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Large prints or small? Simple black frames or lightboxes? Spotlights for drama or subtle illumination to lose shadows? Dominic Lutyens discovers that there’s more to the art of photographic display than meets the eye

Since photography is generally figurative you can often engage with it more easily and quickly than with, say, abstract art. This can mean that the images in exhibitions are often so engrossing that you may not pay much attention to how they are displayed. Yet, it’s a highly considered process. Requiring careful lighting to avoid glare and shrewd design to sustain the dramatic ambience of the collection, displaying photography has its challenges. And the practice can be subjective. Rather like typography, hanging can be less about precise mathematics than about seeing how things look best visually or intuitively. Designers and curators also need to work within the parameters of a room’s architecture or make the best of its limitations and quirks.

There are some near-universal guidelines. Curators generally prefer all photographs in a show to have the same style of frame. This ‘ensures continuity and flow’, says Sam Talbot, curator at London’s Proud Galleries, a specialist in music and fashion photography. While the convention appears to be for simple, black frames with card mounts, these are sometimes subtly nuanced to suit the subject matter. The photographs of Jeff Bark, now on show at London’s Michael Hoppen gallery, are in regulation black but, says curator Lucy Chadwick, they have a ‘cushion-shaped profile’ that suits Bark’s elaborately staged tableaux, evocative of Neo-Classical paintings.

Frames are certainly not the only solution for exhibiting a medium as dynamic as photography. ‘More contemporary techniques include mounting on aluminium with a matt seal which avoids the need for glass,’ says Clare Grafik, curator at London’s Photographers’ Gallery. ‘In an ideal world, one would have non-reflective glass, or no glass at all to avoid reflections.’

One trend is for photographs to be displayed in lightboxes, to cinematic effect, a technique favoured by the artist Jeff Wall. The National History Museum’s current Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is mounted in this way. Its images are printed on Duratran, then sandwiched between two sheets of Perspex backlit by ‘cool’ (as opposed to warm-toned) Osram bulbs. The resulting show, in the museum’s opulent interiors, is ultra-theatrical.

Positioning of photographs in an exhibition context is also subjective, and can be heavily influenced by the photographer’s artistic aims. This is especially evident at Insomnia, the current show on Antoine d’Agata at the Photographers’ Gallery, where 282 images are hung in a tightly packed grid. ‘D’Agata’s practice is about the process of making work rather than showing a single image. His take on exhibition display is to emphasise the multiple character of his photographic approach,’ explains Grafik.

At the annual Photographic Portrait prize exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, curator Terence Pepper’s curatorial touch is so light as to be almost invisible. ‘Terence makes subtle connections between pictures – for example, in this show there are two photos beside each other of women’s bodies slanting at a similar angle – but generally his aim is to hang images so any reading of them is open-ended and completely personal,’ says Flora Fricker, the gallery’s exhibition manager for competitions. ‘Terence likes each image to have its own identity,’ she adds. In practical terms, this meant avoiding grouping photos into crass sub-themes, such as animals or children.

Lighting is also a major consideration, a side issue of this being conservation. ‘With old prints, light needs to be kept within strict limits due to the fragile nature of materials used in the past,’ says Douglas James of lighting consultancy Mindseye, which has designed the lighting for photography exhibitions at London’s White Cube gallery, including one of Andreas Gursky’s large-scale work. ‘Modern prints are more stable but should still be treated with respect and expert advice should be sought. The problem lies with the amount of ultraviolet [light] prints are exposed to. This can degrade the chemicals used to imprint the image on to the photographic paper.’

The size of a print often dictates whether it’s better lit with spotlights or evenly distributed illumination, says James. ‘I’ve seen a portraiture exhibition lit very dramatically with narrow-beam spotlights pinpointing each average-sized print. But a very large print – like those at the Gursky show – looks awful covered in splodges of light from a gaggle of spotlights. In this case, a broad, even light, from as high as possible, if ceiling height allows this, ensures the whole image is well-lit, and prevents viewers from casting shadows on it.’

There are so many schools of thought on photography display – some advocating discretion, others flamboyance – that there are few overriding trends. Still, it remains a precise art.

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