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I always thought I was pretty good at printing and using my digital files–I had framed photos for tabletops and walls plus family photo albums. But I absolutely hated my family wall gallery. When I walked past the pictures, I just looked at my face and criticized my smile or my hair or the way I was standing.
Have you ever had this experience? Like, when you see a picture of your family, all you can do is critique yourself in it? Some of that is certainly due to our culture’s unhealthy emphasis on certain kinds of beauty, but I think some of it can also be a design flaw of most family wall galleries.
In the process of designing my own family wall gallery, I have learned a lot about what makes a gallery that sparks joy, and I would love to share my experience with you.
First, we have to start with that old gallery and the reasons I didn’t love it.
Uncomplimentary Design: to put it simply, these frames just didn’t fit with our new house. I bought them for our old midcentury home, which had a brass fireplace, but our new house has silver fixtures and these frames are just too bold and too yellow. I considered painting them, but there were too many other problems with the gallery to make it worthwhile.
Uninspiring photos: I bought each of these large picture frames separately to commemorate special occasions, and they used to hang in three separate rooms of our old house. Once they were side by side in our new house, I realized they were Just. So. Boring. In every photos we are smiling and looking at the camera, and the only thing I thought about as I walked past was how my face looked the same in every photo.
I wanted to be able to walk past the wall and look at my husband and sons and say to myself, “These are my treasures.”
Static Design: All of these photos are from my firstborn’s first year. Now that our family has grown, I’d like to put in new photos, but these frames cannot be taken apart and reused. Since these prints and frames are a custom order from Framebridge, the photos are adhered to the mat and the entire frame is sealed neatly on the back. (I know from painful experience that it’s not possible to take these frames apart and put a new photo into the same mat.)
Glass Glare: The hallway between our bedrooms felt like the perfect place for our family gallery–it faces the playroom where we spend lots of time together. But it also faces two large windows which create strong glare on the glass. It’s nearly impossible to see the people in the photos until you get up close (and then you just see my face over and over again–or is that just me?)
As a photographer, I found it really, really hard to wait on creating my new wall gallery, but I also knew it would be a huge project for me to choose just a dozen or so photos from my massive hard drives. So before I began, I wanted to make sure I had a strong vision for the new project.
A living wall that can grow with our family. This time around I wanted to be able to swap out images as our kids grew. I chose frames that could be opened repeatedly to replace the prints inside as needed.
A cohesive and simple aesthetic. I wanted to be able to move this gallery to a new wall or a whole new house if we ever moved again, so I wanted the frames to be very simple and classic. I went with a white color rather than wood or metallic so I don’t have to worry about clashing with fixtures or trim in the future.
I also wanted to be able to recycle some old frames that I wasn’t using anymore, so I chose to mix styles and sources for the frames – some came from our basement storage, some from Goodwill, and some from IKEA. I simply painted all the frames that weren’t already white. I wanted the overall effect to be simple and modern but not too perfectly uniform, so I did two thin coats of white paint that allowed some of the old frames to glimmer underneath.
No glare anywhere. I hate glass glare – having a glare or reflection over an image dramatically reduces my enjoyment of photos and art. In addition to this, glass seemed like a dangerous choice on a wall facing my kids’ playroom. Both for safety and aesthetics, I pulled all of the glass out of my old and new frames and disposed of it.
Since glass is used to protect photos, I knew I was running the risk of having my prints damaged, but I frankly don’t care about this very much. Like I said before, I want this wall to be a living wall, one that might collect some extra dust and scratches, but also one that feels safe and comfortable and intimate. If my kids can reach out and get sunbutter on their photos, I have a feeling they will feel more of a connection with those images.
Some photo finishes have their own glare–whether subtle as in a lustre finish or strong as in a glossy finish. I decided to have my photos printed on Fuji Deep Matte paper and mounted on foamboard. This means they have absolutely zero reflection or glare no matter how you view them and they also won’t bend, wrinkle, or warp inside their frames.
Only images that inspire. As I looked through my tens of thousands of images, I knew I was going to have a hard time choosing just sixteen (the number of frames I ended up with). After initially selecting over 200, I knew I needed some kind of metric to make this decision simple. I had already decided that I didn’t want any standard family photos with us looking at the camera (because these tend to make me analyze my face), but I slowly came up with a set of rules that guided my selection.
I started by saying that I only wanted photos that could be a jumping off point for a story – like I could pick up my son and say, “Yes, you used to love to eat my hair when you were a baby.” This eliminated any static or boring photos immediately. Then I realized I also wanted all of the photos to elicit strong emotions–I had to feel intense love or joy when I looked at them.
I was left with a strong collection of images, but there were still too many and they weren’t cohesive, so I decided to only choose photos of just our immediate family in our new home on my professional cameras. This eliminated all extended family photos, vacation photos, photos older than two years, and iPhone photos. I loved some of those other photos, but I knew a narrow selection would create the strongest final gallery.
Finally, I selected the photos that reinforce the love I have for my children and the love they have for each other. With two little boys who often fight and compete for my attention, I wanted to show them they are loved individually and together. I want them to see how their friendship has grown from that first month through the present. I want them to know that they are loved and cherished in the small, everyday moments of their life. I want them to feel that they are my treasures. Because they are.
As you can see, the final gallery has a much more cohesive feeling, yet the photos are diverse enough to remind me of many, many stories in our family life. When I walk past it, I really do feel like our home is full of treasure.
My wall gallery took far more time and effort than I imagined, and I made dozens of mistakes along the way (like, really, every mistake you could possibly make). Being a photographer does not mean that I hang pictures perfectly. It actually means that I’m overconfident about figuring things out as I go when I should really plan ahead more!
I will be posting again soon about the more technical parts of printing, framing, and hanging this many photos and how you can avoid all the mistakes I made.