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Mary Virginia Swanson Shares Her Passion For Fine-Art Photographs

Lessons from a master fine-art marketer

“Eugene Hensley of the Jesus Rock Ministry, Jamestown, TN.” 2014, from the Moon Shine series, by Rachel Boillot.

In the world of fine-art photography, there’s no one more knowledgeable or passionate about the production, presentation and promotion of images than Mary Virginia Swanson.

With early credentials that include working with Ansel Adams at the Friends of Photography and serving as director of special projects for Magnum, to name just a few, Swanson went on to establish the innovative agency Swanstock, which led the way in licensing fine-art imagery for commercial use.

Today, she’s ubiquitous as a consultant, author and educator in the fields of licensing and marketing of fine-art photography, lecturing, leading workshops and meeting with photographers one-on-one to share her expertise in career development within fine-art, commercial and photojournalism markets.

A Changed Fine-Art Market And New Opportunities

Much has changed within both the medium and the business of photography since Swanson first arrived on the scene in the early 1980s.

“When I first started in the field and worked in a New York gallery, the ratio of staff to represented artists was 1:1, and that doesn’t happen today,” she says.

“Joshua Rashaad McFadden, left, his father Craig McFadden, middle, and grandfather, right” by Joshua Rashaad McFadden.
“Joshua Rashaad McFadden, left, his father Craig McFadden, middle, and grandfather, right” by Joshua Rashaad McFadden.

A market that was once focused on print sales for galleries and museums has exploded into a kaleidoscope of options amid niche audiences of all kinds. For photographers unsure of where to turn or how to proceed, Swanson urges them to be disciplined, saying, “There are huge opportunities for people if they just open their eyes to the new markets. It’s exciting that the audience for photography is so broad, but this means we have to reinvent the wheel about how to do the research and how to identify potential buyers.”

The Essential Nature Of Research

The type of research Swanson advocates has many facets, from studying the work of other artists—both within the medium of photography and from a wider fine-art historical context—to taking a hard look at market trends to simply observing the world around you and the photographs you encounter in daily life, which is the easiest place to start.

“Whether you’re at the doctor’s office or in an airport or staying at a hotel, there’s framed artwork on the walls everywhere, so just follow those leads,” she says.

The next, more challenging aspect of the research is about connecting your work to the marketplace. “If you’re trying to enter a certain marketplace, it’s essential that you understand that market, and that [requires] constant research,” she asserts. “For example, if you’re hoping to be a commercial photographer, you should be reading all the advertising and media trades to understand the changes in purchasing for multiple platforms. If you’re trying to make it in the art market, you need to follow the impact of the art fairs, understand the pressures today’s dealers are under and study the new markets for fine prints in corporate art, hospitality and health care.”

Swanson’s approach to helping photographers connect with markets for their work is all about business, and she stresses the importance of forming a partnership with the people representing your work. It also means recognizing the fact that you may need to be your own agent.

Presenting Yourself To The Market

“I feel like many photographers are really talking to each other in their marketing pieces and on social media, and it’s not necessarily in a business tone,” she says. “To be the best possible partner to someone likely to be interested in your work, you have to really understand the business they’re involved in and learn how to speak in the language of that specific market.”

Swanson is equally pragmatic about how photographers present their work. “I’m always dumbfounded at how much information people try to put on a business card,” she says.

“Blind Curtis Byrge on the Day of the Eclipse, Oak Ridge, TN.” 2017, from the Moon Shine series, by Rachel Boillot.
“Blind Curtis Byrge on the Day of the Eclipse, Oak Ridge, TN.” 2017, from the Moon Shine series, by Rachel Boillot.

For clarity in getting your message across, she recommends limiting the information to a clear image, a link to your website and an email address that mirrors the name of the site. “Make it easy. Don’t give me a website address with a separate Yahoo, Hotmail or Gmail address. Rather, use your website URL as your email, such as [email protected] Ideally, your Instagram account will match, too. Make it as easy as possible to remember you and your work.”

When it comes to promo cards, she points to her favorite leave-behind self-promo from FotoFest, which featured a full-bleed image, the artist’s name and the series title on the front (matching the project link on the artist’s website), and an installation view with a white border on the back, along with more detailed caption and contact information. Swanson was able to quickly read both sides, which provided two crucial yet different types of information.

For photographers with an exhibition history, she recommends including an installation view of the work prominently on your website and in promotional materials, along with a caption identifying the exhibition venue, the name and type of show (solo or group) and possibly the name of the curator.

