Podcast 273 : The Nature of Japan Exhibition in Retrospect

by | Jan 1, 2011 | Art Talk, Exhibition, Musings, Podcast | 4 comments

As you’ve heard in recent months, as I kept you up to date on my preparation, I had my first solo exhibition called “The Nature of Japan” at the H.A.C. Gallery in Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo, from December 23rd to the 30th.

H.A.C. Gallery (Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo)

H.A.C. Gallery (Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo)

The show went incredibly well in many respects, and not so well in others. To get the not so good things out of the way so we can talk about the good things, firstly, despite everyone that visited really seeming to enjoy the 38 pieces displayed, I sold approximately none of my prints during the show.

From a business perspective this is of course not good, especially when you consider that it cost me around $3,000 to rent the gallery and put on the opening party, and around $2,000 for the materials and frames etc. for the prints. This means I paid out around $5,000 to put on this show, without even considering the cost for my time to make the prints and do all the other preparation. In cold hard cash return, I reaped approximately no Yen, which at the current exchange rate equates to around zero dollars.

This was disappointing, especially as I believe the pricing of the pieces was pretty reasonable. I had priced the framed prints, that you saw me making in Podcast episode 271, at $380 dollars, and I priced the large 20×30 gallery wraps at $680 dollars, and the gallery owner confirmed that these prices were very reasonable if not a little low for the market. Now, I know that I might have sold more images if I’d priced the work maybe around 50% of this price, but that’s really not what my brand is about. As most of you know, I take pride in the quality of my work, from capture to the finished piece, and I feel that with all considered, the pricing was quite reasonable.

So, does that mean that I feel the exhibition was a failure? Absolutely not! Sure, it would have been nice to have sold some prints, or maybe even enough to have broken even financially, but I gained so much more from doing this exhibition than financial rewards, so let’s take a look at some of these now.

Poster and Stairs

Poster and Stairs

The comments I received from almost everyone that saw the show were incredibly positive. Many people said that they thought the work displayed, and the way it was displayed was incredibly high quality. The gallery owner said that my work was higher quality with better presentation than most established pros, which I was really pleased to hear. One of the people from the head office of this chain of galleries that visited had a similar opinion, and he also told the editor of one of the major Japanese magazines about me, who in turn looked at my work, and we will hopefully be discussing ways of working together in the near future. These are exactly the kind of contacts that I was hoping to make, and could end up paying me back far more in the future than the profit from print sales. This is a different type of value, but it has business value all the same.

We had a guest book (below) for people to sign, which was quite cool actually.Most of the guest books that you can buy here in Japan are specifically for weddings, so I decided to make my own. We bought a leather loose leaf ring binder for B5 size paper, and then got some blank sheets with the holes ready-punched, and printed out the pages prompting visitors to write their name, mail address, postal address and also a comment on the show. The book looked great, but we also put the MBP Kneeling Man logo across the page at 10% gray, as a kind of watermark, which I thought was a nice touch.

Guest Book with MBP Logo

Guest Book with MBP Logo

One recurring theme with many of the kind comments I received was to do with seeing the nature of Japan with the clarity of my eye, and the purity of my heart, which I found very touching. One guy that is a painter turned up one day, and I recognized him immediately, because I’d photographed him painting in a park earlier this summer, and had seen him painting twice since. He wears a large conical traditional hat while painting, so it’s easy to recognize him. I was able to quickly talk with him while he was there, and he told me that he found my images to be very “clean” which I took as a huge compliment.

Unfortunately, he came at one of the few times when the gallery full of people. There were probably around eight groups in the gallery at the time, as so I didn’t have time to really talk with him. I heard from my wife afterwards that he seems to have a bad right arm, probably from painting every day for years, and struggled to write in the guest book, but after he’d written his comment, he stood, and asked my wife if he could read it to her. She said yes, of course, and he proceeded to do so. Apparently my wife had to fight back the tears as he read his comment, but as we found later, what he read out, was slightly different to what he’d wrote, and it was pretty difficult to translate, but I found the thought behind the comment to be incredibly powerful. It translates (very poorly) to this…

“I was fulfilled by the clarity of your eye, and your heart, reflected in God’s hand, as you quietly ask permission of your own hand, to release the shutter.”

Here’s the original Japanese, with a few guessed grammatical corrections, in case you are interested.

『神様の手のうらに映った心をそっと静かに自分の手に「 いいのですか」と問いかけながらシャッターをおす心にあなたの目のとうめい度にみたされました。』

I also had to fight back the tears as my wife told me about the scenario, and although it was pretty difficult to understand exactly what he’d meant with a few missing characters, the sentiment came across loud and clear, and that made us both very happy.

There were a lot of other people that made similar comments, as one person wrote, when they looked at my images, they felt that they could almost hear the sound of my heart beating as I released the shutter. Clean, clarity, pure and innocent were words that came up a lot in the comments, and this really, really resonated with me.

