Susan Nalband is the director of 555 Gallery in Boston. With over 30 years of experience in the field of photography, Susan has directed exhibitions at 555 since 2013. Nalband studied photojournalism as an undergraduate, and she has made a career in the fine art world as a frequent portfolio reviewer and juror.
As a member of the curator panel for our Project Review: Gallery Focus, Susan is reviewing projects from the LensCulture community and offering advice on how to advance your photography practice. Read on for her tips about approaching a gallery, preparing your portfolio, and more—
LensCulture: Many photographers dream of securing gallery representation and making a living from the sales of their work. Do you have any advice for photographers who are just beginning to enter the art marketplace?
Susan Nalband: It’s important to think about what relationship works for the kind of person you are. Some photographers want to handle everything themselves—these days, anyone can make their own website and then promote and sell their work online. Having explored all of the ways to promote your work is an important experience to have in your tool box. Have a very good website in place. Be ready to continue self-promotion efforts even after you’ve found representation.
Once all of that is in place, and once you’re ready to work with a representative, come to the table with an awareness of how you want to spend your time. The gallery-artist relationship is just that: a relationship. Once you’re ready to hand over some of this work to someone else—someone who you trust to guide you—then take the next steps.
In order to get your bearings, it’s necessary to educate yourself. That means visiting galleries, museums and online sites to research where you think you’d be a good fit. You have to see your work in the mix of what is happening in that venue. Once you have a list, it’s time to inquire and see if the venue thinks you’d be a good fit.
As far as “living off the sales” of gallery representation, that is very rare. It generally takes a mix of activities for an artist to put together a life that can produce that kind of income. It’s not always that the work is not worthy of being purchased and loved. The biggest impediment to the distribution of photography is the overwhelming amount of it that’s available—and the current market, which lowers the value for a serious artist because of that proliferation.
LC: Is there anything photographers should know about presenting their portfolio to gallerists or other fine art professionals? Are you most interested in seeing a finished project, a collection of images, or a combination of the two?
SN: Make a good first impression by educating yourself about who you are approaching. To do that, familiarize yourself with that gallery’s current and past exhibitions. Discover what kind of work they represent. You can do this on their website.
A gallery—or in my case, a group of artists I show and represent—is a personal offering of artists and their work that has been chosen by an individual because they convey a certain message. Try to bring something different to the table, but not so different that it requires a leap of the gallery’s mission. Of course, your work should never be the same as someone already in the group.
Bring the best prints you can make to the meeting, and get some guidance on that if you have any doubts. Have an organized presentation of work, whether a single project or individual images. One thing I look for is growing evidence that this is the work of (blank, fill in your name). Make your work distinctive and avoid projects that anyone could do if they just showed up in that place. Really critique that about your work. Have both an intellectual and physical perspective on the project.
LC: How do you find the majority of the photographers you work with?
SN: It’s important to me to be constantly researching, reading, and informing myself about current work in photography. There are a number of events, exhibitions, newsletters, and professional blogs—not the least of which is LensCulture—that I follow passionately. Wherever I travel, I check in on the photo scene to avoid having too narrow a perspective on what work is gaining recognition around the world.
It’s also critical for me to meet face-to-face with photographers at portfolio reviews and portfolio walks and through exhibitions. The personal connection with the photographer as they lay their work out and we discuss it is always enlightening. Hearing the photographer describe the project in their own words, and seeing if there is both depth and understanding of their own work as well as synergy between us, makes in-person meetings so important.
LC: When it comes to developing portfolios and projects, how important is external feedback?
SN: Most of us need/want/seek some response to our work. Otherwise we’d be content living off the grid and doing whatever we want to do. Do take a serious look at the work yourself—not to justify the work, but to look for where it exists in the world as an effective expression of the project.
Having experts review your work formally is a great way to get an idea of what your work is saying to people. It’s a critical part of discovering whether or not you’re getting your message across. That being said, the important thing is to find out if the work speaks for itself. Too much explanation and a statement that is too convoluted is a killer for me. I want to see personal, meaningful work that has a reason for existing. It should be well thought out, but the “thought” can’t be the driving force for the existence of the work.
LC: There is a ton of photography on social media and other digital platforms. What steps should photographers take to stand out from the crowd?
SN: Remember that what you put up matters, always. Keep business and social posts in different areas. You want people to know you’re human, but keep the cats and dogs (unless that’s your project) on their own page for your long-lost cousins and old friends to see. Try to put up only work that moves your practice forward and makes people want to come back tomorrow to see what you’re doing. You can share your techniques, or keep them as your secret—make them think, “How did she do that?” Pay attention to see what’s effective on each platform. Look for feedback and grow your number of followers over time.
LC: You recently decided to move 555 Gallery from a brick-and-mortar building to an online space. Can you talk about this new trend, which has become increasingly popular around the world? How do you see it affecting photographers?
SN: This is a new endeavor for me, and I don’t want to assume I know how this will go, but I know that my biggest rewards have come from a broader audience than what was happening on E 2nd Street in Boston.
I think this move is great for photographers because it will loosen the limits of regionalism and give them exposure to more people around the world. For many photographers, developing a vibrant website may not be their strong suit, but the online gallerist makes it their daily business to update and groom their online presence. The endeavor is to make it informative, easy to use and exciting, so the browser/buyer wants to spend time in the “gallery.” This takes diligence and constant attention.
Talking about this as a “trend” is just about over, because this is the way it is for the future. Even if there are physical walls for exhibiting the work, every gallery must have a robust website. You can see how the business model of doing everything well has become impossible for many of us. We all want to be more effective with our time, and this opportunity to develop a conversation with an international audience interested in what you’re doing is irresistible.
The mission is to create a web-focused business that gathers photographers’ work and stories and manages to present it all beautifully in a way that is also satisfying for the viewer. Personally, I felt that I should get on with it and pull the plug on the expense, distraction and stress of running a rolling series of exhibitions every year. A lot of expenses disappear when you move to an online format. When the appropriate occasion arises, we will still present a physical exhibition or bring work to the public at a fair.
Remember: a gallery is a small business, notorious for depending on one or two people to run the show and keep all of the balls in the air. The greatest benefit of letting go of the brick-and-mortar that I’ve experienced already is having more flexibility to meet with clients and do studio visits with artists. This is the part that my artists need me to do personally, and it’s the part I love. I also have freed up funds to participate in shows and fairs (although those can be their own dark hole of distraction!). With my increased flexibility, I hope to slowly add artists to the roster as the gallery develops.
LC: What kind of work are you most drawn to?
SN: I like to see sincere projects that are within the photographers’ own personal experiences. That does not mean navel-gazing, but it does mean that if you’re from a small town in Minnesota, a story about your experience there is fitting. Even if an artist has been creating work and portfolios for years, I still want sincerity, but perhaps with a more sophisticated and intelligent worldview value added to it.
—Susan Nalband, interviewed by Coralie Kraft
Curious about the gallery world? You can submit your work to our Project Review: Gallery Focus for personalized feedback that will help you improve your photography and present your work to collectors, gallery professionals, and more.