On Portfolio Reviews (part 2)


This post continues my lose thread of posts on portfolio reviews. Just like in the first part, I got input from a variety of people. If there are further contributions, I’ll add them here. I’m also going to have an (upcoming) post with input from the photographers’ side (for that post, I need “data” - so send me something, sticking to the format used below and in the first post!).

Michael Mazzeo:

Q: What do you see as the purpose of a portfolio review?
A: In theory, the purpose of the reviews, for artists, is:
1. To introduce their work to the curators, publishers, gallerists and editors with whom they may not otherwise have the opportunity to meet.
2. To get an honest critical appraisal of their work as it relates to the agenda of the reviewer.
3. To create a community atmosphere which encourages the sharing of ideas and resources and the building of social networks.
For reviewers, the purpose is;
1. To discover work that they may not have seen or that had previously slipped past their desks unnoticed.
2. To welcome referrals and suggestions from other insightful reviewers regarding work they have seen.
3. To refer artists to other reviewers who may be interested in the their work.

Q: What questions might photographers ask themselves before deciding to go to one (or apply for one)?
A: 1. What do I expect from this portfolio review event? Gallery representation, a museum acquisition, a monograph, an assignment, referrals, press, advice?
2. Are the reviewers at this particular event actively looking for artists to represent, work to exhibit, images to acquire, work to publish?
Have they added artists to their rosters, awarded exhibitions, acquired work or published work from previous review events? This is a fair question and the answers should be available to you.
3. How have artists fared at this particular event in past years? What is the word on the street (or the web)?
4. Am I prepared to accept criticism of my work, my presentation, my ideas?

Q: What should a photographer do to make a portfolio review worth her/his while?
A: 1. Research the venues, institutions and organizations represented by the reviewers and try to gain some insight into what type of work they are interested in seeing.
2. Edit your work well. 20 minutes is not a lot of time. Don’t bring 4 different bodies of work in 4 different formats.
3. Make the presentation simple and effective. Don’t put your prints in plastic sleeves. Don’t interleave your prints. And don’t bring 40”x60” prints which need to be rolled out on the floor and viewed while standing on a chair to get enough distance.
4. Have appropriate material to leave with the reviewer. A CD with one of your images printed on the disk is a good idea. A month later, when the cd case is gone, your name on the disk won’t jog my memory, but your image will.
5. Understand that he critique process is very challenging for reviewers. To make an assessment, in 20 minutes, of a body of work that may have taken years to make is a serious undertaking, especially when we are asked to do so 12 times in one day. You can help shine more light on your portfolio if you can talk a bit about your work, your background, process, influences, and intent.

Andrew Phelps: “I am actually a bit sceptical about the review process in general, but I think it is filling an interesting gap between the time of being a ‘student’ at liberty to experiment within a forum of piers, and being “accomplished” (whatever that means….) to a point where one is often alone with the decisions one has to make.”

Q: What do you see as the purpose of a portfolio review?
A: The purpose is certainly not to be “discovered”, if one goes into it with that expectation, you can only be disappointed. I think the best aspect of a review is the preparation it takes to put your work into a perspective and a form where you have 20 minutes to coherently present it to someone who has no idea what you do. Getting a rather quick response is good, there is no time to fake it.

Q: What questions might photographers ask themselves before deciding to go to one (or apply for one)?
A: Where do you realistically want to position your work? Advertising, art market, journalism, design? If you are clear about this, then you can select your reviewers (and your festivals) more wisely.

Q: What should a photographer do to make a portfolio review worth her/his while?
A: Take a really good look at the list of reviewers, do some research to find out where they are coming from. Different reviewers will offer completely different takes on your work. They are each (hopefully) experts in one field or another; curators, editors, teachers, artists and will respond more and deeper to a work that they feel competent talking about. You can probably get feed-back and a pat on the back from a handfull of people in your circle of friends, so you should see the review for what it is, a chance to show it to people who you normally wouldn’t get a meeting with so easy. You should make it clear to them that you understand in what direction you want to go. Be prepared; it means so much to see someone who knows how to edit and present their work. Don’t talk about work which you don’t have with you. Leave a post-card, its just the right size, don’t leave a CD, it will probably never be looked at again.

