A vernissage is literally a varnishing. The word dates back to the days when painters varnished their paintings, meaning they could no longer go on making small changes. Nowadays it means a private view, which in turn is more accurately known as a launch party, or at least, a few drinks and some nibbles. 

Secret Life of Chairs. It's always a good idea to get the local worthies and dignitaries on your side: the man on the right is the mayor. We hung 35 of this series of my pictures, and 14 of Frances's from Abbatu par Sort, perhaps best translated as "Destroyed by Fate" but itself a translation from the Anglo-Saxon wyrde gebræcon. Unfortunately we neglected to scan her pictures before we framed them, except the one below. 

This vernissage, our most recent, was at 11:30 in the morning of Saturday, April 30th 2016. The slightly unusual timing was because the next day was Mayday and the village would be host to hundreds, or probably thousands, of visitors for the annual vide grenier (if you want to know more about vide-greniers, check here) and it would hardly do to have the vernissage after that. As it turned out, we got 157 visitors to the exhibition on that Sunday alone. 

One of the great things about rural France is its strong support for the arts, with exhibitions and concerts and dance festivals and much, much more, and this was the second year in a row that we'd had an exhibition at the local Tourist Office. The first time we were invited, with plenty of notice. The second time, as there had been no publicity, we asked what they had planned. It turned out they hadn't, so they were very happy to have a more or less ready-made exhibition dropped in their laps. Both years, the Commune (the local association of villages) paid for the vernissage, but the short notice explained why we hung the pictures on Thursday and had the vernissage on the Saturday morning: Frances hadn't even finished all her pictures when they had said "Yes" a couple of weeks before.

Column, Knossos. This is a hand-coloured black and white enlargement, Frances's signature technique. The original was shot on Ilford black and white film, printed on Ilford Art 300 paper, then hand coloured using oils, water colours and water colour pencils.

The series was inspired by an Anglo-Saxon poem, probably written in the 7th century A.D. by a warrior after the battle of Dyrham. It begins, 

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;

burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.

(Wondrous this wall-stead, smashed by fate

Battlements cast down, the work of giants destroyed)

Nothing survives except by hazard, and nothing is destroyed except by fate: wyrde, as in "I must dree my wierd" ("I must submit to my fate"). You can read more about Sir Arthur Evans's interpretations and restorations of Knossos here.

Getting someone else to pay for your vernissage is extremely useful, as the framing alone for an exhibition can cost hundreds of pounds, euros or dollars. Also, they may help with the publicity. In this case they printed posters, contacted the local press, and invited members of local arts associations. All this is time consuming, hard work and potentially expensive. In fact, each time we do an exhibition, I tend to wonder why, because it's a lot of effort and expense with (so far) very little financial return: a (very) few hundred euros in sales, if you're lucky.  On the other hand, it's a tremendous rush to see your pictures on the walls and to know that some people really do like them, sometimes even enough to buy them. It's also quite good for credibility: if you're going to write about photography, as I have for over 35 years, there's nothing like the occasional exhibition to remind you of the realities that serious photographers face every day. My first exhibition was at Plymouth Arts Centre in 1974 or 1975, followed by only a couple more between then and about 2010; but now Frances does at least two a year and I try to do at least one. 

Frances's exhibition was a good deal more serious than mine, much closer to "fine art" in my estimation, but equally, there is a place for humour in even "fine art" photography. That's my excuse, anyway. As it turned out, the two exhibitions complemented one another well: a useful reminder that art shouldn't necessarily  take itself too seriously. 

Visitor. The hanging space isn't ideal, but it's a lot better than no gallery. We deliberately hung the pictures at varying heights and lateral separations, partly because we thought that suited the themes and partly because it is a lot easier that way; not least because the hanging chains are not evenly spaced. We took two walls each. As you came through the door, hers were straight ahead and on the right, and mine were on the door wall and the left. Adapting your exhibition to the space available is one of the many awkward realities of hanging an exhibition.

All attempts at reconciliation failed, from The Secret Life of Chairs. I imagined these as two brothers, heirs to a great estate, who had fallen out and would normally be in the same room only under duress. The location is the Chateau d'Oiron, now a museum of modern art and well worth visiting.

As you've probably guessed by now, getting and hanging an exhibition is a real test of your commitment to photography. First and foremost, you need to put together a coherent exhibition, with a theme. There's more about that here. After that, it's not particularly difficult to find somewhere that will give you the space, though it may require a degree of persistence. The really hard work is printing, matting and framing the pictures, then hanging them. None of these is great fun. As David Bayles and Ted Orland point out in their brilliant book Art and Fear, most artists don't want to create art: they want to have created art. The actual physical realization seldom lives up to the dream, and it's not always successful, but if you're good enough (which generally means practising enough), you can get quite close to what you saw or heard or imagined in your head. It is however hard work. Putting an exhibition together is hard work too, but without the pleasure of the creativity while you're doing it. That's what I mean by "commitment". 

Some people get really upset and indeed angry at this line of argument. "I'm committed to photography," they say. "I've been doing it for 35 years!" (Or of course 3 or 60 or whatever). Well. Yes. Fine. So have I. Since 1966 or 1967. But despite having written numerous books on it, and even more numerous articles, along with a couple of web-sites (this one and, I am convinced that there is there nothing that really compares with the rush of an exhibition, and I am convinced that very little else makes you think as hard about what you want from your photography, and how to achieve it. 

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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016