Sure, the title is a terrible pun, but in many respects it’s true. Gary Soles captures the soul of Breckenridge, Colo., and America’s West through amazing large-format photography displayed at his gallery: The Gary Soles Gallery, Wilderness Exposed. And, his soles took him from Wisconsin to Breckenridge as he exchanged his Midwestern footwear for (arguably) the best footwear of all: ski boots.
Soles admits to being a ski bum when he first moved to Breckenridge in the late ’70s, but something larger tugged at him as he plowed through the divine Colorado powder in those early years. Drawn to art in college, Soles found his way into photography by first working at a Breckenridge photo lab in the early ’80s, eventually owning it a few years later.
“In college I gravitated toward the art department; it was the only thing that really did it for me. I wouldn’t dare tell my dad that I wanted to be an art major, but it was that background that helped with color and composition in photography,” says Soles. “It was an almost brutally slow process, and in hindsight I wish I had gotten more formal training because it would have taken me to a higher level sooner. I tend to be so critical of my own work, which motivated me to get better because I would see everything that was wrong with my work, rather than what was right.”
As he developed his photography skills, photo technology was also developing, to use another bad pun. The unusual aspect of his business’s evolution was that he retained much of the earlier processes while moving to the latest processes, like large-format inkjet printing. His photography, meanwhile, evolved from mainly commercial photography for magazines, brochures and ads, plus studio work, to the Colorado and Western landscape photography for which he’s become well known.
“I still use all large-format film cameras for my original transparencies. Those are then drum scanned and printed with a large format inkjet printer. We’re still a full service lab, so we’re still doing C-41 and E-6 film processes. We still process black-and-white and have the old-school stuff, but at the same time we have digital imaging kiosks for customers who want to print from their digital cameras, and offer all the digital imaging, enlarging and custom framing for other photographers as well. We kept going with everything we’ve always done, but it also evolved into a place for my own work.”
His own work, featuring the spectacular scenery of the Western states, needs the space necessary for equally spectacular prints that go up to 4′ x 12′. A small home on Breckenridge’s Main Street housed Sole’s operation for years, but as his photography went large, the historical barn built in the late 1800s attached to the home was remodeled to accommodate his gallery.
“I always enjoyed landscape and wildlife photography and the venue finally opened up to display this work; you need a lot of space to display the large images we’re producing,” says Soles.
Everything for the gallery is produced in-house, from the photography and film processing to the printing, mounting, laminating and chopping and joining the molding for the picture frames. Doing so, says Soles, has been a real boon to his business.
“Our costs are kept very low by doing everything here; the profit margins in the gallery are huge by keeping everything in-house. We’re able to control quality, minimize turnaround times and offer customers a lot of size and frame options,” explains Soles. “Customers can order anything from 4″ x 12″ to a 4′ x 12′ print and everything in between. I also do a lot of work consulting with people as far as measuring for wall space, frame options that would look great with both the image and their décor, and the installation. People really appreciate that personalized service. They can get a custom-fit piece for their home.”
Living in a resort community also helps as customers come from far and wide and stop at his gallery on Main Street. The big, beautiful prints are hard to resist and Soles reports that he not only ships prints across the U.S., but worldwide, mainly to the UK, Australia and Europe, with a smattering of customers in South America and Canada.
“Even in a down economy, photography is still affordable if you compare it to an oil painting. Clients will often find a certain connection to a particular photographic piece: a place they have been or a season or moment they have experienced. They can get a good sized, framed panoramic piece for $2,000-$3,000, whereas something from a fine art gallery can cost $20,000-$30,000 for that same size. You get a lot of area covered with photography for a better price,” says Soles.
Though he’ll ship the print frame and all, and some just buy it off the wall and take it with them, most prints are rolled up for shipping. “What’s been great is shipping the un-framed print, which can be rolled and shipped very inexpensively. We looked at the way LexJet boxes its materials, and basically ship it out the same way. I guess you could say we snaked the idea from LexJet,” he says. “We’ve been batting a thousand since converting to that method. They can have their own framers do it when they get back to their hometown.”
Part of the appeal that drives sales, aside from the stunning images themselves, is in the materials he uses for printing. All of Soles’ printing is done on LexJet Sunset photo and fine art media: Sunset Photo eSatin Paper, Sunset Photo Gloss Paper, Sunset Photo Metallic Paper, Sunset Fibre Matte and Sunset Select Matte Canvas.
Soles adds that LexJet Elite Luster UV Vinyl Laminate (3.2 Mil) is used on almost 90 percent of the pieces in the gallery, providing a subtle boost that can turn someone who’s just looking into a sale.
“The laminate is a huge selling point. They’re blown away with the luster UV laminate we use: there’s no glare or reflection from it and you really see the image. It’s optically clear and the colors in the image really come out through the laminate. In some ways it enhances the image,” explains Soles. “People are used to seeing glass or plexi over the images, and those will have some type of glare. And, with the six- and ten-footers we’re doing as panoramics, it keeps the piece relatively lightweight. There are a whole lot of people shooting digital and offering smaller prints, but I’m offering these giant panoramics, and they’re easier to deal with because they don’t have an extra 30 pounds or so of glass with all the potential problems you can have transporting, moving and installing the pieces.”
Soles adds that he’s also been using a gloss laminate over Sunset Photo Metallic, which he uses based on the image and where it will hang. “It’s just amazing because it’s almost three-dimensional; that combination looks so cool,” says Soles.