Photography as Public Art

There are many options as to how a photographer would exhibit his or her work, including the traditional approach, which for years has been to mat, frame and hang on a wall. This is probably the most familiar solution when one wants to display a photograph but there are many other exciting and innovative ways photography is being viewed. Public Art is one of the alternative exhibition approaches a photographer can take. Public photography is all around us – for example, one simply needs to look at the numerous ads that occupy space on billboards. Photography as public art uses some of the same materials and techniques as billboard companies, as many times the final product has to (at least temporarily) be weatherproof. For years, public art was understood in the traditional sense to consist of metal and concrete sculptures, but advances in printing has now made it possible to mount photographs on almost anything.

“Art in Motion”, temporary public art on Marta buses, Atlanta, GA. © Michael Reese.

Photographs can be etched onto glass, metal, or stone creating works of art that can last a lifetime. In the past, photographers were also limited to the size at which they could make a print, but this limitation is a thing of the past. Technologically, you can print as large as you desire and scale is an important aspect when using photography as public art. In the art world, photography as public art is a hot commodity as many new buildings, airports, transportation agencies and countless others are using this medium as a form of creative expression.

“Domestic Passports”, Permanent Collection at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport. © Michael Reese.

There are several approaches one can take in getting commissioned for photographic public art pieces. The first and most important is by contacting your local arts and culture bureau. Most mid-large size cities have them and this is where many organizations come looking for art and artists. A local (Atlanta, GA) example of these would be The Office Of Cultural Affairs and The Fulton County Arts Council. If you are interested in getting commissions through either of these, you must register and upload images to their databases. This is crucial because this literally puts your work on the radar for clients looking to hire you to do public art. It’s beneficial to have clear and concise artist statements that support your work, as the statements are many times posted alongside your work for the public to read. As a photographer, it would be a good idea to look at this as if you’re having a gallery show and provide the same documentation (resume, bio etc.) to the arts organizations. This all helps your chances in getting commissioned or winning grants to fund your work. Funding is especially important in this respect because creating photographs as public art can be quite costly.

“In Yo’ Face”, Temporary Public Installation, Castleberry Hill Arts District, Atlanta, GA.© Michael Reese and Fahamu Pecou.

Photographs created for public art are predominantly created through digital means these days, although some artists still use traditional darkroom techniques. When creating a piece, in particular one of extreme scale, it would be beneficial to have a solid understanding of an image editing program like Photoshop and its limitless possibilities. Once the work is created and ready to send to a printer it is best to have small scale test prints done to test for color, sharpness, contrast, etc. Basically, it’s the same rules that apply when doing traditional photography but the stakes are higher due to the printing costs. After proofing and final printing, comes the installation. The installation process is the last important step and will require a knowledge of the materials, or hiring someone who is familiar with them and how to properly install them. There are many benefits to creating a public art piece including that your work is more accessable to the public and typically has a larger viewing audience. Another great benefit is the possibility to get commissioned to do others!

Public Art by the Book, by Barbara Goldstein
The Artist’s Guide to Public Art: How to Find and Win Commissions, by Lynn Basa

© Michael Reese 


One comment

  1. KEH, thanks for highlighting this unique display of public art + photography. I was one of the Art in Motion winners in Chattanooga and my digital pano is now featured on one of 5 electric buses used for the project for a 2 year period. I would have never imagined that one of my images would be displayed in such a large way or for such a worthwhile project. It’s so nice not to see a bunch of advertising on the sides of these colorful, inspiring buses. I was lucky to overhear some of the sponsors talking about this contest because it’s not something I would have ever gone looking for. All selected artists were also given a nice monetary stipend. I have had a couple of large prints commissioned from the original work and would probably have more if I was out there advertising it a little better. It’s certainly not the kind of project a lot of photographers can put in their portfolio and I”m so glad I submitted my work! All you other photographers…get out there and don’t let the sculptors and painters get all the public art glory!!

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