How to Get Your Conservation Photography Into Galleries with Steven DeWitt
Learn the ins and outs of how to get your work into a gallery so that you can reach beyond the choir and make a bigger impact.
When you think about ways to get your work out into the world, how often does the idea of hanging work in a gallery come to mind? Probably often. And yet, conservation photography is not very well represented in the gallery world. Why is that, and how can conservation photographers take better advantage of this great opportunity?
Here with us to answer this question is Steven DeWitt.
Steven is a conservation photographer who also has more than 20 years of experience in the gallery world, being both an art buyer as well as being on the floor. So he really knows what works and what doesn't.
With Steven's conservation mindset, we are diving into some of the how-to, so that if you want to put your work into galleries as a way to reach more people (especially to reach outside the choir and to be able to sell your work) Steven will walk you through some really important information to have on hand.
Not only do we talk about strategy and the practical steps, but we also talk a bit about philosophy. Steven shares his perspective and his philosophy on embracing the artist in you as a conservation visual storyteller.
There's so much goodness in this interview, so grab a notepad or head to the show notes where a transcript is waiting for you because you're gonna want to take notes!
Episode 079: How to Get Your Conservation Photography Into Galleries with Steven DeWitt
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
Today, we are getting into a topic that is a brand new territory for me, and I think that it's a realm that is still relatively untouched for conservation photographers as a way to get your art and your message out into the world. We're talking about galleries today, and with us is Steven DeWitt. Now, not only is Steven a conservation photographer in his own right, but he has more than 20 years of experience in the gallery world, being both an art buyer as well as being on the floor. So he really knows what works and what doesn't, and with Steven's conservation mindset, we are diving into some of the how-to, so that if this is an area that interests you and you want to consider putting your work into galleries as a way to reach more people, to reach outside the choir and to be able to sell your work, Steven is gonna walk you through some really important information, it's like little knowledge bombs are dropped all throughout this interview, but not only do we talk about strategy and the practical steps, but we also talk a bit about philosophy. Steven also shares his perspective and his philosophy on embracing the artist in you as a conservation visual storyteller, there's so much goodness in this interview, so grab a notepad or head to the show notes where a transcript is waiting for you because you're gonna want to take notes. Alright, my friends, let's dive in.
0:01:32.5 JH: Welcome to Impact: The conservation photography podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch, and if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place, from conservation to creativity, from business, to marketing, and everything in between, this podcast is for you, the conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in.
0:02:04.5 JH: Steven, thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast. I am thrilled to get into a conversation about your area of expertise because it is totally foreign territory to me, and so before we even get into anything at all, Steven, for anyone who's never been able to meet you, who is Steven in this world?
0:02:25.8 Steven DeWitt: Well, thank you so much for having me Jaymi, I really appreciate it. Yeah, I'm a conservation photographer, I actually, through my company, Witness Tree Media, I create photos and videos for businesses and organizations that are committed to environmental justice and conservation and solving the climate crisis, and then on the other side of my brain, I suppose is, I help photographers navigate fine art gallery representation.
0:02:53.4 JH: What an incredible blend of skills that you have, because you know exactly what it is to be a conservation photographer and to be digging into that side of the work, and then you also understand the flip side, that representation side of work, and I think that so often we see either/or so you're kind of this unicorn in this realm.
0:03:11.7 SD: That's funny. Yeah. Yeah, it kind of happened in this really weird way, and I feel really fortunate the way it happened, but... I'm originally from the East Coast here in New York City right now, and my wife and daughter and I went out to Colorado. And I was a commercial photographer on the East Coast, and then when we were out there, I started just exploring, hiking in the mountains and fly fishing and paddling, and I discovered snowboarding and it kinda opened up everything for me as far as just this totally new perspective on the way to explore the natural world. And then it just happened to be the timing that when I was there in Colorado, the mountain pine beetle infestation hit, throughout Aspen pine forests. Yeah and I didn't know anything about it, I was just snowboarding through these Aspen trees and then these lodgepole forests, and I started noticing them turning this reddish color and not understanding why, and then when I started seeing more and more of it happening, and then even more and more of it, I started taking photographs and just kind of trying to process what was happening to the forest through photography and that actually led me down the path towards conservation.
0:04:23.8 JH: That's amazing. What a pivotal moment to have to really see something in your own backyard that draws you into that side of storytelling.
0:04:32.7 SD: It's so true that when you experience something, especially something that changes your perspective on life, like snowboarding did for me, it was so unexpectedly, it just changed my life for the better. And then to have the landscape that you experienced that transformation, start to go through its own transformation and then die and then start to realize that this is actually something that was exacerbated by climate change, it just... It blew the doors wide open for me, and I just kinda started pulling at the thread and pulled at it more and pulled at it more and then it led me to where I am today.
0:05:11.8 JH: And who else do you work with? Or if not, who, what types of projects have you worked on that have really helped you explore that conservation storytelling side of your life?
0:05:21.5 SD: For sure, I'm really fortunate to be here in New York City and work with some amazing organizations, in particular, I work with Billion Oyster Project, and they are... They collect, it's incredible, they collect loose oyster shells from all the area restaurants in the five boroughs, and they bring them to Governors Island in the middle of New York Harbor, where they put them in these huge piles to sit outside in the sun and bake and then they clean them eventually after they've been cured in the sun for a while, and then they actually recreate the oyster reefs, or at least the three-dimensional structures that oysters grow on in New York harbor. That was something that was all around the harbor for centuries, and then through overfishing and pollution, they were just completely wiped out, and what's starting to happen now is people are realizing that that oyster reefs are a key factor in mitigating the impacts of climate change storm surge. And so that's one of the things that these folks are doing is they're installing these oyster reef, installations all throughout the harbor, and so I've had a chance and I continue to work with these folks here in the city to document their projects, get to meet the crew, it's really amazing because talk about perspective, not many folks go out on to New York harbor on the boats and see the city from that unique perspective. It's pretty amazing.
