Omata Interview - October 2005
The following telephone interview took place on October 11, 2005, by and between Huntington Witherill, and Carole Omata.
Carole Omata: When did your formally show your work to the public? When was your first show and where was it at?
Huntington Witherill: The first show I ever participated in was a group show, here in Carmel, in a gallery that has long since disappeared. Off-hand I can’t remember the name of it... a small gallery here in Carmel. I had a couple of prints that were shown in a group setting. I believe the exhibition took place in 1973.
CO: Was there a point in your early career that you knew it was time to show your work? Was there a defining moment?
HW: I think, in retrospect (and somewhat tongue-in-check) I felt that after I had taken my very first picture, I was ready to show the world. In retrospect, obviously, I was not really ready. I worked for about five years before I had my first one-person show. My first one-person show was held at the Shadow Gallery, in Oregon City, Oregon. With photography, like most any other art form, we all feel like we want to share our work with others and so I never really consciously remember having worked without the notion that I would want to have the work shown to the public.
CO: Basically, you were preparing yourself all along to show the public as a presentation.
HW: Yes, I think so. The way I try to explain this is that I’ve always thought of photography as a form of communication. With any form of communication there’s the implication of an audience, or someone beyond ourselves with whom we’re communicating. I never thought of photography as being a pursuit where I was just doing things for myself. That would be kind of like standing alone in a closet while talking to yourself. Not much real communication. The purpose of art is to communicate your thoughts and ideas to others. I just never thought of art in terms of it being something that I was solely doing for myself, or something that would not be shared with others.
CO: Now, your first group showing; how was it organized? Did the gallery manager review all your portfolio’s and make the decisions or did you as a group, know all the other participants?
HW: In the case of most all shows, it is usually the gallery owner, the gallery manager, or an assigned curator who chooses the work that will be exhibited. With respect to the initial group show, my work had probably been seen by the gallery’s owner, together with a number of other photographers in the Carmel/Monterey area. Unfortunately, I also don’t remember the gallery owner’s name. Nevertheless, I do recall that he was a photographer himself so he probably decided that he wanted to do a show of local photographers and likely chose the specific images from the ones that he liked. I suspect that’s basically how he made his decisions as to what to show.
CO: In our class we have to prepare a portfolio. What is the best way to present a portfolio? Should it be matted pieces or bound in a book. What is your idea on this?
HW: There are obviously a number of ways to approach this. The best approach is usually hard to know for sure because all gallery owners have different ideas about what they like to look at when they review a portfolio. And, these kinds of issues have changed over the years, particularly now because of digital. A lot of gallery’s now want to look at JPEG files as the initial review of your work. What I normally do is to put together a couple of finished prints that are presented in precisely the same way they would be shown in the gallery. I would also usually include several loose prints, and in the case of somebody who is computer savvy; I would include a CD which had as much of your work as you can possibly fit onto it. What this does is give the gallery owner or curator a view into what the finished work looks like, an idea of several other prints so they can get an idea of the quality of the prints throughout the scope of your portfolio, and then a CD-ROM so they can get an overview regarding the complete depth and breadth of your work. I’ve usually found this to be the best way to approach galleries.
CO: Have there been any major changes from your first showing to the showing at Verve Fine Arts that is coming up? In terms of size, the format, the framing, anything different from your first showing to now.
HW: Absolutely, there have been many changes. The first one-person show involved thirty-five, 11 x 14 prints. They were all overmatted. This current show (at Verve Gallery, in Santa Fe, NM) contains far fewer images, but in varied sizes ranging from 11x14 to 20x50. The work has also now incorporated color, which for the first 30 years I worked remained only black and white. Yet, despite the obvious changes, the print presentation has remained pretty much the same. The prints are still presented overmatted and in the case of this most recent show, the gallery facilitated framing for each of the presented works.
CO: Pricing-wise, are you pricing them differently; the digital ink jet prints as opposed to your hand printed material?
HW: Yes. The pigment ink prints are priced at less than half the cost of silver gelatin prints and there are a number of reasons for doing so; not the least of which is, one of the things I’ve tried to do with my work over the years, is to make it more available to a wider segment of the population. I’m trying to appeal to a somewhat larger audience than the relatively small group of elite fine art photography collectors- those who are purchasing ten to twenty thousand dollars worth of photographs every year, consistently. There aren’t very many of those elite and serious types of collectors out there. That's a particularly small potential audience if you’re trying to make a living selling your work. Now if you bring the price of your prints down from a thousand dollars to say, two or three hundred dollars, all of a sudden your potential audience can expand exponentially. The other issue is that because the production side of photography (specifically, the digital production side) has actually become in some ways more efficient than with the conventional approach, my prices are able to reflect that savings in production time. One of the mistakes I think some photographers make is to simply price themselves so high that they effectively price themselves right out of the marketplace.
