My First Solo Photography Show: Lessons Learned

I applied to be part of our local cultural arts program. My goal? To get out of my comfort zone and just hit submit. I didn't care if I was selected. Everything has changed for me as a photographer, as a creator, as a human, in the last 11 months.
Dear friends,
Before we begin, I just wanted to let you know that my original intention for this story was a short bullet point story of the things I learned while prepping for a show.
Short was the first red flag, bullet points the second. Sorry, not sorry.
Buckle up.
My very first show “went live” last week.
More like, my photos were hung on a wall, in our local Civic Center.
Every first tuesday of the month, our downtown businesses keep their doors open late, welcoming community members to First Tuesday Art Walk. We have a ton of studios and businesses that showcase various artists, of all mediums, throughout the year.
I remember doing first tuesday type things 15 years ago when I was in college, but that was in downtown Portland, and I was trying to be cool. Hip.
I have never once had the inkling of an idea that I might want to try to get a studio to show my work. Nope. Wasn’t my cup of tea.
Wait. No that’s a lie. It was a pipe dream and one I had no interest in actually pursuing because I knew I wasn’t good enough, not a real artist. Not a professional by any sorts.
Side note: what makes someone a professional anything?
I did try a couple of years ago emailing a local coffee shop to see if they would be interested in showing my photos but I never heard back from them and I suck at following up.
Anywho, fast forward to last October and I was on the upswing after finally being able to heal some very deep emotional wounds.
I don’t even remember what my thought process was, but I went on a solo hike. The first I had done in 4, maybe 5 months. Anyway, I found the juxtaposition of the nature surrounding the powerlines fascinating. Somehow, that thought turned into deciding I was going to post a single photo, every single day. 
At first, it started as me posting my very favorite “professional” quality photos from the previous 2 years and even ones that I took on the same day of posting.
My mom took me to Camera World in downtown Portland when I was 13. I can’t remember exactly if it was on my birthday or near my birthday. Pretty sure it may have been before because the Rose Festival was happenin’ and the ferris wheel on the riverfront was my very first photo that I snapped as we left the store.
Side note: I have zero idea where that photo went. I have been searching for it for years. It saddens me that I can’t find it. 
Anywho, I don’t remember if she told me she was getting me a camera or not. I don’t remember why. I just remember that being the day that my life forever changed.
And I haven’t looked back.
The first 5ish years, I damn near bankrupted my mom with all the photos I took and film I needed developed. Ok, so bankrupting my mom is a little dramatic and not what happened. But, long story short, if I wasn’t eating, sleeping, going to school, reading, I was taking photos.
Thankfully, digital cameras came on the market and, unfortunately, my mom tried really hard to get me to switch.
Have I ever told you how much I hate change? Well, I do. Or, I did. I welcome it now. But I was vehemently against digital cameras. And then, I was vehemently against any sort of editing and photoshopping. To me, digital took away from the specialness of film and changing photos post development felt like a sin.
It took me a few years to get on board with digital. However, between not being able to afford developing film because I was then a college student, and not having the finances to afford a digital camera, I sort of took a hiatus from photography.
I couldn’t tell you anything about that period. I do know that, looking back, I was lost. Hindsight would tell me that I was lost because I wasn’t capturing the world around me. I wasn’t taking the time to slow down and appreciate and take notice.
By the time I was gifted a digital camera for Christmas one year by my auntie, my mom, and my grandparents, I had a boyfriend  (now husband) that I was obsessed with, an associates, and was going back to PSU to finish my bachelor’s.
I didn’t take very many photos. The ones I did take, were on shifty cell phone cameras.
It’s actually kind of fun to go through my gazillion photos because it’s like a case study in the advancement of cell phone camera quality. 
Over the years, I have gone through periods of not taking any photos, or very many, or very random, most definitely not “professional” quality ones.
As an artist, creativity comes in waves. I know when I catch another wave. It’s an adrenaline rush like no other.
Moving on.
I am a photographer. That is who I am and always will be.
It took me 23 years to be able to say that without any hesitation. Without any doubt.
Before I started posting a photo a day on my Instagram account, my photos never left my Facebook feed or my inner circle.
I did get one photo when I was a teenager into the Oregon State Fair and it won a ribbon. I couldn’t tell you which photo or if it was a placement ribbon or honorable mention. It wasn’t a participation ribbon like I got this year from the Oregon State Fair.