0:06:40.0 JH: Yeah, absolutely.
0:06:41.0 SD: For sure. And so that's incredible. And then I am fortunate that I get to work with another watershed organization called the Bronx River Alliance, and the Bronx River is actually the last remaining Fresh Water River in New York City, and so this organization is charged with protecting it and restoring it. It's amazing, and again, I've seen so many things that New Yorkers have not seen. I've had a chance to paddle down the Bronx River through the Bronx Forest, Bronx River Forest, which is magnificent, and it's the only place left in all of New York City that pretty much has been left untouched. There's old growth forests, it's a stopover on The Atlantic Flyway for all the migrations of birds that are hitting up North, it's beautiful, and so I've had a chance to work with those folks too on a number of different projects. It's really been incredible.
0:07:33.6 JH: That's fantastic. I mean, that is not something that I would ever associate with New York, is old growth forest or rivers.
0:07:40.7 SD: No, nobody does. It's unbelievable, once you actually see it for yourself, you see the footage I've taken and the photos, you would just say, "I can't believe this is actually New York City. I really can't." I work with one of the ecologist there, the naturalists, and he said it's such a dangerous way to talk about this city not being an ecosystem, that it obviously is an ecosystem, if you take one of my workshops in Central Park, especially at this time of the year. The migration is unbelievable. It blows your mind, the types of birds that are coming through this area and have for centuries, they're going along ancient routes that they have for over and over again, and to be able to experience that is really just an incredible thing, so New York City is definitely the city that never sleeps and concrete jungle, and all that other stuff, but man, is there amazing wildlife and natural resources and things that are just so beautiful.
0:08:34.7 JH: Well, that's amazing. And how do you use your visual creations? So the photos and the footage that you get for the organizations that you're working with, how are those put to work?
0:08:42.8 SD: A lot of the times it's for fundraising for the organizations, they use the assets, whether they're videos or photos, usually it's a combination of both to apply for grants, to present to their donors, there are a groups of donors and to bring in new people into the fold. What was really amazing about incorporating video into both organizations actually, is that because of the pandemic, everything became virtual, and so one of the creative ways that the Bronx River Alliance decided to still try to produce this event that they have every year, I think they've been doing it for 20 years now, and they call it the Flotilla, and they invite people from the community all throughout, in the South Bronx, to actually get into canoes and float down the Bronx River and experience something that most people don't even realize there even was a river at some time, and so this organization has opened up a natural resource to communities that never knew that it was there before, and then also they're partnering with the members of those communities that always knew the river was there and never forgot about that and fought like hell to make sure that that was part of their community.
0:09:48.5 SD: You don't have to do too much searching online to know about the South Bronx and the history there, as much as there's a difficult history in the South Bronx, there's this incredible, vibrant, amazing community that loves the natural world and fights like hell to protect it. I've met some of the most impassioned environmentalists and conservationists in the South Bronx that I've ever met anywhere, and so to do that is amazing, so I was brought on to bring their Flotilla event online for the community to participate and raise funds, and it was awesome and again, I got to float down The Bronx River, from some of the areas closer towards its headwaters, and then down into this area called Concrete Plant Park, that was this kind of devastated wasteland that was reclaimed by the community and then turned into this beautiful, vibrant park that has gardens and it has the first edible garden in New York City where community members can come for free and harvest throughout the year and explore the natural world in this really cool way, and so these videos that I was brought on to create for them, helped them to raise I think it was something like $35,000, during this time period...
0:11:00.1 JH: Wow, that's fantastic.
0:11:00.4 SD: Yeah, it was great, they do this award ceremony every year, one of the congress people here in New York City has, he was was an active supporter of all restoration efforts for the Bronx River. So he was there, he was retiring, and so he gave this a really wonderful speech and presented awards to these incredible environmentalists, so that was just this amazing way to use video and still photography to bring this event that people have been doing for almost two decades now online and still make it really successful, and then again in the fall, they have this big gala that they usually do, and it's just this wonderful way for everybody to celebrate and talk about the accomplishments and things like that, and we did that virtually as well, so we did some videos, and we had this hilarious local comedian as the MC, that was really awesome, I mean this guy was just joke after joke the entire time, and it was such a cool event to experience, so...
0:11:57.1 JH: Oh, that's wonderful.
0:11:58.6 SD: Yeah. Yeah it was really good.
0:12:00.0 JH: Well, speaking of making money through photography, there's a whole other side of your expertise, that we're digging into today, which is how to make money also as a conservation photographer, through having your images inside of galleries and digging into that topic. I think that it's something that a lot of times we forget about as an option, we get really wrapped up in, and rightfully so, the idea of working alongside scientists and doing fundraising and using our imagery in publications, and then we forget that galleries are actually a potential option as well, though, as you mentioned earlier, before we hit record, that it's actually quite rare for conservation photography to be in galleries, and I'm curious if we can start the conversation about this there with what you've seen... Have you seen galleries that show conservation photography successfully, or when does it work, and when does it not work in galleries?
0:12:57.2 SD: Sure, and we'll just kinda just try to hit as many topics as we can on that 'cause it's a meandering topic. Kinda hard to remember. But yeah, it's tough. So I was in a market in Colorado where I needed to have multiple streams of revenue and as so many photographers know, selling your own work is really hard, you have to get used to no over and over and over again until you get, yes, and you build on that. I happened to see a gallery in Colorado where we had moved to and they were selling historical photographs, and I was interested in that, and so I gave it a shot and got into the fine art industry. I went to school to be a teacher and then started my path on, master of fine art and photography, and so the historical photographs and things really appealed to me, and so I started with this particular art gallery, I couldn't believe the education I got in rolling with the punches, and it absolutely set me up for being able to set my own work by representing other people's work, and being able to see the perspective of the client is critical, because ultimately they're the end user, they're the consumer, they're the end product.