CO: Are there any suggestions you can give to a newly emerging fine arts photographer to get into the galleries? What methods?
HW: I think the most important thing when you’re attempting to get into a gallery is to learn to have what I would call “broad shoulders.” Don’t be concerned about people not being interested in carrying your work. There are many, many galleries out there and only a few will be truly interested in your work. In other words, have patience and continue to persevere. Approach as many galleries as you can manage. Don’t let one gallery discourage you from seeking other galleries. When I was first starting out, I would try to seek out galleries that carried the same kinds of work that I thought I was doing. And, since that time, I’ve learned that that may not always be the best approach. In some cases I’ve had more success with, for example, painting galleries rather than photography galleries. There are of course a number of galleries out there that specialize in paintings, but who may also be excited about introducing photography into their galleries. This can place you in the enviable position of being one of the only (or perhaps the few) photographer’s shown in that particular gallery. You’re liable to sell more work because you’re going to be a big fish in a small bowl rather then the other way around. Often times, bringing something to a gallery that is decidedly different (in terms of subject matter and approach) than that which they are showing can also be exciting and refreshing for them, and can ultimately prove to foster a more mutually successful business relationship.
CO: As far as the number of prints, on your ink jet prints, how do you determine how many you are going to print?
HW: I’ve never been a big believer in the idea of limited editions in art, particularly with photographs. There are so many reasons why limiting an edition is really nothing more than a marketing tool. Some galleries find it advantages to offer limited editions in order to further entice buyers to invest in the artwork. The fact of the matter is, as a photographer yourself, you well know just how long it would take you to print a silver gelatin print, repeatedly, a thousand or two thousand times. That’s just not something that most photographers are interested in doing. However, when I started making digital prints, I needed to create limited editons, according to the galleries wishes, in order to be able to offer what were, at the time, “new” and “untested” prints. I decided to employ the editioning strategy in order to entice the galleries to actually agree to carry my archival pigment ink prints because they were so new and such an unknown quantity. One of the first places that I attempted to offer archival pigment ink prints was through the Ansel Adams Gallery. They are a well established gallery that has maintained a reputation for carrying the types of work that Ansel Adams did – silver gelatin prints, archival quality, impeccable craftsmanship, etc.. And, they were somewhat reluctant to put an ink jet print on their walls. They were (again, at the time) uncertain of the archival nature of the prints, and were unsure about how this new “mechanical” printing process might be accepted by their clients. And though unwarranted, they were also concerned that I could potentially spit out thousands and thousands of these prints. So, what I did was to do a lot of fade testing for myself. I did a fair amount of independent research on the fading characteristics of the prints and was able to convince the owner of the gallery that number one, the material would last; and number two, that I was willing to make the prints in limited editions in order to dispel their fears about my potentially reproducing them in large quantities... all of which they felt would then help the gallery to make the sales. One of the things about galleries that some photographers may sometimes forget is that the gallery needs to make money just as much as the photographer does. It’s the only way they can keep their doors open. So, they need to deal with photography from the standpoint of a business relationship and, as such, they are naturally looking for any way to help promote that business and to help facilitate sales of the work, itself.
CO: How do you organize? You are going to go out shooting for a month, is that correct?
CO: I’ve been reading your articles and you said you’re kind of a wanderer, anything that catches your eye, that has good light, something you want to present later on. Do you just shoot and later organize or do you have some theme in mind before you start out on one of your trips?
HW: Actually, I try not to have any preconceived notions about what I’m going to photograph when I go out and photograph. The reason I try to deal with it this way is because if I go out with a preconceived notion about what my photographs are going to be; I normally find that I‘m unable to achieve those preconceived notions. On the other hand, if I go out with no agenda in mind, I just naturally seem to come across many more photographic opportunities and possibilities. When I go out to photograph, I normally go to a specific location, and that location might be as close as my studio, or it could be as far away as the opposite ends of the country. During this particular trip, because I’m going back for an opening of an exhibition in Santa Fe, NM, I’m going to be driving through the Southwest. I always like to take opportunities to photograph along the way, when I travel. So, I normally take extra time both getting there, and getting back, in order to make new photographs. As for preconceived notions or an idea of how I’m going to organize what it is I’m going to shoot, I simply don’t do that.
CO: What about after the fact when you come back and start reviewing your work; do you then start looking at organization or possibly a new theme that you created out of your shots or adding to an old work?
HW: I think all of those things happen. First of all, I should say right up front that when I initially edit the work that I’ve shot out in the field, normally the first edit eliminates about 70%- 80% of what I’ve shot. It doesn't get thrown away (like it used to) and I do archive most everything that I shoot. But that remaining 20%- 30%, those images do start to fit into some specific series or other subject matter category that I’ve photographed over the years. And, I might look at an image and say; gee, this is great, this will fit well into, for example, the “Inanimate Animal” series. (a series of animal photographs that I’ve worked with over the years). I will also look through the new work and often will see the beginnings of something that might become a whole new approach to my photography. Those images lead me toward a new and perhaps different approach the next time I go out to photograph. I will subsequently look for more specific things that might fit into that new approach.