For 22 years, I collected a million and two photos. I had brief thoughts over the years to sell my photos. But I never could figure it out or how it would work. Mainly because I was not ready. Not at all. And I never took the time to figure it out.
Honestly, if I did take the time, I would have figured it out. So, jokes on me…
A simple criticism of my work would have shattered me. I would never have recovered.
I have a Living List where I add all the things I want to experience while I’m alive. There are things I know I will eventually do when I get around to it. There are also things that I will need to force myself out of my comfort zone to even think about accomplishing. Like, a single pull-up. That scares the shit out of me.
For now, at least.
This time next year, I will do it. I have faith now that I will.
Because I believe in myself. I am confident in who I am and the art I create. Whether it be words or photos, I am proud to share my perspective.
I’ve always been proud of my words. I share them freely, without abandon.
But my photos? Something so intimate to my soul? Fuck that.
Before last October, I had three photography related experiences on my Living List. Just three. The list at the time was about 100 experiences long. I have added a few since. Like attending an event as media and ONLY using my cell phone lol.
One was to sell one of my photos. The other was to enter a national photography contest just to say I did. And the third? To figure out how to get my work shown somewhere local.
Whether it was a coffeeshop or a little studio in a corner, or on the back wall facing an abandoned alley, it was on my list. However, it wasn’t the actually showing of my work that I wanted to experience. I was no where near ready for that.
I wanted to experience just following through. I just wanted to hit submit. I could have cared less if I was selected or not.
At some point last November, a few weeks into me posting a photo a day, I opened an email from my county that ended up being one of those life-altering moments where whatever happened before, culminated to this moment. Everything happening next, is about to be catapulted into hyper drive.
It was a call for artists to showcase their work downtown for the 2023-2024 calendar year.
I snoozed that email. I had to think about it. 
Posting a single photo to no one on the world wide web, was getting easier. Every time I posted a new one, I held my breath, waiting for someone to hate it.
Day after day, I posted, forgot how to breathe, and then did it all over again.
For 22 years, no one had seen my work besides my friends and family. No one.
About a month in to my POTD adventure, I was ready to open that email I kept snoozing. I wasn’t ready to submit anything. Heck, I didn’t even know if I wanted to. But I did know I wanted to look at the requirements and steps.
When I realized that it wasn’t as hard of a process, or as scary of a process, that my brain had built up, successfully tricking me, I made an instant decision to pick my favorite photos and send them.
Worst case scenario, they don’t accept me. And honestly, I really couldn’t care less if I was. I really, truly, scouts honor, was 100% in it for the follow through.
But how does a photographer, with a trillion photos, and a million favorites, narrow it down to her top 10 to submit? A photographer who has never once shown her work. A photographer who hadn’t even printed a single photo in at least five years.
Well, my friends, I went to the Facebook for help. And boy did they help.
The only thing I knew for certain, was that all my photos were going to be in black and white. There was no other decision.
With the help of my inner circle, we narrowed the list of 50ish down to 10. I decided to submit most of the photos they “voted” for, but I did include some of my personal favorites.
It’s the next step that sent me on a wild rollercoaster for almost a year. It bested me and I almost didn’t even show my work because I couldn’t provide the information needed for the next step.

At the time, I had just a few days left before the deadline. I had to come up with something and quick.
I put on my creative writer hat and I wrote. Something. I don’t remember being proud of what I turned in. I remember confusing myself. I remember that I stayed up late, overthinking what I did send in and what I should have said instead.
That was the beginning of a spiral I learned recently that I needed to fall down.
How does an artist define their work? I am a hobbyist photographer and have been taking photos for my personal collection for 22 years. I have never had to define my work, describe my process, or talk myself – an amateur – up.
Whatever I did turn in, I don’t know if it helped them make the decision they did, I don’t know how much weight they put on those mini essays, but they selected me.
The paperwork said we would hear by Feb/March about the decision.
After I hit submit in December, I forgot about it. Then, one day in January, I got the notification that I was selected. And that I was going to get my own show. Meaning, people would see my work and my work only. And, my photos were going to be hanging up in the Civic Center where they hold town halls and what not.
I was floored. I was screaming from the roof tops that they selected me AND gave me a solo show.