0:14:16.5 SD: And if you can create a relationship with a client who really enjoys an artist work and their body of work, all of a sudden, you have this incredible experience that you wouldn't otherwise have known about, art is this thing that is monetized, and there can be huge sums of money involved in the art industry, but man, is it transformative as well. You get those people that come in and they see a painting, or they see a photograph or a sculpture, and you immediately know, you know that they're impacted by it within... Gosh, it takes like five seconds that they respond to it, and then you have a conversation with them and you start to hear why they enjoy this piece, there's this expression in the art world that so many of us have always laughed about and then shared, and it's true, it's true in art, and it's true in life. But so many times I've talked to people and we're standing in front of a painting or a photograph, and I remind them that what we're looking at is not the same thing. The painting that you and I are looking at is not the same because my experience in life allows me to see this in one way, and yours allows you to see it in a totally different way, and so here's the same piece of art that we're looking at on the wall or on a pedestal.
0:15:36.9 SD: And it's not the same thing. It means something totally different, and I've been able to ask people very candidly for 20 years now, "Why do you like that, what do you dig about that, what is making you respond in this way?" I've seen people cry, I've seen people laugh, I've heard intimate stories about why a particular piece of art reminds someone of their parents or a child, it's really... It's moving, it's incredible. I've had this opportunity to do this and I enjoyed it, and I really enjoy closing sales. [chuckle] It's fun, it's really fun to make this connection with people over this piece of art that someone has created and then send it home with them and then realize that they're gonna hang it over their mantle or in their dining room. Oftentimes, I've hung the piece myself for them, and I've got to see what it looks like in the space, and they're gonna have holidays and dinner parties, and hell they're even gonna wake up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water and see that particular piece of art in whatever ambient light is in that room, and it's gonna remind them of whatever experience it was, and so with conservation, if we're able to tap into that human response to art...
0:17:00.0 SD: Well, the sky's the limit. I've had the opportunity to see that too, I've been in a few galleries where I've been able to represent really some of the world's most incredible conservation photographers. But I think we've talked about this before, the art gallery industry is weird. It's really weird. Where We're all kind of these strange people, I think just like photographers are... Art gallery people are kind of cut from the same cloth, if you've been in it a long enough time, you obviously like it enough, you don't stick around. I think it's the same as photography on the professional level, it's really difficult to do this and to pay the bills with a camera, and so a lot of times folks are like, "Yeah, I'm good, I'm done, I can't do this anymore," and they'll just treat it as a hobby or whatever it is. And it's real similar in the art world as well, it's just this funky funny thing where you're continually told, "No, I don't want that, or that's too expensive, or I don't like that," or whatever, but then on the flip side, you get these incredible experiences where people respond to a piece of art emotionally, and they wanna take it home and then eventually probably wanna buy more from that same artist.
0:18:12.9 JH: When have you seen... In your experience, do you have any stories about, especially when it comes to a wildlife photography or nature photography that has a conservation bend, where you've witnessed that client come into a gallery and have that transformative experience and wanna take something home that could potentially influence everyone who walks into their home.
0:18:33.0 SD: Yeah, a lot of it had to do with... Well, I think for the most part, it was African wildlife, in New York City, and having folks walk into a gallery and just respond to a portrait of a lion, a portrait of a rhino, giraffe, certainly... The Big Five, I think is what so many people would walk in and see and immediately recognize and then start sharing their stories about how they either went on safari or they have a safari coming up, that they really love or are looking forward to. And so they have that kind of connection with it.
0:19:08.4 JH: When it comes to wildlife photography... What works in galleries. I hear you say portrait of, portrait of, portrait of...
0:19:14.0 SD: Sure.
0:19:15.5 JH: Does it tend to be that that is the type of photography that works in galleries?
0:19:19.5 SD: Yeah, it's either portraits or it's landscapes with animals in it, or straight landscapes. People are really difficult. Yes, people are really difficult obviously. But what I mean is portraiture of human beings is a tough sell. I've sold it for sure, but it's hard. You've got some beautiful imagery from so many photographers that use the human subject and human interaction, but it's gotta be real specific. Otherwise, you've got somebody that you don't know hanging on your wall. Whereas if it's an animal or a landscape that has universal appeal to it. It just... It really depends on what landscape or what animal is appealing to these particular people. As conservationists we are given the opportunity... Or conservation photographers we're given the opportunity to see some of the raw side of nature, and it can be fantastic and necessary in telling a particular story. People don't wanna see that on their walls though. And so... You know that story of a Mountain Vista, where it took you eight hours to hike into and you had to camp overnight and one of your lenses broke, but you still have the back-up one. And then you took the photograph and then you bring it back and you're in your editing room and you're looking at it and it looks terrible.
0:20:40.6 SD: You put all this effort and time and you faced hardship to get this photograph that you had in your head and it just looks awful. You have to be your own critic when it comes to those kind of things. And then to make it even more challenging, you have to get into the head of the art buyer and say," Well, who's gonna wanna buy this?" That's what makes it challenging.
0:21:00.5 JH: Right. Well, so in my experience, this is why galleries are such a foreign world to me is because...
0:21:05.6 SD: Sure.
0:21:06.2 JH: I've never hung anything in a gallery, this is not kind of where my mind is that. I'm always on the publication storytelling article side. And so when you're really curating images, you do things like, people are essential to the story that you're trying to tell, and sometimes the gore and the sad... All of these things come into play inside of a story. Scientists in the field and that sort of thing.
0:21:28.6 SD: For sure.
0:21:29.7 JH: And that stuff is not what you would find in a gallery, and it's because I would never want a picture of a researcher coloring up on my wall...
0:21:38.1 SD: Exactly, yeah.
