Behind the scenes: Creating a museum exhibit of night photography

Behind the scenes: Creating a museum exhibit of night photography

What are some of the behind-the-scenes in creating a museum exhibit of night photography? This is how the “Abandoned Planes Trains and Automobiles” museum exhibit at the Hi-Desert Nature Museum in Yucca Valley, CA came together.

The museum is situated close to the entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, which attracts over 3 million visitors a year to its otherworldly, enchanting desertscapes. It’s a popular place for night as well as day photographers.

Night photo of an abandoned airplane. Handheld lighting during the exposure.

Submitting a proposal

Most museums will have a proposal process. This is your pitch. Here, you describe what the exhibit is about, how many photos you have, what sizes they are, and other information. Quite often, there’s a very short form, which they can either email to you or have on their website. 

While I did submit a proposal, my particular situation was easy. They were already familiar with my book “Abandoned Planes Trains and Automobiles: California Revealed”, published by Arcadia Publishing. They knew what it was about already. This made the proposal easier. I simply copied the description of the book, among other things, in the proposal.

Douglas DC-4 airplane, rural Kansas. I used a handheld light to light paint from numerous angles during the exposure.
Douglas DC-4 airplane, rural Kansas. I used a handheld light to light paint from numerous angles during the exposure.

Planning the exhibit

We discussed the exhibit at length, both in person and by email. The Museum Supervisor sent photos of other exhibits to give me an idea, also suggesting the amount of photos that might fit nicely in that space and the various sizes. I had a great deal of latitude in what sort of print I could create.

Locomotive train at night with handheld light painting.
Locomotive train at night with handheld light painting.

Signing the contract

After the museum accepted the proposal, they sent over a contract. This covered the dates that the exhibit would run, which would be about ten months later. The contract also discussed how they would care for the exhibit while it was in their care, finances, and other aspects you would anticipate to find in a contract. I signed this electronically and emailed it back, although I certainly could have signed it in person.

After the contract, I submitted an invoice for 25% of the total. They sent a check back within a few days.

Passenger train at night with handheld light painting during the exposure.
Passenger train at night with handheld light painting during the exposure.

Creating the prints

I was going to print up to 30 prints. I settled on 28, all different sizes, the largest ones being 20″ x 30″. They seemed to look good as matted color prints. Since the theme was planes, trains, and automobiles, I thought I would have at least one of each of these be the largest to serve as establishing photos. One plane, one train and one automobile.

REO F-22 work truck, California desert. I used a handheld light to light paint from numerous angles during the exposure.
REO F-22 work truck, California desert. I used a handheld light to light paint from numerous angles during the exposure.

The printing goes awry

I had tested one printer already, and was satisfied with the work that they did. However, when it came time to print, nothing on their website worked. It would just hang and do nothing. This was extremely frustrating. I contacted them, and they suggested several different approaches. Nothing worked.

I began searching to find another printer. I found Canvas Discount, which did all the printing in the United States and had strong reviews. They seemed to create quality prints while remaining within my budget. They didn’t offer a lot of options. For instance, they only offered acrylic glass, which is a little more prone to scratching. Still, the reviews were fantastic.

Thankfully, I had begun to attempt the prints well in advance of when I would need to get them to the museum. I still had some time.

I did two test prints with the new printer. They showed up just a few days later. The colors were beautiful and true, not too dull, but not too saturated either.

Night photo with handheld light painting during the exposure, Nelson Ghost Town, NV.
Night photo with handheld light painting during the exposure, Nelson Ghost Town, NV.

A clever idea

“Why don’t you create QR Codes and put them on the signs in the exhibit?” Tim Little offered this fantastic idea. I thought that was brilliant. I included them on three of the signs. The QR Codes led back to my website, where I had created a special gallery for the “Abandoned Planes Trains and Automobiles” exhibit.

Setting up the exhibit

This is probably the easiest part of this entire process. I had Canvas Discount mail all the photo prints to the museum. The Museum Supervisor had also asked about how I wanted the exhibit to appear and if I had any special requests. Their previous exhibits had looked great, so I said, “I think it would look best if I give you carte blanche. You have years of experience creating fantastic looking exhibits, and I do not.”

This follows a general philosophy that I have. Whether it was teaching, hiring people, or whatever, my philosophy has generally been, “Hire the best people, let them do their job, and stay out of their way.”

Opening Night

The extremely enjoyable opening night was on the 12th of January in 2024. I wrote some notes for my presentation, but would use them as reminders and launching points so I could speak more freely and spontaneously. The room was full of very friendly, inquisitive people, many of whom had traveled many miles to be there. This included my family. The people asked very astute, thoughtful questions. I even included short segments on how one light paints subjects, the general process of finding some of the locations, and more. 

The audience as well as everyone at the museum were beyond friendly. The museum was extremely friendly and professional. This was about as great of an experience as I could have ever hoped for.

Museum Exhibit

Abandoned Planes Trains and Automobiles Museum Exhibit, Hi-Desert Nature Museum, Yucca Valley, CA 2024.
Abandoned Planes Trains and Automobiles Museum Exhibit, Hi-Desert Nature Museum, Yucca Valley, CA 2024.

The exhibit runs through the 16th of March 2024.

Hi-Desert Nature Museum

7090 29 Palms Highway

Yucca Valley CA

Abandoned Planes Trains and Automobiles Museum Exhibit, Hi-Desert Nature Museum, Yucca Valley, CA 2024.
Abandoned Planes Trains and Automobiles Museum Exhibit, Hi-Desert Nature Museum, Yucca Valley, CA 2024.