The best part? They gave me a show title. I assumed to fit into whatever narrative they needed. But, I didn’t care. It fit.
I submitted photos with captions like into the unknown, and heart and soul, and it’s how you frame it.
My show title? Unafraid.
I spent alot of time trying to title my show by myself before hitting submit. I finally chose a title I wasn’t too happy with so Unafraid worked perfectly.
And then, I snoozed the emails that told me deadlines and how to prep my photos. My show was 10 months away. I told myself I would finalize my photos and my plan by September.
September came, and then went. My husband was, and still is, in Cali for work. I went on vacation and told myself I would figure out my show when I got back home.
The problem with being a photographer, is The Photographer’s Curse.
Do you know how many photos I took between choosing those original 10 and when I had to make final decisions on which to actually show?
I don’t either. But, I can confidently say, a lot. 3,000 alone on my 5 day Cali vacay.
My show has 13 photos, 2 are the same intentionally (just different sizes in print). 5 were ones I originally submitted. And 7 were new that I captured between December and October.
In fact, one of them was a photo I had just taken on my Cali trip. 
I already knew it would be OK for me to include photos I didn’t submit. I got that approval months earlier.
When I finalized the photos I was going to show, I sent them to the printers, and the real work began.
At this point in my POTD adventure, it had become part of my daily routine. Most days I looked forward to it. Even though it has gone through various phases, I learned how to love showing the world my photos.
I didn’t post on IG to get popular or a following or become an influencer. While those things would be neat, I was posting for me and only me. I was practicing how to let go, how to beat my imposter syndrome, how to not need external praise.
But, it wasn’t until I sent in my final artist statement and bio a fee weeks ago, that I finally, fully accepted, claimed, took ownership, whatever you want to call it, of who I am.
An artist. A creator. A storyteller. A photographer.
Because turning in those final mini essays, meant I finally broke through a brick wall that had been holding me back for 23 years.
Why? Why do I photograph the things I do? Why are they black and white? What do my photos show people? What do people think, feel when they see my photos? What do I want people to think, feel, see?
The one downside to keeping my photos close, is that I never got any feedback – positive or negative – as to what people see in my work. So, I not only had to define who I am as an artist. but I also had to define what my work means. With my own biased inner critic.
A concept, a definiton, I was chasing for months.
Me being a storyteller, and being extra, I couldn’t just write the bare minimum and call it good. That’s not who I am.
I had to write a story. I had to sell a story. I had to leave everything, my all, on the page. And I ended up doing just that.
I did some Googling to help. And then it all started to flow, click, come together.
I had no idea just how heavy of a burden that task had become. Burrowing into my nightmares, subconsciously making me question myself as an artist.
And once I finished editing the mini essays, I felt immense relief and was able to breathe a little easier. I finally understood my own art. And that is a powerful feeling, my friends.
Now, on to the fun part. Getting ready for my show.
That was an exciting ride.
Do you know how many moving pieces there are that must come together just right? I certainly didn’t. Now I do. One billion.
As soon as I thought I had finished a process, I realized there were a dozen more steps. And they never stopped. Not even once I bubble wrapped them all 10 days before I needed to drop them off.
Not only was this my first show so I didn’t have any prints, or frames ready to go, but I also am poor and needed to pull this together on a budget. A very, very, tight budget.
I ended up pulling it off but it was close. 
Breakdown of approximate prices:
$120ish for 14 frames (I only needed 13 but I fell in love with one for a future photo)
$50ish for spray paint and hardware
$30ish for bubble wrap
$20ish for poster and foam board
I have known for a while that I wanted to get frames from Goodwill and reuse them, give them a second life. Why? Character. That’s why.
I didn’t necessarily think of the fact that they were going to all be different styles, no two frames the same. But when I realized that, I knew this was the right step.
If I had money, or more time, or did it one paycheck at a time like I originally was thinking, I would have been able to hire a professional framer to frame and mat my photos.
Unfortunately, no money, and hello, procrastinator here.
I ended up going to 4 different Goodwills, one twice.
The next step? Spray paint!!! Well, after taking the backings off and removing the glass and whatever was inside.
My poor auntie’s kitchen was held hostage by wet frames and very sharp glass for a few weeks. Whoops. 