“Seeing the work on the wall tells me you’ve made some really important decisions, about paper, about printing style, about scale,” she explains. “You’ve also made your presentation decisions, and you’ve probably tackled the associated language, such as the title of the series, the price and whether the prints are editioned or not. All that comes from my seeing an image of the work on the wall,” Swanson reiterates. “Without this, don’t count on people reading your CV to learn that you’ve done some juried shows. We don’t have a visual window to your decision making from that.”

Important considerations for a website include connecting the visuals shown with descriptive language, such as a series title or image captions. “It drives me crazy when I see opening cycles on people’s websites, but it doesn’t tell me what project I’m looking at,” says Swanson. “When you’re just throwing individual images out with no titles or project names, I’m confused from the start.”

For Swanson, all these points about presentation boil down to communicating to the end user. She brings up an important distinction between presenting the work as a digital file and as an art object. “If you’re just showing us the image as a file, what are you really selling, stock photography? Or is your final output an object, a work on paper, a work of art that’s part of a bigger process?” If it’s a print, display it as a print—on your website, your social media and in print promotions.

“28531 The Postmistress's Daughter, Harker's Island, NC.” 2013, from the Post Script series, by Rachel Boillot.
“28531 The Postmistress’s Daughter, Harker’s Island, NC.” 2013, from the Post Script series, by Rachel Boillot.

The Benefits To Portfolio Reviews

Swanson is indefatigable as a portfolio reviewer, both during international review events and in private consultations with clients. As a burgeoning trend in the fine-art marketplace, the photographic portfolio review has received both accolades and criticism in recent years, yet when approached with an open-minded attitude and specific goals in mind, these types of forums can yield significant benefits.

She suggests that photographers who are largely done shooting a project but haven’t had the chance to exhibit might choose to invest in a portfolio review to get feedback on presentation style and on targeting audience(s) for the work.

“Be super strategic about this investment in advice,” says Swanson, “rather than going to the reviewer and saying, ‘This is my work, it’s almost done, who’s the right dealer?’ We may not feel the work is done.” Or, says Swanson, the reviewer may not feel the edit is as strong as it could be. “The value in getting people’s expertise and a window on editing and audience is huge, and that can only come when you step towards industry professionals.”

For photographers who aren’t ready or able to invest at that level, Swanson recommends seeking out a local critique group or a portfolio review in your region as a first step. “I love local groups because it fosters a dialogue in a community,” she says. “It helps people to keep moving towards completing their project, and overall it’s a place of encouragement.”

Regional review events typically engage more local professionals, whereas events such as Houston FotoFest have a really broad pool with an international scope. “At FotoFest, if you have 12 reviews in four days, you could potentially see people from 12 different countries, an opportunity that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive,” Swanson points out.

From her side of the review table, Swanson notes, “Portfolio reviews give photographers the opportunity to begin a discussion with people who can make a difference in their careers, which may or may not turn into a relationship. There’s also going to be some things that can happen by osmosis and by surprise and by magic.”

From Portfolio Review To Mentorship

Swanson’s belief in the value of portfolio reviews has led her to give back to this community in a number of ways. Following the New Orleans photo festival and review event PhotoNOLA, she donates a year’s worth of private consultation services to the artist selected for the PhotoNOLA Review Prize. In December 2017, Nashville-based Rachel Boillot received the prize for her documentary series Silent Ballad (now renamed Moon Shine).

“Fog Shrouds the North Tower of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge” by Fred Lyon.
“Fog Shrouds the North Tower of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge” by Fred Lyon.

“I went to New Orleans to do a series of portfolio reviews, as well as Swanson’s workshop,” Boillot recalls. “Two weeks later, I was back home and got a phone call that I had won the prize and would have the opportunity to work with Mary for the next year. I was thrilled, but had very little idea what that would look like.”

While Swanson had never previously encountered Boillot’s work, she has made herself indispensable to the artist’s practice over the past 12 months, keeping in touch by phone despite her relentless travel schedule.

“She literally leaves no stone unturned, and her enthusiasm is palpable,” says Boillot. “She would ask what was going on, what was on my calendar, and then we would figure out how to tackle it all, whether it be preparing for upcoming portfolio reviews or creating an exhibit proposal. We strategized about what I needed to be doing to further my career within the span of a week, as well as what my five-year plan might look like. She makes even the most mundane details feel exciting—because it’s all done in the interest of pursuing your passion. Her support has made it feel like we were embarking on this journey together.”

