Curating

Ever put a ‘zine or book together or assembled a set of pictures to exhibit?How do you decide what is in, what is out and what order the pictures should be in?

What got me thinking was an article by Grant Scott were he says that photographers need help with both curating and layout. Layout I definitely agree with – I’m the IT guy so I think green text on a black screen background is an undervalued part of our legacy. And a screen should be 80 characters wide and 25 deep. Curating though – deciding what is in or out and what order to put it in – I find it fascinating. The other trigger for this was my trawling of old photos and realising that I was keeping a lot of stuff that I really didn’t need and would never use.

But, back to the start. Imagine you had to present your life’s (photographic) work. Do you put it in chronological order, the major themes that have influenced you, the different styles you have used or by subject matter? Do all the portraits go on one wall, landscapes on another and selfies in the bin? Chronology seems good if you want to show the span of a career or life and how the photographer developed. Organising by assignment or theme seems good if the photographer has investigated several distinct subjects. There is also the power of repetition. Think of something like Anil Mistry’s book of abandoned mattresses.

I can give you a worked example from a small print exhibition I put on with a pal. The venue was a local wine bar. Upstairs room, maybe 10m square, old exposed brickwork. So the first decision was a common print size and a standard frame. We wanted a viewing distance of one to two meters so the prints worked best at A4. Random use of vertical and horizontal pictures because a fixed pattern would draw attention to itself and away from the pictures. Then we spread the pictures by subject type – there wasn’t going to be a set of landscapes together, then portraits for example. That may work if we were famous and prolific but in this case it might influence people to only look at part of the display – cute pictures of dogs, for example. Then colour range: do we ignore the main tone of the pictures or group the predominant colours and have a progression? Perhaps we should go from warm to cool to mono as you look around the room from the entrance? Or do we put the vibrant colour pictures in the darkest part of the room and the mono ones in the bright area? And are all the pictures to be hung at the same level, or do we follow what the old brickwork lets us do?

To relieve your tension, this is what we did: random vertical and horizontal, hung roughly aligned but as allowed by the brickwork, random placement of colour and subject. It was meant to look uncontrived. As Piet Hein said

“There is one art,
no more, no less:
to do all things with art-
lessness”.

But if I was ever famous, I would want someone much cleverer than me to both select the images and the way to display them. A few snaps in a wine bar is one thing, but an actual exhibition is a much bigger undertaking. Not that I’m ever likely to be famous. It’s a bit like asking if you would buy a Porsche or a Ferrari if you won the lottery.

There is also the sort of curating you would do to put pictures in a book or magazine. I think I have only made one picture book, and it was a set of old family photos put together for my mum. I did think about the placement though: should people look into the centre of the book or out? What should appear on facing pages? Is there a progression between relatives or places? Who gets the two centre pages? I probably thought more about it than my mum or anyone else who looked at the finished article, but that’s probably correct. See Mr Hein, above. The background to this, and the reason for thinking about the layout, is that I have self-published a how-to book. That meant paying a lot of attention to the way a book is structured and the features that make it easier to use.

Anyway, the other reason to curate is not to put together a show, but to organise your own library of pictures. It’s probably best to start with this version of curating so that you know what you’ve got and where it is. There is a lot of advice on t’interweb about how to curate your photos, but I’ve seen one fairly condensed set of rules here at Heartwork (other websites also apply). Their advice boils down to eliminating:

  • Duplicates
  • Mistakes, errors and bad shots
  • Landscapes (oh yes!)
  • Multiples within a series

Multiples within a series I might use for something else. I’ve used a bit of software in the past to combine a series of time-lapse pictures into a video. If I’d shot enough pictures in a series I might try that just to see what the result looked like. Or perhaps animate the shots that lead up to the best one and freeze on that as the final frame. But that’s nothing to do with curation, just me thinking out loud.

Mistakes and bad shots can be thrown away, but only after you have sucked all the learning out of them.

Empty landscapes (any landscapes, in my opinion) are boring. If it’s just a record of what was in front of you, then so what? Put people in a landscape and things get more interesting. Or take pictures of people.

Actually, there is one thing you can use the ‘technically OK but not worth keeping’ pictures for: make a mosaic. There are some apps available that you can give a target picture and a bunch of other pictures as a feed; they remake the target using tiled copies of the feed, selected by colour or tone as if they were large pixels. It’s quite good fun and I could see myself using it to create a mosaic using all the ‘spare’ pictures from an event. It’s not curating, but it is a way to make use of the pictures you would otherwise sacrifice to housekeeping. (I use AndreaMosaic for this, which is one of the Portable Apps suite)

So perhaps I’ve argued myself round in a circle. Selecting a set of pictures is interesting and another way of story-telling. Separating the good from the druff in your own pictures is instructive, saves space and can lead to other things.

Go curate!

Author: fupduckphoto

Still wishing I knew what was going on.

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