Hey! The time I spent with my aunt making those frames beautiful and with my mom Goodwill hunting, are some cherished moments I will treasure.
I chose black spray paint because I did. I like black. It’s tied with my favorite color purple. Black just is. With black, you know what you get. And that includes no distractions.
I love the frames we ended up with. But I want people to look at my photos. Not the frames.
So, we spray painted them all the same color.
And then, I fucked it all up.
My husband told me to get clear coat so they could be shinier. Heck, yes. I was on board. Until I saw the ugly texture it was causing on my beautiful frames.
Thankfully, I only did 5 before realizing that this might not work.
My husband pointed out that I probably should have sanded them first. But it was way too late for that. That would mean having to start all over again with the black spray paint and we were almost through can number 5. 
I was hoping it was just because it was chilly and my aunt was thinking the odd texture happened because of humidity.
In the end, I actually added the clear coat to at least one, maybe two other frames because I loved the feeling and look of it on one of the wooden frames in that original 5 that I had done.
My aunt did end up sanding 4, 1 of which completely fell apart. It was the only metal frame I had. I actually wasn’t too sad to see it go.
We re-sprayed 3, and ended needing to only replace 2. I think. I can’t remember now. That was eons ago.
The spray jobs weren’t perfect. Some frames had dull spots. Others had dried dripping ink lines. But to me, they were perfect. Perfectly imperfect. Each frame had its own character and that was before adding my photos.
And then, I finally got to pick my photos up from the printers. A day I had been nervous over and excited about, for weeks.
The photos I sent to the Oregon State Fair, well, I wasn’t happy with the resolution. Not the printers fault at all so shush. No, I should have printed them out smaller. That was my bad. It was also the first time I ever printed my photos, let alone my photos that big.
You see, I have only taken photos for the last 8ish years with my cell phone and only my cell phone.
There are limitations to pixel size and resolution and all that jazz on a cell phone that aren’t necessarily there with a mirrorless or dslr or slr.
I am also not a numbers person so I really don’t understand resolution and max print size. I basically crossed my fingers and sat on the edge of my seat, hoping the size I chose worked.
When it was finally time to unroll my photos and start matching photos to frames and frames to photos, which I think was my favorite part of this whole thing btw, after playing hopscotch with my wet frames of course, I let out the breath I had been holding. 
The photos were beautiful. More beautiful than I expected, honestly. I chose the right sizes this time. I knew I was going to print them smaller than my OSF ones, and I did.
And then, I realized that I didn’t choose the right sizes at all. Not. At. All.
Do you know how hard it is to find frames for 12×18 and 18×24? It’s damn near impossible is how hard it is.
Why? Because those aren’t standard sizes.
How did I get those sizes in the first place? I HAVE NO FREAKING CLUE.
So, yeah.
Thankfully, I didn’t let this trip me up. I laughed. A lot. Because of course this would happen.
When we first started spray painting, it was clear that the two blue tarps we had would not work for spraying on and leaving frames on to dry. The solution? Dollar tree table covers.
While passing aisles to find said table covers, I saw that they had big black poster board. I filed that information away because I knew it would come in handy anyways. Even before realizing I apparently need to go back to photography school and learn what sizes exist.
Anywho, most of the frames had proper backing, but they weren’t all the same color. I needed them to be the same color. I did try to spray paint a couple and that was just an epic failure that I immediately quit that idea.
What I didn’t know, while walking through dollar tree that day, was that I would need those poster boards, and also the foam boards they carried for the frames without thick enough backing.
Once I matched all the photos to their frames and vice versa, it was time to clean the glass and close them up. Temporarily. It was late that night. Auntie and I were exhausted and not ready to attach any hardware or figure out what back goes to which frame.
Next up? Buying poster board, foam board, and double sided tape. Which, by the way, is the price of gold and cannot be found at the dollar tree. I digress.
We thought we were so smart by marking a piece of painters tape with a number and putting that on all the things that went with that frame.
That worked for the glass. Not for the frames. A few stickers were completely black. Some had smudged numbers. One lost their number completely.
Needless to say, not the best system.
I started cleaning glass and handing frames, photos, and the backings I figured would fit to auntie who threw them together.
We did this process 13 times. I ended up with about 5 bandaids on one hand and a gnarly splinter under a fingernail that made me want to chop my thumb off 2 days later. Ow.
