What not to do: My year of photography failures.

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Last year I tried to get my photography seen and have it become a business. An amorphic blob of a business- I was game for anything, from selling prints to photographing portraits- but a business none the less. I at least wanted to seem professional, ready for commissions. So, I built myself a sleek website, ordered beautiful, customized business cards, and printed a portfolio book called My American West that I was very proud of. It was hardcover, small-ish but sturdy, the kind of thing I could slip to business owners to look over to see if my photographs would look good on their walls. I made sure the paper in my portfolio was coated so that fingerprints wouldn’t show and kept my eyes and ears open. I thought about every aspect of every photo I made available on my website or in the shows I was part of.

It’s a year after I tried to have a business.

I deleted my website recently (I am too poor to pay the $16/month, ha!). My prints are mostly with me still. My portfolio book is beautiful and I treasure it but it wasn’t exactly the useful tool I thought it would be. My business cards might live somewhere out in wallets around the universe but they didn’t do me any good. I spent a lot of money on plastic sleeves and archival quality prints. Hours spent pounding pavement, hungrily trying to network and failing, not being brave enough to ask for what I wanted; it all caved in on me and I have very little to show for everything I tried. Why?

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Not because I am not a good photographer. I am! However, I’m terrible at being extroverted, at networking and making friends. I saw fellow photographers who were on my level get a decent-sized event and space devoted just to their work, complete with beer and advertising (in Montana it needs beer or people won’t come). I know being an introvert is trendy now and we’re supposed to be quietly powerful, but it sucks sometimes. If you’re going to try and be a photographer, don’t be like me a year ago: Be bold, even if it’s not your shtick. Fake it til you make it, because I promise you it will get you somewhere. 

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Ask for what you want and need. I had a show last May in a local bookstore, which ended up being a disaster. I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed, so the space I got was horrible, split between two awkward corners of the shop. After the show I ended up crying because it was lonely, sad, and horrible. I took the show down early because it didn’t make me feel good to display work I’d spent hours putting together hang in weird spaces that didn’t do them justice. If you’re going to hang things up in public, haggle your way into the right places and spaces. Don’t settle too much. If the owner of the space can’t give you what you need, it’s okay to respectfully back out.

People didn’t care about me or my work, because they didn’t know me and hadn’t seen me around before. I haven’t lived at any one address for more than two years since I was eighteen, so roots weren’t exactly in place when I decided to try and make my business work out.  If you want your things to hang in a brewery, go to that brewery often-ish. If you want to submit work to a gallery, show up at that gallery and get to know somebody there, even if they just learn to recognize your face. Even if you’re not a suave chatty creature, the odds are if you’re not an outright ass somebody will be more inclined to take a chance on you and your work.

Budget! Framing is insanely pricey. Find local art grants if they’re out there. My shows, all three of them, didn’t look fantastic because I couldn’t afford good frames and nice glass to showcase them. Even then, I spent over $500 just getting my first show together, and it didn’t look nearly as professional as I had hoped. It was incredibly frustrating seeing my beautiful prints hang in cheap frames because that’s all I could afford. It made them look duller and less beautiful. Don’t let your work be spoken for with bad frames, poor hanging, etc. and if comes down to it please just settle on a smaller selection of photos. Quality over quantity, especially if you’re A Poor like me.

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Women, do NOT be at your shows alone. Weird old men will accost you and ruin things. Seriously, make a friend or family member hang around. Lonely or weird old men have a radar for women who can’t leave where they are! I was trapped by one particularly unpleasant man who mansplained the 70s to me even though I wasn’t even a concept then. This happened at both of my other shows as well. They’re like bloodhounds! Don’t let yourself be alone!

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As always, be gentle with yourself. Your first show probably isn’t going to go smoothly. You might feel like nobody likes your work, and that’s okay. Getting orders for prints can be tricky and shipping is a goddamn nightmare if you have a print store open. (I recommend just shipping in tubes- I tried to ship things flat for a while and it was EXPEN$IVE.) It’s all okay, and hopefully you’re not like me and decide to give up because life gets too busy and you’ve got to move out of the country. (I moved to a new town and when the pandemic is over I’d like to give this all a second go because I owe it to myself to do better.)

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I’d still love to have commissions from local businesses here in Victoria. I’d love to have a show at a cafe or a brewery. I’d love to try again, be bolder, and care more about the right things. Instead of being so mad at past me, who failed and didn’t advocate for myself and ended up compromising a lot about my work and my business, I hope that the lessons I learned help somebody else.

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