Swanson and Boillot both recently returned to New Orleans for PhotoNOLA 2018 and to work on an exhibition of her award-winning work (also part of the prize). “It occurred to me how much I have grown as an artist in one year’s time, largely due to this support,” remarks Boillot. “My first book is on press, and I just completed my first documentary film. But most importantly, I’m doing what I love. I’m living my dream in pursuing a career as an artist.” 

Competitions: A Case Study

Competitions are another pervasive vehicle for photographers looking to advance their careers, and Swanson has developed a four-pronged criterion to help photographers weigh the options:

1) Who’s the juror? Only submit to opportunities when you know why you want that juror to see your work.

2) Does the competition have a theme that’s consistent with your projects? Curators and other industry professionals often look to artists selected for thematic competitions as a recently vetted group making work about a given topic.

3) What’s the life of the show? Is it held in a little-known venue, with no online presence, or does it have an exhibition catalog or an archived presence online or will it travel to multiple exhibition sites? 

4) Does the competition have purchase awards beyond first, second and third place? Look for opportunities that foster relationships with local institutions that acquire work, or similar perks, so the competition might lead to a longer relationship, in addition to being a line on your resume.

“Painter Richard Diebenkorn In His Studio” by Fred Lyon.
“Painter Richard Diebenkorn In His Studio” by Fred Lyon.

To illustrate this last point, Swanson references a 2015 competition she juried for the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards, noting, “When you’re a judge for the Emerging, you get to pick your own person to celebrate—your juror’s choice.”

When reviewing the entries, Swanson dug deep, doing background research to identify photographers who were truly just breaking into the field. This was how she discovered the work of Joshua Rashaad McFadden, who was about to receive his MFA from Savannah College of Art and Design (or SCAD) in Atlanta.

“The work he submitted was called After Selma, a documentary project with authenticity,” she recounts.

After selecting one of McFadden’s images to feature on the LensCulture website, and writing a short statement for her Juror’s Choice, Swanson waited for word of when the announcement would post to the site.

“Then, I got on the phone, and called him, and said, ‘Joshua, you don’t know me yet, but I just gave you my Juror’s Choice award for LensCulture Emerging, and we need to talk about your website right now.’ I told him, ‘This is the image you need to move to your homepage because that’s going to be the featured image for the award.’

“And he was sort of in shock. And then I could hear his phone start dinging, like messages are coming in, and he goes, ‘Oh…Oh!’ and I said, ‘Exactly, so we’ve got to hang up, and you’ve got to do what I said, and let’s keep the conversation going.”

McFadden is effusive in his appreciation for Swanson, calling her phone call “a moment that changed my career.” He continues, “From then on, she has become one of the best mentors. She’s helped me prep for reviews, interviews and provided support when making tough decisions. Her knowledge of the industry continues to go unmatched.”

Entering The Fine-Art Market As An Established Photographer

For established photographers seeking to enter the fine-art marketplace—perhaps someone with a commercial or photojournalism background—Swanson notes, “I want them to understand what a body of work really is, the exploration of craft that’s presumed, the consistency of craft that’s expected and the record keeping associated with this.”

One photographer who has been remarkably successful with this transition is San Francisco-based Fred Lyon. As a complement to his prolific commercial career during photography’s golden years, Lyon created a large body of personal work, most of which remained unseen until he turned 80.

Swanson explains, “He somehow found me, and just called and said, ‘Will you take a look before I throw everything out?’”

Lyon’s classic black-and-white record of mid-century Bay-area life was a treasure trove of film-noir style, and Swanson immediately got behind it. “I think Fred would say that always making pictures for himself made him a better commercial photographer, and there’s a valuable message in that,” she points out, “as well as in the fact that he was organized as a studio and kept his personal work organized as well.”

When she met him, Lyon was fully engaged in scanning his negatives and making digital prints. With Swanson’s encouragement, he began to seek out connections within the marketplace, one of which was the gallerist Peter Fetterman. “Fred was an early adopter of digital printing, so he had been proofing digitally, and Peter wanted him to make gelatin silver prints,” Swanson recounts. “So he had to make an investment to really impress Peter. But the masters Fred loves were also great gelatin silver printers.”

Lyon recalls that it took much convincing, but Fetterman finally suggested they should work together, and he has never looked back. Princeton Architectural Press has produced two monographs of Lyon’s work to date, and Lyon is currently editing his third title.

He now considers Swanson to be his best friend and Fetterman second best. “Both of them have moved me along,” Lyon says, “and shaped me for the second half of my career.”

View more images by Rachel Boillot, Joshua Rashaad McFadden and Fred Lyon in our gallery below. 

“Reflection in Paris Restaurant Window.”

“Reflection in Paris Restaurant Window.”

Photo By Fred Lyon.

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