Although I love the technology that we have these days, and I do sometimes feel like getting a little more experimental with my post processing, the vast majority of my images have had very little done to them. The most time I spend on my images is when I take a few minutes to create a black and white version of an image in Silver Efex Pro. I’m proud of the fact that I usually nail my exposure in camera, and composition is usually pretty much what I intend it to be, with the exception of the odd crop necessary because I use a lot of prime lenses. I’m proud of the sharpness of my images, and it made me very happy to receive these comments from visitors of the exhibition.

It was also very easy to see which of the visitors were themselves avid photographers, because they would almost without fail walk right up to the 20×30” canvases or prints, and almost press their noses again them to check the sharpness. They all commented on how impressive the pieces looked though, even up close, so I don’t think I disappointed anyone.

In total we had a handful of people short of a hundred that visited the show during the eight days it was open. I think the fact that I had been stubborn and done the show during 2010, and so the only time I could book the gallery was the last week of the year, probably led to me getting fewer visitors from professionals such as art collectors, but I think it did help to get many people through the door that would otherwise not have been able to visit. It was great to see some of the Podcast listeners that were in Japan for their Christmas and Year End holidays, and many of the Japanese people that had visited did so using a few hours break from their year-end chores, which would not have been possible had they been working. Although there were a few days when we only had a handful of people turn up, I’m happy with the turnout overall, especially as the majority of the people that visited genuinely seemed to enjoy themselves.

You might remember that I mentioned something that I was going to tell you about later, and was keeping under wraps until the show. Well, time prevented me from doing that, but I had intended to create a batch of folio covers using my die-pressed and embossed folders that I use for my fine art folios, and then make a number of 8.5×11” prints of each of the 38 pieces to enable people to select up to 10 of their favorite pieces to create their own custom folio.

As time ran out I started to think about just creating a sample folder and 10 images, and make these custom folios available for order, rather than printing a number of each piece in advance, but it would have been too much work, and with the number of people that eventually came, I don’t think I’d have made enough money to warrant the time and material investment here either. I found that although I priced all of my pieces, I didn’t want to get all tacky trying to sell these folios to people either, so I don’t really regret not doing this, but I did think it was a pretty original idea.

I’ve kept you up to date about my reasoning for doing the show, so I won’t go into too much detail again here, but I would like to reiterate that one of the main reasons for my doing it was to put my name on the map here in Tokyo, as many people that know of me are outside of Japan, including of course all of you listeners of this Podcast. My wife and I had a laugh although we were very pleased to hear that one young lady that came to see the show said that a friend in France had told her to come by, because she lived in Tokyo. Thanks to that person for telling your friend by the way. I really appreciate that.

There were many Japanese people though that came by despite not having heard of me until they heard about the exhibition or just saw the poster as they walked by and came down the stairs out of curiosity. One guy who was just getting into photography said that he’d been searching for images of the snow monkeys, and that led him to my site, which led him to the exhibition page, and he rushed to the gallery to see it in the last few days before we closed. He was very happy to have noticed in time, and for me, again, this was another local Japanese person that now knows about me and my work, so these stories are all great to hear about.

We were also touched by one woman who spent a long time with us in the gallery and actually cried with happiness at being able to make it to see the show. There are a few people that have mentioned that they are considering buying one of the pieces, and I do still hope to sell some of them, but for me and my wife, as we settle down in the aftermath and recall the last few weeks, it will be these kind of heartwarming human moments that alone will have made it worth all the time and expense of the show.

One thing that surprised me was that despite me managing to get a nice piece in a popular photography magazine, and even getting at least one mention in a local Tokyo newspaper that we know of, none of the people that came said that they’d seen the exhibition mentioned in any of the printed media like this. It was all from seeing post cards, hearing about the show on Twitter, hearing from Friends, probably some of you, thanks again, or from just seeing the poster outside. I guess this is important information for next time, and although I will still try to get some press coverage in the future, I’m less convinced that printed media is a good way to spread the word these days.

Hanging the Prints

Anyway, let’s take a step back now, and talk a little bit about the logistics of actually setting up the exhibition. I’ve kept you up to date on most of the preparation, so I won’t repeat all that. You might remember that all of the pieces were numbered, and we had a chart of which pieces were to go on which wall, and in which order. Having written the number of each print on its box, hanging the prints went pretty smoothly. We were able to start carrying the canvases and prints into the gallery at 6:30PM on the 22nd, the night before we opened.

The gallery had prepared wires hanging from the rails along the top of all the walls, and a quick check after we had carried the pieces down the stairs showed us that we needed another six wires in place, so we had them get those ready while we hung the first few prints.