0:21:39.1 JH: I want a portrait of a bird. So when it comes to... And I've watched multiple times conservation photographers try and select images that they wanna sell on their website or they wanna hang in a gallery, and really struggle with trying to figure out what it is that they should pick... Like what is it that people are gonna wanna have on a wall. What are some of those things that you have to get out of the storytelling side of your head as a photographer and move into the fine art side of your head as a photographer to be able to sell images that still have a conservation message or impact, but that people actually wanna hang on their wall? How do you select that?
0:22:14.8 SD: It's tough, for sure. And I think one of the biggest struggles that artists have in getting their work represented at a particular gallery is it's just not a good fit. I've been approached over and over and over again by artists that wanna have representation, and when I see their portfolio or I look at their website it just absolutely does not match the art that's represented at the gallery in the least bit. There isn't even a single shred of a connection. And obviously, you wanna be different. You don't want all the artists in the gallery to look exactly the same. But if it's strictly a sculpture gallery, you're not gonna try to get your photographs hanging there... That's a pretty obvious example. But then there's some other ones too. I think a lot of it has to do with art movements. And so if you start looking at some of the galleries in major cities, New York, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Paris, London, those types of things, and see the types of work outside of photography and within photography, that they have represented... That'll give you a better sense of the style that the gallery is going for.
0:23:18.7 SD: Is it all abstract expressionism? There's some beautiful aerial and drone photography that looks like abstract expressionism that could fit in beautifully with an abstract expressionist bent fine art gallery that sells paintings and photographs. And you could even approach... And we have definitely brought in photographers where we were only strictly painters. We brought in photographers because their work looked similar to paintings. It could also be the presentation. Are you printing on canvas and then going back and hand touching some of these things, so it looks like an actual painting. Is this a work on paper? Is it gonna be a limited edition that you're gonna be signing and numbering? All of a sudden you're starting to tap into an area of a collector that says, "Oh, I really like that." I think we were talking one of the times, maybe the last time we talked, that there is these personas of people that come into art galleries.
0:24:09.7 JH: Yes. Yeah.
0:24:13.2 SD: And... There's kind of the major ones. And people collect art for all different reasons. Some people definitely collect it for investment, and that's fun and interesting. I like the emotional part and the emotional connection of art. And so I've tended to have great success with those kind of clients and that kind of persona. But there are people that are emotional buyers, and there are people that are analytical buyers. And so those analytical buyers, the sales people need to be ready to explain why something is being offered as a limited edition. The type of work that it is. Why this person is significant. The type of projects they've been working on. All those things go into the story of the artist. And that appeals to the collector. And then the collectors says, "Yeah, I really... I enjoy that." I think one of the things that I would wanna stress the most with artists trying to choose a gallery and when they do get accepted is speaking with the sales staff. They're the people on the front lines every single day, talking with clients about... Absolutely everything.
0:25:11.0 SD: And if you have a chance to talk with the sales staff, all of a sudden they've got a story about that artist that they can share with the client, and immediately there's a connection. Even better if the artist is in the gallery and it's an exhibition, and they get to meet the artist. All of a sudden you start to see sales go way up because of that human connection that the clients have with the artists. But I'm getting ahead of myself... We were talking about what kind of work do we choose to even get into the gallery. So going back to it... Abstract expressionism is one of those. But man, you can see echoes in Chagall and Joan Miro. Some of the impressionist obviously. Some of the realists. You've got these really evocative photographs that can look like paintings that people respond to immediately. There's kitschy things as well. There's a particular photographer that I've been following for a while, who's really interesting. And he would take... He did a whole series of photographs of bodies of water. And the type of alternative process that he used to create the prints required him to do some type of water bath. And he used the water from that body of water that he photographed to develop the prints, the type of medium. So sometimes the subject matter is important, but then also the medium itself that you're creating the work on has that impact that someone would wanna have in the gallery and...
0:26:42.6 JH: Wow. So it sounds like there could be a potential trifecta in there. Which is one what it is that you... The subject matter, what it is that you've documented in your photography is really essential. Two, the way in which you're displaying that subject can make all the difference or the process by which you display it. And three, the story behind the creation. Whether that's the artistry or the conservation story or why this matters. And if you have all three, it sounds like you can be quite successful.
0:27:11.9 SD: You can. Now, there's other threads that, because I'm on both sides of it, is difficult because I struggle with the impact that I have in creating a physical piece of art. The choices that I've made whenever I've created a physical piece of art, I have to recognize that there is an impact on the Earth. There is something that is happening. And the prints that I choose to create are, at least, the most sensitive to the Earth, sustainable... I never use anything but vegetable inks, recycled cotton rag and bamboo paper is usually my only choice. There are some beautiful photographs that are done chromogenically. But I won't do that because I don't wanna use the chemicals. It's tough. So I personally don't choose to create photographs that use those types of chemical processes. There are huge heavy hitters in the conservation photography industry that have chosen to do that. That's obviously their choice. It's tough for me though, because I see the impact that a particular choice can have on the Earth. And I just... I can't go with it, so I'll try to go with it a different route. But that is... Getting back to it, that is one of the techniques for getting representation, is choosing the type of material that you're printing on, choosing the medium that you wanna present your photographs too... That has a big appeal for folks.
0:28:38.8 JH: Well, you mentioned earlier that the art world and the gallery world is weird.
0:28:45.6 SD: It is. Super weird.
0:28:45.7 JH: And for someone who's not... Like let's say I decide I want to take a body of work and be represented by a gallery, and I start to look around for where that would be the best fit and start to get into this world. What are some of the things that I should be aware of that might be red flags or green flags for moving forward?