Lorna-Mary Webb/Rhonda Wilson (Rhubarb-Rhubarb):

Q: What do you see as the purpose of a portfolio review?
A: Here at Rhubarb-Rhubarb, we see it as a two way conversation, between photographers and reviewers. Who have information of a particular nature to exchange. Both have potential investments to make in the review - the photographer in terms of finding the time and the resources to be there, and the reviewer in giving up their time, usually free of charge, to attend. Both can reap rewards from that investment - the photographer in terms of potential representation, sales, exhibitions or publications. The reviewers in that they may find image makers who they can represent and generate income from sales of prints, commission for specific projects or include in themed shows/publications which are good for both photographer and reviewer. I feel that in the last five years the idea that photographers attend reviews to gain advice has become redundant. Portfolio reviews are by their nature expensive to run - so therefore relatively costly to attend. Having said that, having all those reviewers in one place at one time saves time, money, stress and energy. The Rhubarb-Rhubarb booking system, which is on line, allows photographers to choose and book their own reviewers prior to the event, so offering more choices in scheduling and refining folios for different types of reviewer - essential to get the best value from the review.

Q: What questions might photographers ask themselves before deciding to go to one (or apply for one)?
A: Is this the best time to be doing this? Is it too early or too late? Do I have a clear strategy for what I want for this work/series/work in progress? Who is best able to assist me? Is it appropriate to spend all this money on a review or could i get the advice i need from another source? Twenty minutes is short and so what are the key issues?

Q: What should a photographer do to make a portfolio review worth her/his while?
A: be clear about their agenda, prepare a relevant portfolio and give a short outline of the project, in plain language. Take along some relevant marketing materials. Make notes and follow up suggestions. Have had a wash…. Follow up with a thank you email. Not make a total nuisance of themselves at the review by insisting they eat, sleep and chill out with the reviewers in the down time, which always creates problems for those who run reviews.

Madeline Yale (Executive Director and Curator, Houston Center for Photography):

Q: What do you see as the purpose of a portfolio review?
A: Photographic artists present bodies of work in various stages of completion and engage in individual critiques with well-known curators, writers, gallerists, and publishers worldwide. The potential outcome for the participants is twofold: they receive critical feedback and secure exhibitions, publications, or gallery representation. Reviewers also get the chance to network and discuss all kinds of topics including fundraising, the market, collaborative programming, artists they’re interested in exhibiting.

Q: What questions might photographers ask themselves before deciding to go to one (or apply for one)?
A: Are the reviewers people who represent galleries, publications, institutions that I want to be a part of?
Do I have a strong enough body of work to present in final form? Or do I want to present works in progress to get feedback on directions to explore?
What are my expectations? Are they realistic?
Is it worth the money? Likely, yes.

Q: What should a photographer do to make a portfolio review worth her/his while?
Assemble a body of work (14-20 images is a good number per body).
Write a statement about it - while you might not share it with the reviewer, it forces you to articulate your concept and aids in editing.
Invest in a good carrying case - while expensive, archival portfolio boxes protect the work and are clean in presentation. Keep in mind that the prints are likely to be jostled and handled quite a bit.
Create a “leave behind” - CD, card with an image, statement.
Practice speaking about your work and concurrently flipping through it - the equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your tummy.
Be open to receiving feedback. The people you will meet are generally quite knowledgable and want to help you. It’s fine to jot down reviewers’ comments on the spot. I’d recommend bringing a small notebook.
Intuit whether or not you and the reviewer can form a positive working relationship. It is a little bit like speed dating - you’re trying each other on for size in addition to analyzing the work. If it doesn’t seem like a good fit, don’t press it.
If it does seem like a good potential fit, follow up a couple of weeks after the review with a note and add the reviewer to your mailing list. Update them periodically about your work and successes.
Think of the review process as a continuum of experience - you’re building a relationship that, hopefully over time, culminates in something great for your career.

Q: If you attended (a) portfolio review(s) as a photographer in the past what did you learn from it (them)?
A: I’ve never been on the other side of the fence, except in critiques at school. (I tried to be an artist but realized I would rather look than make, and what I have to say photographically is just not that interesting yet.) I’m sure that at times it can be an unnerving experience!