pet of all time. It's a very personal choice. 

In my ideal world, each person's list would have no overlap with any other person's. Maybe your bike was a certain color back in fourth grade, so you'd pick ten colors based on that. I'd pick another ten based on that time we spraypainted the family dog. It would be based on the whims of personal experience.

That's the world I'm pushing for. But of course we don't live in that world. For the moment we're living in the world sketched out to the right. These are the 17 GREATEST PHOTOBOOKS OF ALL TIME according to Source.

The methodology was simple. The editors at Source polled over a hundred people via email, a range of photographers, publishers, designers, booksellers, librarians, critics, and curators. Each person was asked to submit a list of ten "greatest photobooks of all time". Note that this is a slightly different request than "ten favorites" or "ten most influential" or "ten more important". They asked for ten "greatest", and it was up to each respondent to decide what that meant. In the interest of full disclosure, I was polled and submitted ten.

The emails went out in October. By December the results had been compiled and averaged to arrive at a very long list of GREATEST photobooks. The list turned up some of the usual suspects: The Americans, Evidence, Arbus Monograph, and so on. But as one plumbs the list's nether regions (see the site for a the full report), the titles scatter into an unpredictable mass. Coexistence? Park City? The End Of The Game? 

I can't take lists like this too seriously but I'm still a sucker for them. I've always had a thing for lists going all the way back to fourth grade when The Book Of Lists came out. For myself and a small group of bored classmates, this book became our bible. We memorized large chunks of it, and then Volume 2 a few years later.  Ten famous people who died during sex. Ten most defeated nations in history. What ten-year old could resist? 

I developed into a compulsive listmaker, which I still am to this day. In
List Found Last Week
high school I sat glued to my radio each week listening to Kasey Kasem's top 40. I wasn't interested in the songs, but in the sheer listing of them. I plotted their evolving patterns on cross-referenced charts. Some went quickly up and down over a few weeks. Some stayed in a holding pattern. The rhythms of crowd-sourced opinion intrigued me, but also the personal. For the past twenty years I've kept running lists of all my cultural experiences: books, films, albums, climbs, etc, complete with rankings, favorite these or favorite those. Why just last week I tossed out four more dumb lists, mostly out of annual habit. A few weeks before that it was a list of street photo books. I can't help myself. But it's even worse than that. I collect lists by others too. If you pay attention, and especially if you dig through recycling buckets and along alleys, you'll find plenty of discarded lists written on scraps

Although it's not always expressed, the list-loving gene is probably carried by most of us, and especially photographers. That's why click-bait headlines are often written in list-form. 10 lessons that X taught me. 8 happy hair products. 63 secrets to love that lasts. 1,000 albums you must hear before you die. 17 Greatest Photobooks Of All Time. And so on. These headlines are targeted at our inner fourth grader, and thus usually written at a fourth grade level. 
My nominations for the Source GREATEST photobooks list

One of the things my inner fourth grader finds fascinating is how these lists change over time. They are often presented as immutable judgements. But really they're more like notes sketched in quickly eroding sand. Things change. William Mortensen, anyone? 

I remember an issue of Rolling Stone which came out in the mid-1980s which listed the GREATEST rock albums of all time. I was surprised to see a strange album called Never Mind The Bullocks at the top of the list. What the heck? My hillbilly teen brain had never heard of it. Turns out I needn't have worried. Fast forward thirty years to the present and Rolling Stone's current list of greatest all time albums doesn't contain Bullocks in the top forty. Nothing is forever. Well, except maybe the White Album.

Several greatest photobook lists have surfaced in recent years, but they've leaned toward the personal rather than the broad sample. Andrew Roth polled a small sampling of experts to compile his Book of 101 Books. For a compulsive listmaker like myself such a book is irresistible. But in the end I realize it largely reflects Roth's private opinion. The Parr/Badger Photobooks, Vol 1-3 are sometimes cast as general reference manuals for photobooks. And they are great guides. But a better title for the series might be "Personal favorites from the libraries of Parr and Badger". Nothing wrong with that. In fact I find the whims of individual selection more entertaining than hivemind.

In terms of widespread photobook polling, the last major mark in the sand was 2001, when Building A Photographic Library was published by D. Clark Evans and Jean Caslin. Their methodology was similar to Source's. They approached 138 respondents (photographers, curators, and other so-called "experts") with the request to name "six favorite photobooks". The top results: 

A direct comparison of this list and Source list is problematic. Evans and Clarke polled a different sample of respondents (a generally higher photographer/curator ratio than Source), asked a slightly different question, and included longer explanatory notes (Source respondents were asked to keep the full length of their response under 150 words). There is also the added twist of historical timing. The Evans and Clarke poll occurred not only before the recent photobook renaissance but before social media had assumed informational dominance. Preferences tended to be stunted, balkanized, and internally driven. Also, many in the pre-social media period were capable of rhetoric which exceeded 140 characters. So in some ways it was a completely different era. 

