Friday, August 31, 2007

Going Pro - Come and See

No postings in quite a while. There's been the traditional, higher-ed process of bracing everything for the start of the fall semester, riding out that tidal wave, assessing the damage, and beginning the rescue and recovery operations. There was also the usual end-of-the-fiscal-year, use-it-or-lose-it vacation problem. The two problems overlap, of course, just to keep it interesting.

Vacation, and whatever spare moments I've had since then, have been devoted to photography. For one thing, I took the time to recompute all of my panoramas in order to bring them all in line with my current standards. For another, it seems that I'm going pro. A selection of my photos of the Bamberger Ranch will be appearing in the upcoming issue of Country Lifestyle magazine. I provided a collection of photos for them to choose from, and I remain uncertain just what has been chosen, or how they'll be used, so there're elements of suspense and apprehension in that matter. More significant than that, in terms of outlays of my own time, money and labor, are the preparations for the first official showing of my work. It will be running from October 6th to November 11th at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's McDermot Learning Center. The show is dedicated to the Bamberger Ranch, and Margaret Bamberger's drawings are the focus of the show, but Kathleen Marie and I will be joining Margaret with a selection of our works from the famous ranch, since there's much more to those 5,500 acres than any one of us (or all of us put together) can capture.

The show opens in the morning, a few hours before the start of the fall, members-only, native plant sale. You don't have to be a member of the Wildflower Center to attend the show's opening, but if you want to proceed to the plant sale when that starts, you'll have to be (or become) a member. Somehow, I'd always imagined an art show's opening as a fancier affair, in the evening, with a bit of wine and food thrown in. Well, we ain't that fancy. The closest we'll get to making an event of this is at 10:30 AM on October 12th when David Bamberger will be giving a presentation about his 40 years of land and habitat restoration work at the ranch. There will also be a book signing for Water from Stone. The author, Jeffrey Greene, won't be there, but his subject matter (the Bambergers) will be; they'll be the ones doing the signing. Unfortunately, that's a Friday, so it's far from convenient for most of us who have to work for a living. As usual, my expectations fail me.

Preparing for this show has been a learning experience, and an expensive one. (And I'm sure there'll be other expensive lessons to come.) The immediate problem is having works to show. The only time one of my panoramas has been printed is as a bookmark that the Bamberger's give out when they're at events like the aforementioned book signing. Now, I suddenly need prints suitable for gallery display and sale. I've elected to use a process that prints on canvas, and which, in principle, could print my panoramas almost 13 feet long, and 3½ feet high. The prints I'm having made for the show will be of more mild-mannered proportions: 5 feet by 1½ feet. Darn big, but minor compared to what could be arranged for a sufficiently deep-pocketed client. (Hint, hint.) The inks, canvas, and coatings are all archival grade - I looked up the test data a while back, and, if memory serves, they're expected to last about 100 years before any noticeable fading begins, assuming appropriate handling, of course. That's as good as, or slightly better than, the best photographic paper I've dealt with. Printing on canvas has several other qualities that are more immediately appreciated: the prints have the texture one expects from paintings, but not photographs. The weight of the inks and coatings that are used adds to the painting-like quality of the final product. So, while everything about the images says "photograph", everything about the prints says "painting". The ambiguity is interesting and tends to draw viewers in for a close look. And the level of detail in these panoramas rewards close looks. More practical features of this process are that the works do not require the enormous weight or expense of framing - they are mounted on stretcher boards, just like a painting, and are immediately ready for hanging.

Yesterday, I picked-up the first two prints from the Kirchman Gallery in Johnson City. Seeing them for the first time, and seeing them properly lit and hanging in a gallery, was a bit of a shock. I've spent so many days working with each of these images that I know them like the back of my hand, but only from their appearance on computer displays. I had expected them to look good in the real world, but ... well ... wow. And the lack of a frame turns out to have another virtue that I hadn't suspected - works of this size are framed by the wall they hang on; no mere picture frame can enclose them visually. They don't accent a wall; they take possession of it. My advice to anyone who ends-up owning one of them is to paint the wall to accent the print. The bucket of paint costs nothing compared to the print, and you'll see what I mean about the wall serving the print, rather than vice versa.

Seeing the prints was a pleasant shock, but then came the painful part - paying for them. I have no doubt that I'm getting my money's worth, but if these prints don't sell, their divot is going to persist in my savings for some time. There are two practical effects of this that will be noticeable at the show: First, I will only be displaying four works. (Of course, they'll collectively cover 30 square feet of wall space, which is nothing to sneeze at.) And, second, while final prices haven't been set, I think they'll have to be priced in the neighborhood of $1,300 a piece. If that makes it sound like I'll be making a healthy profit, rest assured that you are mistaken. Ignore all of my equipment costs. Ignore the years spent learning this craft (not that the learning has stopped). Ignore the time spent finding and shooting the scenes. Ignore the days (sometimes many days) of work required to pick the right take, transform its eighteen separate images into a single panorama, and then to work with it, over and over again, to bring out the best in the scene. No practical price for these works can begin to make a dent in any of those expenses, unless, by some miracle, they sell in startling quantities. Just forget all of that. The immediate problem is avoiding ending-up out-of-pocket on any print that sells. With galleries normally taking 40-50% off the top, and the expense of the prints, the sale price of any work doesn't let me cover the cost of printing with enough left over to print a replacement image for the next show. I'll have to dig into my savings again to do that, albeit not quite as deeply as this first time around.

The experienced artists I've spoken to in recent months confirm that this situation is typical. The main prerequisite for artistic endeavors, it seems, is a good day job.

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Not that I'd want to give-up my day job in any case; The University of Texas is an institution I'm proud to be a part of, and, although no-one outside the trade knows it (and no one inside the trade can agree about how it should be judged) software development is also an art - one that I have no intention of giving up.

(Which reminds me: the new version of Qwicap is almost, but not quite, finished, as is a related blog entry about character set handling in web applications and browsers. I really must find the time to get that new version wrapped-up and into developers' hands.)