0:29:05.4 SD: Sure. That's a good question. So depending on the gallery. All galleries are different. A lot of the bigger galleries in places like Manhattan, where they have big staffs COVID changed a lot of things. But this is... Just as a little side note too. The galleries side of things is gonna come back like so many other things because people are dying for experiences, physical experiences. I anticipate so many people are gonna wanna go into galleries and experience art... Two-dimensional art in front of them. And I think people also recognize that when they're cooped up inside, if they have beautiful imagery, art, photographs that type of thing in their home, they can experience something that they can't otherwise when they're in that locked... I think it completely turned the perspective on what art means to people, because they were inside for such a long time. And so I think when things are slowly starting to come back, people are gonna wanna go out and buy physical pieces of art and see these things. And I think folks have a great opportunity to make some really good money doing this, if they can dial it in. So with that being said, when you're in some of these big galleries, they have an up system. Let's say there's four people that are working the floor on a particular day, and it's like a Friday or a Saturday... God forbid. That's a busy day.
0:30:20.9 SD: And when a customer comes in... When a client comes in... A potential client comes in, whoever is next in the rotation of the up system, that is that person's client, and so they will talk to that person. If an artist who wants to get represented comes in unannounced without an appointment on a Saturday with a portfolio under their arm or their laptop, or they're ready to share their website to somebody on the sales floor on a Saturday with an up system, they're gonna be met with rudeness more than likely. Unless you get somebody that's pretty cool. But this is how our representatives make their money. And so all of a sudden they're up got wasted, so to speak, on an artist that came in on Saturday looking for representation. So... Well, I think one of the biggest things is to make an appointment. To do some research and see, is this gonna be a good fit. Look at the website, see the types of work that's there. And then if it seems like your work is gonna be a good fit, then reach out and set up an appointment. Man, a lot of times people will have a form letter that gets sent back to them, and it says, "We're not accepting anybody. Or if we are accepting people, it's within six months."
0:31:29.6 SD: However, if your work's awesome, all that form stuff goes away. And somebody will see that and be like, "Man, this stuff is great." And then they'll send it to the gallery director or the curator, if it's a different person, and then all of sudden that person says, "Yeah... No, this stuff is incredible. Let's get this person in." Or, "Let's call that person immediately." And then the ball starts to roll. So there's these structures, like the up system... Like the hierarchy of when you submit work that is in place in a lot of galleries. But oftentimes, it goes by the wayside if your work is just awesome and you're a new person, and they're really looking forward to bringing somebody in. If you go into things like LENSCRATCH, there's call for entries and that kind of thing, for submissions to galleries and shows and that kind of stuff. But for the most part, when you're reaching out to these galleries and introducing your work to them, it's part of the process.
0:32:21.6 SD: It's just something that is known within the gallery community that artists are gonna reach out, present their work, and then it's either a yes or a no. And I would probably make a list of as many galleries that you feel your work is gonna fit as you can and then just reach out to them. And if you don't get any response... You know... Just like you would with a pitch, reach back out, follow up. If it's a no, you're probably not gonna hear from them, or they might just send a quick one sentence, "I appreciate your time. We're not accepting people at this moment." Or, "Wow, this stuff is great. I'd love to talk with you." And just keep doing that. Find those niches that you wanna be in and just keep at it.
0:33:02.9 JH: To what degree does it benefit you to be either a big name or brand new? An unknown.
0:33:10.7 SD: Yeah, it works both ways for you...
0:33:12.9 JH: Okay, that's kind of encouraging 'cause it just falls back on the quality of the art, period.
0:33:18.2 SD: Yeah... No, it does. It does for sure. If you're not presenting a killer whale biting a seal in half to a gallery that only sells sculptures, you're doing okay. I think what's really important too, is a lot of times you'll go on to gallery websites and you'll see work hung in someone's home. This could be really pretty crucial. If you can take your work and Photoshop it onto a wall in someone's home, and then present that to a gallery, well, then they'll immediately be able to see how well your work presents itself. Maybe you have a beautiful home, photograph some of the walls and super impose your photographs on them. Or your friend or relatives, or somebody has a beautiful home... A lobby of a hotel, whatever it is photograph that and then superimpose your work onto that and then present that to the gallery. That's something that will immediately stand out to someone. It would stand out to me. I've clicked on all of those... When I've... I've gotten the good stuff.
0:34:22.3 JH: And just to clarify, you're letting them know that it's a mock-up, you're not trying to say that my art is hung in this hotel or that...
0:34:28.8 SD: Yeah. For sure...
0:34:29.3 JH: Okay. [chuckle]
0:34:30.6 SD: Yeah... I've had people actually print out their stuff and frame it and then take a photograph of it, so it's physically hanging on the wall...
0:34:35.9 JH: Oh nice.
0:34:36.4 SD: And I'm like, "Wow, this is awesome. Yes, I wanna see this."
0:34:41.1 JH: That's wonderful.
0:34:41.2 SD: Yeah, for sure. So that's a creative technique that I always seem to... Being totally honest, if I'm pulling the curtain back here with the industry, like an editor going through, you just see so many submissions over and over and over again. And so if you've curated something that is gonna fit within the gallery but stands out, yeah, I'm definitely gonna click on that, and then reach out. I hope I answered the question.
0:35:05.7 JH: Yes, no, that was full of really, really great tips. You also mentioned much earlier in the interview how you have learned to... Through your experience, both on the conservation photography side of this, but also as someone who has worked inside the gallery industry, that you have learned to roll with the punches. What are some of those punches that someone should be prepared for if they want to get into selling their working in galleries?
0:35:33.3 SD: Yeah. Okay, rolling with the punches. So the idea is getting used to no before you're being represented. It's just part of the course. You're gonna hear it over and over and over again. And honestly, I've reached out to people that I've said, no to, and then all of a sudden a client has come in and said, "You know, I'm really looking for this." And then I'm like, "Hey, you know what, I actually have seen that recently." I bring it up. I show somebody, and they're like, "Yeah, that's exactly what I'm looking for." Then I reach out to the artist and a sale happens.