Nevertheless, I'm going to compare the lists anyway, starting at the the top. The Americans came out number one on both lists. The more interesting comparisons occur after The Americans. Only four books —The Americans, Arbus, The Decisive Moment, and American Photographs— cracked both lists. This wasn't due simply to the glut of photobooks published in the past fifteen years. With one exception (Redheaded Peckerwood), all the top books on both lists were published before 2001. The contrast between the lists seems more a function of shifting aesthetics. For example, the 2001 list included no Japanese photographers. In 2016, the list includes five. Perhaps social media —or maybe Parr/Badger?— has fostered international cross-pollination? 

In the long tail of the Source list, the choices become more time sensitive. As the chart at right shows, the selections slant heavily toward recent publications. According to at least a few respondents —Larissa Leclair, John Fleetwood, Heidi Romano, Melissa Catanese, The Eriskay Collection— every one of the greatest photobooks of all time have been published this millennium. Hmm. If you say so. I paid particular attention to the dating pitfall in creating my own list, deliberately spanning them across a few decades. Still, looking at my top ten I realize I cannot escape the 1970s. And I'm not sure I want to. 

One explanation for date-sensitive lists is that personal favorites tend to reflect time as much as than aesthetics. Ask someone for a list of favorite albums and chances are they will name albums released when that person was between ages 15 and 25. Ask a forty year old and they'll name albums from the 90s. A fifty year old will love the 80s no matter how synthetic they were. It doesn't mean those albums are the GREATEST. It means that opinions about music are in a formative stage during a specific time period. The same may be true of photobooks. The Source poll attempted to circumvent this possibility by asking not for favorite but greatest. But hey, what can you do? 

Here are the favorite albums of Kurt Cobain. I don't have a date for this list but I'm guessing it was made circa 1990. Most of the albums are from a narrow time period, roughly 1975 - 1985. If he'd been born ten years earlier, the list would be completely different. If he'd been born ten years later, it might be written on a computer. If he'd had another color bike in fourth grade, different still. Whatever. The list is what it is. What I like most about it is that it's his. No GREATEST album poll would ever return a top 50 as idiosyncratic as this one.

I suppose Cobain's list points out the difference between the personal and the aggregate. If it's doing its job an individual list is likely to be quirky. But when many such lists are compiled and averaged, patterns emerge. Quirkiness dissipates. Perhaps the key to good taste is not to let those patterns dictate the personal. In other words, ignore Evans/Caslin, Parr/Badger, Roth, and Source. Ignore your inner fourth grader. Ignore the average, since this is by definition mediocre. 

Getting back to the 2001 list, it's noteworthy that two classics, Evidence and Eggleston's Guide, did not make the top ten. Contemporary readers might be forgiven for assuming they'd always been in the canon, but it's only fairly recently that they've gained serious traction. I think their inclusion now may be a sign of shifting mores toward 1. appropriated photo projects, and 2. Eggleston's ascendency as the dominant straight photographer of his generation. As for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency's recent listing, perhaps the reason it went unrecognized in 2001 is that the pre-internet generation could discern the difference between a slide show and a book, a distinction which has become rather blurred online. 

Compared to Source, the Evans and Clarke list has a decidedly academic bent. Camera Lucida, Looking At Photographs, The Daybooks, and Adams' zone system manuals are the types of material one might have been assigned as an undergraduate 15 years ago, and maybe still. But in the midst of the recent photobook boom, that no longer equates to "greatest" book. Perhaps the most noteworthy inclusion in 2001 is Michael Kenna's 20 Year Retrospective. Michael Kenna? Not only is Kenna no longer recognized as a significant bookmaker, his general influence on photography has fallen off the radar. Sex Pistols, anyone? Alas, things change. Lists change. The only certainty about these lists is that most of them will eventually seem antiquated.

A close cousin of the GREATEST photobook poll is Jason Eskenazi's By The Glow of The Jukebox. I wrote about the first edition a few years back, and a second expanded version has just been published. Eskenazi asked 276 people to name their favorite photo in The Americans. For what it's worth, the photo shown above came out on top in the first edition. I'm not sure about the second edition. For a photojunkie and listmaker like me, a book like Eskenazi's is listmaking catnip. I wish a similar project could be done for other famous books. But of course it's a ton of work. By the end of it, I'm guessing Eskenazi felt as tired as Frank's family looks in this photo. I wasn't asked to pick a favorite, but if I had it'd probably be the photo of the small striped frog in a bow. Pretty sure no one else picked that one. 

Eskenazi's book and the Source list were both published at possibly the worst time of year, during the photobook listmania which takes place annually between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I love to skim the photobook lists as much as the next listmaking junkie, but there's a critical gravity to them. They suck up a lot of attention in the online photo world. Other lists produced at the same time of year might not achieve orbit —unless they're written on scraps of paper and left strategically in the right alleys.