Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Would you recognize beauty and excellence anywhere? In a busy Metro Station?

The Washington Post recently staged an experiment using the internationally acclaimed virtuoso violinist, Joshua Bell, to see how busy commuters would respond to his playing in a Metro Station. He was set up as any other street performer would be with a place where people could drop money if they liked his music. He played some of the greatest pieces for a violin on one of the most expensive violins around and you know what happened? Almost no one stopped to listen but he did make about $40 for his hour performance.

In the article Mark Leithauser, a senior curator at the National Gallery is quoted as saying:

Let's say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It's a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: 'Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.

What he is saying is that Context Matters.

Now let's apply that to our work.

Ansel Adams was a stickler about presentation. Probably a whole industry grew out of his ideas on presenting black and white images dry mounted on archival mat board with over mats, also archival. But Adams feeling was that if you wanted others to recognize and appreciate your work, you first must show that you valued it enough for proper presentation. Call it packaging and the packaging might be different today than Adams view of what was proper. You can say that packaging has nothing to do with the excellence of the images but I've seen a very beautiful, expensive presentation box of small images make a stir at the portfolio reviews at FotoFest in Houston. It was the packaging that got reviewers to stop and really look at the portfolio out of all the 100's of portfolios.

Joshua Bell's morning performance in the Metro Station was "heard" by people who were not ready to "hear." They had other agendas in their heads. Had they been sitting in Carnegie Hall, they would have given their full attention to every note that came from his violin. If we want people to really see our work, we have to find a way to fully engage their attention. That may mean developing relationships over time or making appointments or getting the right gallery show.

We all gotta start somewhere showing our work so maybe the local coffee shop is where it's at. Some of the work in a coffee shop can be absolutely as good as that shown in a gallery but the bottom line is, will people recognize that? Or are the people in the coffee shop knowledgeable enough about photography to recognize the genius in the image. Will they be willing to pay gallery prices for your terrific image? Now take those same images five years later after you have been "found" and put them in an uptown you're acclaimed as a great photographer.

As Leithauser said....It is the context.

1 comment:

Steve Williams said...

Context does matter. It's like clothes. It is how we determine who is important and who we pay attention to. Same with artwork.

With the exception of a few there are a lot of lemmings in the world taking their cues from someone or something other than their own desire....

Good post.

Steve Williams
Scooter in the Sticks