CO: Changing the direction, you recommend taking a two dimensional design class which helped you tremendously. Are there any other suggestions that to a student toward refining the visualization aspect of photography?
HW: I think that two dimensional design is one of the best ways to learn about photographic composition. Learning to see as the “camera sees” is the main practical goal for any photographer. By continually photographing and paying close attention to your results, over a period of time, you refine how it is that you approach your photography and you begin to learn to see as the camera sees. Constant practice is the key. Frankly, one of the things that I do, that I suspect most other photographer’s do as well, is that I’m continually looking at the world as though it’s going to viewed through the two dimensional frame of a camera. As I’m walking through the world or just going about my daily life, I look out at the world and frame it up in my mind as though I’m going to photograph it. I’m essentially taking photographs without using a camera. This practice tends to keep me in visual shape to photograph. I’m constantly thinking of the visual world that surrounds me and paying close attention to what I’m looking at and what I’m actually seeing. Thinking in terms of: what will this world look like when it gets reduced to a two-dimensional photograph? I’m constantly repeating this exercise. I’m driving down the road or I’m sitting at my desk, or whatever. I do it incessantly. I think this repetative exercise helps me to continually develop my personal photographic vision.
CO: Can you recall your first emotional response when you were accepted to the gallery for your first showing?
HW: I would say, emotionally, I of course felt delighted and proud of myself. I would say, overall, that any artist who does not take pride and satisfaction in their own work is likely not going to be very successful. And by successful I don’t mean monetarily. I mean by the worth of their own work. We all like to feel that what we’re doing has some merit and I think self-worth is very important to any artist who is trying to express themself. You need to think highly and positively about your own work. If you don’t, how in the world could you expect anyone else to respond positively to it?
CO: Do you find that now that you are a 30 year veteran of the art world do you still get the same reactions when you see your work presented?
HW: Absolutely. I feel very good about it. After so much time and gained experience I feel reasonably comfortable in what I’m doing. For example, I don’t become hysterical (as I used to) if everything about the way a show is laid out is not exactly the way I had hoped it would be, that kind of thing. I feel much more comfortable about what I’m doing and certainly more confident about it then I did 35 years ago. That’s not to say that I didn’t feel comfortable about my work in the beginning, I did. But in retrospect I was of course quite naïve back then. Now that I look back at that time, despite my confidence in the work, I had no real reason to be so confident about the work because (in retrospect) it simply wasn’t that accomplished in the beginning.
CO: But that added to your strengths in continuing on.
HW: I think it did and I think it’s sort of a balancing act, particularly with how one relates to the world and the people around us. One of the hardest things for me is to profess to people about how great my work is. I just can’t do it. I think it’s out of line to be constantly bragging about the merit of one's own work. Those are decisions for the viewer, not the artist. I of course love it when other people express satisfaction with my work, but I tend to shy away from trumpeting my own photographs, too much.
CO: But I think your work stands alone, you don’t have to boast about it at all.
HW: Well... thank you! I do hope that the work speaks for itself. Ansel Adams once described the act of talking about your own photographs as kind of like rattling your keys during a concert. It’s just not called for. Photographs should speak for themselves. People are always going to have varying opinions and ideas about what your work represents and whether it’s good or bad. Those are personal choices made by other people. If you’ve done your work diligently – if you feel comfortable within yourself – then your work will be what you’ve hoped it to be. That’s all you can expect. If somebody doesn’t like your work they’re hardly ever going to be talked into liking it. One of the things – and this is a point I failed to make a few minutes back in relation to galleries – one of the things I’ve always done with galleries is that I’ve stayed away from being represented by any gallery that isn’t completely excited about showing my photographs, and that isn't entirely enthusiastic about the work that I’m doing. With a number of galleries that I became involved with over the years, the gallery owner had actually purchased prints from me immediately upon initially arranging representation. In other words, the owner of the gallery was excited enough about the work that they wanted those pieces, for themselves. What I’ve found is that you may be able to talk a reluctant gallery owner into carrying your work but, absent their complete enthusiasm for the work, itself, what inevitably happens is that your photographs will simply sit in a drawer, never to see the light of day. You will have done all this work to get those prints together and it will inevitably be to no good purpose. So in the long run, it doesn’t make much sense to try to cajole a gallery into carrying your work. There are plenty of galleries out there. Keep approaching succesive galleries until you find one that is truly excited about your work. Then, and only then, you can be assured of a successful gallery relationship.