It turns out that the dimensions of the walls that the gallery published, and we’d used to plan how we’d hang the prints, including the spacing, was wrong. They’d included the width of the pillars in the wall widths, so we had to make some snap decisions as we started to set up.

The first wall (below) was the most disappointing.  The published dimensions included the width of that dark pillar that you can see in along the right side of this image. There was also no wire rail on that pillar, so there was no way to hang a print on it either. This meant that the only options for hanging these first four canvases was to hang them all with virtually not space between them, or to move one to the start of the next wall. The next wall though also contained the width of the pillar in the plans, so we didn’t have any leeway to move that around, without having a knock-on effect on the rest of the walls, so we decided to hang all of the four canvases on the first wall with little space between them.

First Wall

First Wall

This in itself didn’t look too bad, but it meant that the first canvas of the mother and child snow monkey, which was one of the pieces that I really wanted to hit people as they came in, actually was less eye-catching than I wanted it to be. Many people came down the stairs to the gallery and then turned to say hello as they entered, and then by the time they’d swung back around, they were in front of the second gallery wrap. Granted, many went back and many really enjoyed the snow monkey photo, but I’m sure the impact was reduced by the less than smooth start.

The below photo shows the view of the interior of the H.A.C. Gallery once you swing around from viewing the first wall. You can’t see the pieces behind the partition towards the back of the gallery from here, but you can see the furthest corner on the right, and part of the fifth gallery wrap, which is the first piece on the left side wall.

H.A.C. Gallery Interior

H.A.C. Gallery Interior

The next problem we came across was that there was a step in the center of the middle wall on the left, because we had pulled one of the partitions out at the back of the gallery, so I had to switch the order of pieces 13 and 14, so that I portrait aspect image came as number 13, instead of a landscape aspect image. This wasn’t too tough a decision though, and I think the overall look of the wall was largely unchanged by this switch around.

Left Center Wall

Left Center Wall

The next dimension mistake was the furthest wall from the entrance. Because this wall was narrower than we thought, we had to bring my Poppy Heaven image over onto the left wall, and move the White Poppy in Red gallery wrap up onto the dark pillar to make room. This actually didn’t look too bad, and there was a wire rail on the pillar this time, so I was quite happy with the change. This also gave us the benefit of having all four flower shots on one wall, which I liked (see below).

Back Left Wall

Back Left Wall

As you swing around from here, in this next image you can see the back wall and then the start of the long straight back down the right side of the gallery, which we were able to hang according to plan.

Back and Right Side Walls

Back and Right Side Walls

Here’s another view as you look back into the gallery past the partition which we used to give people a little bit of privacy, and also to increase the gallery wall space.

View from Back of Gallery

View from Back of Gallery

As we hung the first few gallery wraps and prints, we started to take measurements from the floor, so that we could get all the prints at the same height, relative to their size and aspect ratios. We hung the pieces relatively low, so that a person of around 5’2” would be able to view the prints without looking up at them. 5’2” is about the average height of a Japanese woman, and I’d rather have the larger men look down on a print than have all the women looking up at the prints too much.

A Few Visitors

A Few Visitors

Once we’d hung the prints at roughly the right height, we had to go around and ensure that the spacing was good, and the height was as it should be for each type of print. The gallery had a large heavy paper tube handy, like the center of some roll paper, which we used to knock the wires along in their rail, to adjust the gaps between the pictures. We didn’t measure the gaps, rather we just spaced them all by eye. It also took quite a lot of time to get all the images straight, as often just the tiniest movement of the hook on the string on the back of the print made it rock too far one way or the other.

Once we’d hung the prints, we stuck the captions below each image. As I intended to be at the gallery every day, I didn’t right captions on the cards as such. I just wrote the title, and the location and month and year that the image was made.

As the gallery warmed up though, the wired expanded a little, so I had to go around and adjust the height of the captions the following day. All in all it took three and a half hours to carry the pieces into the gallery, hang them, adjust the height and spacing, and post the caption cards.

The Opening Party

The opening party on the evening of the first day was a lot of fun. Some old friends came, and a number of new friends too, and we all enjoyed ourselves for a few hours. As a number of other people turned up after I shot this photo, my only regret was not being able to talk to everyone as much as I’d have liked.

Opening Party

Opening Party

It was really nice, though totally unexpected, that a number of people sent flowers, with a message of congratulations on the opening day. I was really surprised to see an old friend from my college days, who came down from way up north, as well as many of my friends from around Tokyo. I was also floored by the huge bunch of flowers that my old colleagues from the day-job that I left in September. The kindness and generosity of the people I left behind there never fails to amaze me.

