The Photographers’ Gallery is the largest public gallery in London dedicated to photography. From the latest emerging talent, to historical archives and established artists, it is one of the best places to discover inspiring photography in all its forms. We reached out to long-time curator at The Photographers’ Gallery, Karen McQuaid, who offered up some great advice for emerging and established photographers alike who are looking to take the next step in their careers.

We’re also thrilled that McQuaid has agreed to be a member of the jury for this year’s LensCulture Portrait Awards! In this interview, she offers up some insights into the history of portrait photography at TPG, professional tips for establishing a career as a photographer, and the importance of building a network for sharing your work.

LC: Let’s start things off with a broad question: what do you look for in photography? A new perspective, a new use of the medium? Is there anything you’d like to communicate to the photographers who are submitting to the Portrait Awards about how to create a compelling submission?

KMQ: Be clear and direct with how you describe the work to the jurors. There are different contexts where you can be more playful with language and style of writing, but from my point of view, an online submission is perhaps the context where clarity of communication in terms of intent and concept are most useful.

It is very different to encounter work through a submission site than through the intimate space of a photobook, a gallery or a bespoke digital presentation. You don’t need to be overly descriptive; just be sure that judges who want to know more about the project and your intention for the work can get that information via your text.

LC: As a curator at The Photographers’ Gallery, you have a unique perspective on competitions. In your mind, is it important to think about how photography would work in an exhibition, or do you consider the images outside of any external context? Do you find that the work you’re drawn to when you judge competitions is different than the work you select for exhibitions? Or are there common traits?

KMQ: I work in an institution that obviously still cares about the physical encounter with the photograph—we are a brick-and-mortar building with fairly traditional gallery spaces. However, in addition to framed works on walls, we often show film and moving images; we also work with artists who create installations. We frequently schedule projects made for the screen—both online and offline—via our digital program and our Media Wall, a permanent space on the ground floor that is visible both by gallery visitors and passers-by.

Additionally, I work on book projects and public commissions, so I am very used to considering work for different contexts and platforms. Good work is good work, but work in the wrong context or form will always be a huge disappointment. This goes back to the importance of clearly communicating your intentions: is your ideal context for the work a book, a magazine spread or an exhibition? State it and ensure that we judges know how and where you intend the work to meet its audience.

Installation view, The Photographers’ Gallery, Andy Warhol: Photographs 1976 - 1987, 2013 © Kate Elliott

LC: What is the history of portraiture like at The Photographers’ Gallery?

KMQ: Interestingly, as the gallery approaches it’s fiftieth birthday, we are re-engaging with our own exhibition history in a variety of ways. We’ve shown some artists and photographers over the years whose work has had a huge impact on thinking about portraiture in wider culture and art, such as Andy Warhol in 1971; Rineke Dijkstra in 1997; Sally Mann in 2010 and Zanele Muholi in 2015, to name a few. All of these artists have very different relationships to portraiture, the act of photography and their wider practice.

LC: How does TPG approach the genre of portraiture, and what do they look for from portrait photographers?

KMQ: One of the most ambitious public art projects we’ve ever undertaken was a portrait commission called The World In London. In 2012, The Photographers’ Gallery commissioned 204 photographers, both established and emerging, to take portraits of 204 individual Londoners who were born in countries competing in the Olympics. It was a celebration of London’s cultural diversity, and indeed of portraiture itself. The range of photographic approaches was really satisfying.

In terms of an approach to portraiture specifically, we are led by the individual projects and the artists we work with. I’d say in terms of installation and format, we also look for new and interesting ways that people are making and showing portraits. Vivienne Sassen’s Anelemma (2014) installation had two large rolling projection scrolls full of her figurative fashion images, mixing light, reflection and sound. Eva and Franco Mattes, who have work in our current All I know Is What’s on The Internet exhibition, stretch the edges of what actually constitutes a portrait. They are exhibiting stock avatars in place of individuals to protect their anonymity.

Installation view, The Photographers’ Gallery, Rosangela Renno: Rio-Montevideo, 2015 © Kate Elliott

LC: How do your audiences respond to portraiture? Is it more captivating than other work?

KMQ: I can’t really get behind the idea that one sub-category of art or photography is more ‘captivating’ than the other. Of course there is something in the fact that figurative or facial representation, in any visual art form, provides an easy way to draw people in. But that in itself is not enough. The content and the context must also challenge and fit. Cuny Janssen comes to mind—we showed her portraits of children and young people from conflict regions back in 2005. Her work always combines portraits with environmental or landscape shots from the same regions.

Portraiture is completely central to what she does, but there is extra strength when she intermixes it with other genres. Bettina Von Zwehl showed Alina in 2004—portraits taken of young women all listening to a composition by Avro Part. The sitters, mostly music students, were left in the darkened soundproof room with the piece of music, and the artist captured the image via flash without warning. The resulting portraits were very much about the idea of absorption and captivation, and the audiences really added to that charged exchange in the exhibition space.

LC: In your opinion, what steps have the most impact on a photographer’s career? Should all photographers aim to sign to a gallery or publish a photobook? Are competitions and portfolio reviews critical for exposure?

KMQ: Sadly, there is no one answer to any question that starts with “Should all photographers…?” Getting your work seen is crucial, that’s a given. However, sometimes I feel a real imbalance between a photographer’s focus on promotion and circulation and their focus on the work itself.

The strongest impact on your career that you can make is concentrating on making the best work/project/book or exhibition you can. That has to come before everything else. I urge photographers to be choosy about which prizes and portfolio reviews they enter—don’t feel pressure to overspend and attend them all. You should budget annually for these sorts of opportunities, much as you would for a studio or equipment—it is an investment in your work. Select one or two key awards or reviews, and don’t do more than you can afford. As a reviewer I try to ensure that the competitions or reviews that I take part in are good value for photographers. I also say that the younger festivals are often the ones where the contact time between photographers and reviewers is more relaxed and generous.

Installation view, The Photographers’ Gallery, Lorenzo Vitturi: Dalston Anatomy, 2014 © Kate Elliott

LC: You’ve been a frequent portfolio reviewer around the world. What are a few pieces of advice you find yourself offering most frequently to aspiring or emerging photographers who are looking to break through in their careers?

KMQ: I would say be open to sharing work in progress in a portfolio review session. It is often much more beneficial than sharing work that you feel is already very finished. If you have made every decision about the work, reviews can be a bit of a wasted opportunity. I would urge photographers to consider reviews as a stage for presenting work before publishing and exhibiting—not everything has to be tied up. That way you can actually consider feedback and have some space in the project to respond.

Also, be sure to think about a few key questions that you want answered about the project before you head into any review session—perhaps in relation to sequencing, format, production, accompanying text, etc. It’s good to have a few concrete questions ready and waiting in case the conversation doesn’t flow naturally.

Furthermore, when you are at these meetings, it is so important that you spend as much time sharing work and ideas with other photographers as well as with the “experts.” Keep an open mind. Really valuable collaborations and connections can come from all directions at these events—not just from across the review table.