0:36:02.1 JH: Ah... Nice.
0:36:03.5 SD: That 100% happens all the time. So sometimes it's just the demand, you've got somebody that's coming in. And if you've got somebody that's on the floor that is seeing this work, yeah, you can all of a sudden pair the client with the artist and then you've got a sale and you might even have representation at that point. So prior to being represented, I think it really is just having a thick skin and continuing to just reach out and have great work. If you don't hear no, man, that's an open door to just keep sending your stuff to them. And... If you get no response, and you don't get a bounce back email because the person's not there anymore, well, you're probably being looked at. If you've got things like I have with HubSpot and stuff, and you can see when people are opening your emails, you know that people are looking at them and they're clicking on the stuff and they're probably interested. They haven't said no yet because they're busy... Or they're doing something. But I would just keep at it and... Again, too, I've said no to people and then they keep sending me stuff and I'm like, "Yeah, no this is great." I will try as much as I can... And I hope that people would get this too is critical feedback that says, "This just isn't... This isn't a good fit for the gallery." And I've tried to suggest other galleries to folks that is a good fit.
0:37:21.5 SD: I've done that a lot because I know that the hardship that you go through in trying to find that good fit for your gallery. That's one of those things that you've gotta roll with. Once you're represented and you're there... It's also a different scenario. I had mentioned that galleries are weird. I was trying to be with holding when I said weird. Galleries are notoriously... Some of them are notoriously shady... Shady... Excuse me. Don't pay their artists or delay paying their artists, short change their artists' payments, that kind of thing. And so I would feel really comfortable if a gallery makes you sign a contract and they spell out all the nitty-gritty of how you get paid, the percentages, any discounts that you would split. If you're not interested in doing that, you'd wanna have a conversation with a gallery about it. But I will say, man discounting is that thing that just will make the sale. And so if you agree up front with your gallery, "Yeah, I'm fine with going up to 20% or 30% off the retail price, and we split that together," then you're giving your sales staff an opportunity to make a really good sale and possibly multiple sales.
0:38:30.6 SD: You say, "Well, if you buy four of these pieces, I give you free shipping and I'll take an additional 15% off," or something like that. If you do this today. And then you've got a sale. And a lot of times I've seen people walk out the door when the policy is, we just don't... We just don't discount. It's kind of a bummer. I think people are just so used to discounting in the art world that when a gallery is strict about that, they're just kind of cutting their nose off to spite their face. It's tough.
0:38:55.4 JH: Got it.
0:38:56.6 SD: So it's... It's so important to do that.
0:38:57.9 JH: Yeah, and I love that you mentioned to have a contract that clearly spells everything out, 'cause... All my listeners know, I think that good fences make good neighbors and that paperwork is really important. And so to remind folks that there could be this really amazing excitement that you have about like, "Yes, I finally... I'm gonna have my work hung in a gallery and this is gonna be great for me professionally, as well as for the conservation stories that I wanna tell." But don't let that excitement overwhelm you to the point that you forget that you need a very clear contract in place.
0:39:27.0 SD: For sure. And if... There's galleries that don't have contracts. They just literally do handshakes and say, "Yeah, let's do this." I would always get something in writing, You gotta cover yourself. 'Cause then all of a sudden you'll get a call one day that's like, "Hey, come pick up your stuff. It's here." And you're like, "What? You haven't even hung my work and we haven't an exhibition, you didn't do any advertising." There's all those things that can happen. So if... Like you said, if it's spelled out from the start... Or if you set up those structures yourself, if the gallery doesn't have it. But for some reason you're like, "God, I just need to be in this gallery and they don't have these. So let's put our own contract together and have them sign it." Well, then you're covering yourself, so you're in good shape there for sure. It's... Galleries are fun. They are. Galleries are a blast. If you have the right team... I think that's the other thing too. When you meet a staff, you know... I mean, you walk into a store and you're like, "Oh man, this feels weird. I don't like the energy in here. It feels kinda dumb." Whatever. Unfortunately, sometimes if you're working with, I only have five galleries I'm going for, and three of those five gave me a bad feeling, you're probably right to trust your gut that you have a bad feeling.
0:40:39.3 SD: Here's the thing though, it could just be that they had a bad day. The same that happens with photography and trying to get pitches out there and get yeses instead of nos, that's happening on a daily basis, on an hourly basis, on a minute basis for the sales staff. They're getting nos over and over and over and over again. And they could be on a downward swing. And on those days and on those weeks that I've had where I've just been getting nos over and over again it's tough. And then somebody comes in and you're like, "I don't wanna talk about this with this right person now." And you know what, they were awesome artists. I wanna represent their work. They're great. They are perfect to work with. They're right down the street. I love their style. But it was a cruddy day because I was getting nos over and over and over again, and they happened to walk in on that bad day. And so I would always say to people when you're gonna be setting up on appointments, even if you are represented, set up an appointment ahead of time and make sure you're talking with the person when it's the least busy out... At the floor. There's nothing worse than having that happen.
0:41:48.3 SD: I was in a ski town for a number of years selling art, and I had an artist that would come in and be like, "Oh man, the hill was so good today. The powder was up to my waist. I couldn't believe the sunshine, it was so beautiful." And I'm like, "Man, I'm sitting in here trying to sling your art and you're telling me about how good it is on the hill." I wanna be on the mountain too. And there's that kind of sensitivity that you have to have with the people that are selling your work. The other thing too... And this is pretty big. It'll be within your... It should be in your contract. If it isn't, you absolutely have to spell it out. But selling your work through the gallery means you're selling your work through the gallery. You can't sell your work through the gallery and also sell your work on your website. Every single gallery will make sure that that doesn't happen. But in the rare chance that they haven't spelled it out, I mean that's the surest way to be let go from a gallery. Because you're just competing with them, and why would they bother.