Flowers from my Old Coworkers

Flowers from my Old Coworkers

I wasn’t much use when I got home after the opening party. Not just because I’d had my fill of beer and wine, but also because I was worn out. I’d been up until late the night before, finishing my preparation, and trying to create a slideshow of the images to post as last week’s Podcast. I ended up crashing out almost as soon as I got home, but then completed the slideshow the following evening, and released it on Christmas Day. If you subscribe by iTunes you’ll have seen the video come out, but I also posted a full sized version on the blog, which I hope you caught. If you didn’t already catch the video, I’ll embed it into the blog post for this episode as well, in case you didn’t catch this yet.

[iframe http://player.vimeo.com/video/18150329?portrait=0 590 332]

Don’t forget to hit the full-screen button Full-Screen Button in the video window to view the video player, to view the slide-show as large as possible. If scaling isn’t turned on when you start the video, turn it on with the button in the top right corner, and really fill your screen with the video.

I embedded four video clips that I’ve had stashed away on my hard drive for the last year or so, to help illustrate the background of some of the still images, and I also used video instead of the still photograph a couple of times, which I hope you enjoy. Thanks for all of the kind comments that I’ve already received, and I do hope that those of you that have not yet checked the video out will have time to take a look. I’m quite pleased with how it turned out.

I also kept the video running on my laptop during the exhibition, to allow people to see the movement in the Sun Pillar shot, which doesn’t really come across fully in a still image, and many people stopped to watch the entire slide-show even after looking at the 38 pieces displayed, which shows how captivating a multimedia presentation can be.

Breaking It Down

Breaking It Down

I think I overdid it on the first few days though, as I ended up coming down with some sort of a bug that really knocked the wind out of me for the next five days of the exhibition. Although it wasn’t enough to stop me from really enjoying the time that people were visiting the exhibition, I was so tired each evening that I wasn’t able to do much more than eat dinner, take a shower then crash-out for the night.

Luckily, by the last day I had just about gotten back to normal, which was good, because we had to break the exhibition down and load the car up to take the pieces home again that evening. There was no one left in the gallery after 6:30PM, so from around 6:45 we started to take the caption cards off, then turned the music off at 7PM and started to take the canvases and prints down from the wall. Initially I took the prints down, and just put them on the floor below their wires, as my wife started to put the prints into their respective numbered boxes.

We then wrapped the gallery wraps in the paper that they were in when we brought them out here, and then I went to get my car from the car park. We’d come by train for all other days, but on this last day, I came by car to take the work back home. With most people now on holiday, the roads were clear, so we were home and had everything unpacked from the car by 9PM.

I have to tell you, I was worn out. Not only did the bug I’d caught knock the wind out of me, but the whole thing was quite tiring, probably because I was doing stuff that I don’t normally do. I also have to tell you though, that I wouldn’t have missed this experience for the world. It was amazing to meet many people that have been listening to the Podcast for a long time, and people that I’ve known only from Twitter (there’s a list of these people below) and also meeting lots of people for the first time at the gallery.

Financially it might not have flown as I’d have liked to, but I have some precious memories, that I won’t forget in a hurry.

Twitter Friends I Met at the Exhibition







If I missed you, please let me know here.

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I also wanted to let you know that we’ve recently dropped the price of the MBP Podcast Companion iPhone App to $2.99. Despite that, we’ve updated the app with high resolution images for the iPhone 4 Retina Display, and added additional video support, as well as better buffering of audio in the Podcast player.

I still honestly think that our app has the best Depth-of-Field Calculator in any photography related app, and now, with the new low price, it’s probably worth it just for this calculator. You also get access to the Podcast without syncing with iTunes, as well as being able to keep up with latest MBP news via Twitter, and there are links to all of the Web sites in the MBP community, as well as a couple of ways to contact me directly from your iPhone.

Remember too that this app is also a way to donate a little back to help keep this Podcast going, so do consider picking up a copy, even if it’s just your way of making a contribution.

Podcast show-notes:

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  1. Susan

    Happy New Year Martin, good wishes to you & your good wife.

    Congratulations on your first exhibition. I have enjoyed accompanying you on this journey. This review of your exhibition was very moving. Thanks for sharing everything so generously and sincerely. I love your photography and I appreciate the authentic person who I perceive you to be.
    God bless.


  2. Omar

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience is such detail. It was great to finally see the gallery space and hear all the hard work that went into it. Here’s to many more in the future.


  3. Jason Cate

    The exhibition looks so beautiful! I love the setup, the contrast and the purity of the space behind your photos.

    Full disclosure, I’ve never actually been to a gallery before, but this definitely inspires me to check one out someday 🙂

  4. Philip Gann

    Congratulations on your first exhibition. It has been good to follow your progress through the blog and hear of the highs and lows that you went through. In my past experience of art exhibitions it is not uncommon to sell little to no works when you are starting out however as you mentioned the contacts and response from those attending is worth a considerable amount. Becoming known is the hardest part after which making sales becomes that much easier. Your photographs are stunning so I’m sure greater success is just around the corner. Good luck with your new career as a full time photographer.


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