Photography, The Photographer and the User Experience

How often do we think of the viewer, the audience or the user when we show our images? How often do we consider the user experience? In all other aspects of our life we cherish the concept of user experience, we expect it to be high and the higher it is the more likely we are to respond positively. And yet, how often do we consider the user experience when sharing or exhibiting our images?

Cost is the controlling factor of most physical exhibitions of work. The existence of or non-existence of a budget decides how the images are printed and displayed. Big budget means beautiful prints in frames behind glass, and a small budget will mean cheap printing at small sizes ‘blue-tacked’ to a wall. Of course, we have all seen terrible work in expensive frames, and great work displayed with minimum expenditure, but maximum creativity.

Whatever the budget, too often I have walked around exhibitions that are weakly captioned (if at all), poorly contextualised (if at all), badly lit (if at all), and lacking in signposting (if signposted at all).

But, it is not only the physical space that needs to consider the user. Everything I have just identified is relevant to the construction of a website. The user experience needs to be considered every time you show your work. However, the online experience is placing additional pressures on the photographer in the physical space. Let me explain.

For too long, in my opinion, the photographic exhibition has been stuck in a rut of conformity. A room with images on a wall that we walk around at a respectful distance. The centre of the room a void untroubled by the exhibitionists hand. Occasionally, archival material will be added to provide some context either in a glass box or on a table, less occasionally a piece of moving image may be shown in a darkened anti-room. But that is as far as the photographic exhibition seems to want to stray from the still image.

There have been two exhibitions that come to mind, that have been described as ‘blockbuster success’s’ both of which I visited. The Richard Avedon at the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1995 and Tim Walker at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2019. Both of these photographers have a foundation within editorial fashion photography, and bought their sense of theatre and drama to their shows. They played with props, staging and framing to create experiences that challenged and questioned the idea of the photographic exhibition. They gave a reason to visit the shows, and experience the work in a way that was richer, and more fulfilling than a book or computer screen.

The photographer Tyler Mitchell (another photographer with an editorial fashion background) has done something similar with his recent New York shows I Can Make You Fell Good Pt.2, and An Imaginative Arrangement of the Things Before Me. The very titles suggest Mitchell’s engagement with the idea of user experience, and willingness to play with the exhibition format as my friend editor, writer and curator Bill Shapiro has identified.

So why is this important? Well, over the past Covid months exhibitions, festivals and talks have made themselves available online in a variety of different formats. In my view this is a good thing, and something that should continue as we move into a more normal future. It is more democratic, and allows work to be seen by an international audience, that would not have travelled to the physical event. However, we are all aware of the limitations of the online experience. Online Zoom talks are great when the photographer is a raconteur who can bring their work to life, but they can be painful with an inexperienced or unconfident speaker. Short films of exhibitions are invariably in my experience good, but I have yet to experience a CGI style exhibition space that is anything other than frustrating and sterile.

Despite this the online experience can improve and remains an essential research resource for the ages when recorded and archived.

Photographers will have to develop their presentational skills, and storytelling abilities as part of the online experience, but they will also have to reconsider the role of the physical exhibition. They will have to give reasons for people to visit their exhibitions based upon user experience. They will have to consider emotional and physical connections with the viewer outside of the images on the wall. They will have to think about the physicality of the exhibition, and how the viewer engages with the exhibits, and they will have to think about how they show their work outside of the conformity of the photographic exhibition.

I am not talking about gimmicks and tricks here for the sake of being different, but a creative opportunity to build a physical context to the photographic artefact.

The use of audio, sensory experience, environmental design, and collected ephemera are just a few of the possibilities that could be considered when developing a user experience for the viewer. It may seem like mass market or even down market thinking to some of you reading this to even consider those viewing your work as an audience, but this is not a problem for the novelist or musician or actor, so why should it be for the photographer or artist? Is it that we are so precious about our work that we will deliberately close our minds to creative options in favour of a desire to repeat a trusted formula?

The challenge for photographers now is to re-think the gallery space and their relationship with it. To embrace the concept of user experience and to give the viewer a reason to visit.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99

© Grant Scott 2021

Image: Tyler Mitchell: I Can Make You Feel Good Pt. 2, The International Center of Photography, New York, January 23, 2020 – March 14, 2020 and then September 1, 2020 – January 31, 2021.

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