0:42:48.5 SD: You have to make the choice between, do I wanna try and sell this online and do my own things with pop-ups and pop-up exhibitions and things like that, or do I wanna wanna let the gallery kind of run things. And if you've got a 50-50 contract with them, that 50-50 is definitely helping because you don't have to talk with 7000 clients a day and listen to what they're doing on vacation, or why things are going the way they are for that particular day. So that's important. You gotta really make sure that if you do have your stuff on your website, just funnel it to your gallery. Have a link right to it... And obviously, you wanna link back with them anyway, so you just send them right to there if you wanna purchase any of my things... Here it is. I've also seen too, people have said, "You can buy this collection from this gallery, go here. Otherwise these things are available for sale." However, you gotta make sure that prices are the same. People travel all over the world, they don't wanna be gouged because they're in Vail or they're in New York, and then go on your website and realize that it's a third of the price or half the price. They wanna make sure that it's flat across the board.
0:43:53.7 JH: That was really helpful. And that's I think a really important thing to make sure to clarify too, because I think that a lot of times... Especially when you're kinda getting started, you are thinking about your online print shop. And so you wanna be aware of like, "Oh yeah, I need to pick one or the other." Or funnel toward a gallery just for the ethics of it. So we have talked all over the place about the ups and downs and pros and cons and what this looks like, but I'm curious with all of your experience and then with also having gone through COVID and having in-person galleries shut down and virtual galleries pop-up and with what will be a return to in-person galleries, what are your hopes and dreams as a conservation visual storyteller to see galleries maybe change in the future. If you could have a perfect world where galleries and conservation photographers work together, what would that look like for you?
0:44:48.8 SD: So I reached out to you a while ago with that in mind. I have all this information and this knowledge that I've been just gathering for 20 years by selling art. And I don't feel like there is a gallery... At least right now, especially after COVID... Is a good representative of the work that conservation photographers are doing. A lot of it is somewhat piecemeal, people that want wildlife, and so that kind of skirts the edges of conservation photography and that kind of thing. But I really do wanna see people come in and have engaging conversations about the issues that these photographs are representing that compels them enough to want to let their money go. Take that home with them, hang it on their wall somewhere, and then tell that story to other people in their lives, so that then that story gets told to more people. And then possibly somebody reaches back out and says, "Hey, I was over so and so's house, this photograph is beautiful. I wanna buy this." And then that person does it again and they start telling those stories. That's the power of art that is just so incredible. You are asking people to spend thousands of dollars on something they don't need. But with conservation photography, it's not buying a Miro or a Chagall.
0:46:12.1 SD: Nothing against those artists. But the impact that a photograph created by a conservation photographer has... Well, the potential is incredible. Just think about five photographs hanging in the homes of five different people by one particular photographer on one particular subject, and they become ambassadors for that cause. They get to speak in the most intimate settings, in their homes, about this really important issue. And the ocean is made up of drops of water, every single drop builds this huge swell that changes the tide. It makes people want to change things. That's the real power of art. You're seeing this thing in your daily life, and you're reminded of it over and over again, and you're compelled to tell other people about it. And that's what I'd love to see. I'd love to see people come in, be so impressed by a particular piece of work and wanna take it home with them and then become an ambassador for that particular person, and that cause.
0:47:29.2 JH: Yeah, and I think too, what's amazing to me to really have this conversation is because it's one thing to be able to go to a photographer's website and to sort through their online shop and to be able to pick an image and... Okay, well, I'm gonna go ahead and order that print and have it shipped to me and have it framed, whatever. There's that experience. But as you were talking about earlier, when you walk into a place and you see something in front of you, a two-dimensional piece of beauty hanging in front of you and you hear the story, I feel like that gives you... A gallery, gives you an experience of a piece of art in the first place that makes you wanna pay thousands of dollars. And I think that that... If we were to ever have a gallery in this world that is built around conservation, that understands the power of storytelling inside of that moment when someone's experiencing something, that's where a big part of the ambassadorship, as you mentioned, begins. Because that's what makes someone wanna hang that in their home and tell the story over and over and over again to everyone else. It becomes more than a pretty piece of art. And I think that there's a big craving to be able to see something in person, in print, in a physical space rather than that online space that we've become so used to because it just looks different. You absorb it in a different way.
0:48:50.0 SD: Yeah. You do. And don't discount the fact that when somebody buys a piece of art like that, they actually feel like they're part of the story. If they're buying this art and they know that the money is gonna go to that artist that's creating this... That's a conservation photographer that's working on this particular campaign or whatever it is, they get to be part of that story. You don't get that when you buy a Chagall. You get a different story and that's cool. I love that. I think it's really neat. But this is totally different. This is beyond any type of other type of art that you've got. It's really engaging. And like, truly engaging. It compels someone to make the world better through art, isn't that amazing? I think I was telling you this when we were talking a while ago, and that I represented this sculptor who since passed away. I identify with him a lot because a lot of times... He grew up in the Depression, he was scrappy. He built his own bronze foundry in his garage or in his backyard by going to the junk yard and just scrapping things and seeing how it works. And if it blew up in his face it did. But more often than not, he was just tinkering around and he figured it out. And that was really this interesting aspect of this artist.
0:50:04.8 SD: And he said, as kids, we learn to draw and express our feelings and emotions through art before we learn to read and write. The first thing that we do is start drawing and coloring and making things in the dirt and sticks and things like that. And it's this universal language that we all have regardless of where we grew up. And I think that's why art can be such a powerful tool in the conservation movement. And that's why we do what we do. Obviously, we love telling these visual stories, but we're entrenched in it. We're, part of the architecture of that story. But art invites people that are not part of that into the story, and it allows them to understand what it is that we're getting to. And again, become true ambassadors. If you've done that... And if you've done that well... And man, there's a lot of moving parts. We're talking like you gotta have a really good photograph and it's gotta fit within the gallery's theme. And then you've gotta have a really good staff that knows your story, and more than likely has met you one or two times, either on the phone, face-to-face, Zoom call, whatever it is.