Also, glass is sharp. Wear gloves. Don’t pull a Kelly.
It was also time to cut, tape, insert, and attach hardware.
Again, I am sure there are simpler ways to do this. This is just how we did it.
Auntie and I worked together on cutting all the things down to size. We had to measure each frame because they all differed. And then we had to use our math skills and figure out where exactly to attach the photo so that it would be centered.
Then cut, tape, insert, attach hardware again and again times 13.
Auntie was tired. I was tired.
And then, the final frame had been given hardware.
We were done. Each of my photos, were framed.
And I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was a surreal moment. Seeing all my photos around my auntie’s kitchen. Those are mine. I created those. Me.
Then, I bubble wrapped them because I have zero clue how to transport framed art. Bubble wrap and duct tape became my friend for a few days.
When you are starting from scratch, when this is your first show, I learned, I experienced, just how overwhelming this process is. There are so many moving pieces that it’s easy to forget something.
I was already behind the game. Missing every single deadline that was in that packet I received back in March. Mainly because I never looked at it to begin with. And then I snoozed it. Whoops.
Which is probably why my show was not completely ready for first tuesday last week.
But once everything is done, once everything is bubble wrapped and ready to be delivered, you will feel like something is missing. And when the delivery isn’t for another 10 days, you can send yourself into paranoia.
I caught myself many times having to shut my brain up. I started having thoughts I hadn’t had in a long time. That I don’t deserve this. That I was a sympathy acceptance. Maybe I won’t even drop them off.
I did a really good job shutting that shit down whenever it popped up. At least, that was until first tuesday, when I reluctantly showed up because I was sick and feeling awful but wanted to see my work anyways.
For some reason, I thought my photos were going to be IN the same room as where the town halls are held. But that is not where they are. Which makes sense after thinking about it.
Instead, they are on the outside wall of that space. Which is fine. But when you arrive at the city center, if you ride up the elevator or enter from the south entrace, it feels like having to go to a back corner to see my photos.
From the north side, the main entrance though, they can be seen from outside because my photos face a wall of windows.
I don’t know what I expected for first tuesday for my show. I was kind of skeptical because one of the listing of happenings that night did not include my work or the Civic Center.
I think I was hoping to see maybe one person looking at my work. But that’s not what happened.
Turns out, my show was not completely set up. Due to multiple reasons and not just the fact that I procrastinated and missed deadlines.
Next first tuesday though? I’m partying! Well, I’ll be visiting as many first tuesday happenings as I can.
So, what have I learned during this process?
Doing it yourself instead of paying someone else, may be harder, but you also have a lot more creative control, freedom. However you look at it.
Also, finding frames to reuse is going to become a problem. I am not a garage sale or estate sale person, but I can see myself becoming one. Oopsies.
And lastly, I probably should have added my watermark, or at least my name, to the bottom of my photos.
The original reason why I didn’t, was that I didn’t want to distract the viewer. And if someone bought my work, I wanted to give them a watermark free photo.
I don’t know what I was thinking. Because both those reasons are stupid and don’t make sense. Next time!
And, there will be a next time. I can promise you that. I don’t know when or where, but I do know that my photographs aren’t just mine anymore.
Sure, I have some truly special ones (not of family, friends, or pets) that I will never sell.
But it’s time for the world to see my perspective, my interpretation of the world. My story.
Not only did I provide my photos and mini essays, but I also created a Spotify Playlist with a song I felt matched the photo and the feeling I wanted it to convey.
I also added a comment box where people could write their thoughts down. Whether they do or not, what a great human experiment.
And finally, I wrote a story tying all my photos together, showing what they mean to me and how I, as a human, a creator, a artist, a being, have been healing. A story of hopefully hope and perseverance that might one day help just one person.
I don’t set out to write or make art for other people. I make it for me. I make it to inspire me to keep going.
When I started posting a photo a day on Oct 29th, 2022, I never saw the journey it would take me on.
I have gained maybe 5 new followers over the last year.
But I have also gained priceless confidence, pride, and belief in myself. And that alone makes it all worth it.
Go find what inspires you to keep going. Do it for yourself. And the rest will follow.
In the meantime, Adventure on with Curiosity,
Kelly “the photographer” Steele 
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