0:51:12.9 SD: And then they're able to take that story of yours and emote that to them. The sky's the limit, man. You've got all the elements. And then... I've had people come back over and over and over again to me that have bought $500,000 worth of art from one artist because they just love him. They just love him. They connected with him. They think he's great... And he wasn't even a conservationist. Look at that. [chuckle] He was just making art because art's really cool to make and why not. I think we have a tendency... Or at least I don't want anybody to have this tendency if they do. But I don't wanna have conservation photographers, and there's the fact that they are artists. I'm fortunate that I've been in the art industry for such a long time, that when I look through my view finder, I get to see echoes of a whole variety of different art movements.
0:52:04.9 SD: And I'd encourage photographers to go to galleries and go to museums and experience things that they've never experienced before, because when they are composing a photo of a landscape or a bird or a tiger, they'll start to see echoes of those things. And that's what the clients are gonna wanna see. They're gonna wanna see those echoes because they pair their art with other art. And it doesn't have to match. Sometimes people love to have completely opposite art juxtaposed right next to each other. But more often than not, they're buying a similar theme. And if you can tap into those particular elements of some of the greatest artists of the world within your own conservation work you're doing great.
0:52:46.8 JH: I love that you say, never forget that conservation photographers are artists. I think we can get so wrapped up in the documentary side of things, and I need to tell the story and so on and so forth that... Wait, wait, wait. Let's dial it back. We're still using a visual art form...
0:53:05.2 SD: We are.
0:53:06.6 JH: To convey a story, and it's okay to fully embrace that. And to allow other people to celebrate what you create as art.
0:53:12.9 SD: The thing that I have always been so fascinated by art... Especially two dimensional art, is that you can create something that reminds you of an experience. And if you do it well enough, you can be transported to that experience. And it transcends time. And this is two dimensional. This is just paper and ink and oil and acrylic and canvas and that kind of thing. But somebody has created something so well that it takes the person that isn't part of that structure that we talk about, and it immediately invites them in. I think that that was what I was trying to remember and I finally got to it. Was that I know more than anybody how difficult it is to put your work out for everyone to judge within five seconds. It's hard, man. It's hard. I know that because I put my work out there and it's there for anyone to rip up whenever they want to. And I've seen it happen to other artists for 20 years. And it's hard. I've been an emotional support person for countless artists because they... We're talking big artists that are like, "My work's shit. It's awful. Nobody wants to buy it. Everybody thinks it's terrible." Of course they don't. But that's that vulnerability as artists that we try to push down because we need to pay the bills, we need to figure out the next step, we have to go into the editing room, we have to start thinking about doing video instead of just still photographs.
0:54:52.5 SD: But you're putting your emotion, your vulnerability out for people to judge, and that's a really hard thing to do. And I get it. I get it so huge. But it's also worth it. It's really worth it to do that. That risk that you're taking and putting your everything out there is really important because we need that. We really do. It's another one of those funny things that older artists, especially do it. I always get a kick out of this... But there'll be a client that kind of saunters in, in an exhibition and he says, "So how long does it take you to paint that?" Vase of flowers or whatever. And the 85-year-old artist will say, "85 years." And he says, "What?" And he says, "Yeah. This physical painting, I don't know how many hours it took me to make this, but I've put my entire life into this thing that you've just kinda casually walked up to and asked how long it took me to make." I get that too. We are bringing everything that we have done and the decision that we made to become conservation photographers into that decision to say, "Hey, please judge my work and sell it to someone so that they can hang it in their dinning room."
0:56:10.1 JH: It reminds me a little bit of why it gets my back up when someone will see a high-end digital camera and be like, "Oh, that camera must take really good pictures."
0:56:19.7 SD: Totally man.
0:56:20.7 JH: No, it doesn't actually take any. If you put it on the table, it just kinda sits there are.
0:56:26.3 SD: It sure does.
0:56:26.4 JH: And it actually takes the person behind it to create those photos. And it takes that person, like you said, their whole life. And also in conservation photography, all artists go through a lot of turmoil and what it is that they're trying to create and get out into the world and have it live up to the impossible standards that artists hold themselves to. But with conservation photography, I think that there's an added weight because we so often feel that if we aren't successful with our artwork, it also means that we're letting the issue down. And we're letting other people that we're trying to help, and causes that we're trying to help, we're letting that down as well. So there's this added extra weight. But on the flip side of that, there's this added elation when you show something to someone else, you bring them into that story, they embrace it as their own and become an ambassador. Like you said, it feels like a really extraordinary win that is so far beyond just a sale.
0:57:24.5 SD: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I love sharing that story because it's these little... Stories about artists is what sells art. That's what it is. Stories about how the photographer created it, and stories about the photographer themselves is what sells the art, and a good sales person that can tell a good story.
0:57:43.3 JH: Well, Steven, you have dropped so much knowledge inside of this. So much how-to information, but also so much perspective inside of this. And I hope with all of my heart that we as a world get to have the experience of a Steven-run gallery focused on conservation storytelling. And for anyone who wants to get in touch with you and to be able to talk more about this dream, this vision of a gallery that focuses on conservation work, how can people find you or go enjoy your conservation photography?
0:58:18.4 SD: For sure. My two websites. My conservation work is at witnesstreemedia.com. And that's all focused on photography and video of my conservation work. And then my workshops and gallery support for artists is on stevendewitt.com.
0:58:35.8 JH: Thank you so much for being here, for sharing so much knowledge about the side of art that we don't often talk about or get an inside scoop on. And you were so honest and so helpful, and I really appreciate you.
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