It is hard to sum up an event like the Houston Fotofest portfolio reviews, but I will try nevertheless. I had never been to these reviews before, but of course I was aware of their significance. When I got invited I was excited about the idea of seeing things with my own eyes, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk to photographers there and find out what people (photographers and reviewers alike) got out of it. (more)
I did not anticipate having four days with fourteen reviews each (add an extra one I did at the end of one day, and you get the 57 from the subject line of this post). In case you are wondering how one can possibly review the work of 56 photographers in such a short period of time, you get to do it in sessions that are twenty minutes each, with occasional brief breaks. At the end of such a day you are completely wiped out.
There are few things that I enjoy more than talking to photographers about their work. But compared with some of the other reviewers, my situation might also be somewhat atypical, since I talk to photographers all the time, and I also look at literally each and every website emailed to me. So I am used to looking at photography.
But you can’t possibly talk about photography in twenty minutes. If the work is not a match or, well, bad (Fotofest does not pre-screen the photographers, and no, I don’t think that’s a very good idea), or if the photographers is not interested in a conversation and just does a PR blitz, twenty minutes can get very long. If the photography is interesting or if you really love the work, twenty minutes aren’t nearly enough time.
OK, maybe make that “I” instead of “you” in the preceding, because I’m writing this from my own personal perspective. I’m not a gallerist or a photo editor or a museum curator, looking for new artists. There probably are a lot of people who don’t mind having only twenty minutes.
People joke about portfolio reviews as being like speed dating. Even though I’ve never done any speed dating, I would imagine that’s a pretty good picture. So imagine (or maybe try to imagine) a room with forty tables (reviewers - actually, you don’t have to imagine that, just click on the image above to see for yourself), and about three times as many photographers, having appointments with the reviewers (there are four such weeks at Fotofest), many of them trying to set up appointments with reviewers not on their list.
I’m just not so sure this kind of regiment is the best way to look at photography. Oh, I know, there are a lot of photographers, and some - many - of the reviewers are impossible to get appointments with, but still… But then, I don’t have a good alternative. Well, actually, I do have some ideas, but that’s for another day.
Regardless, the Fotofest reviews are a good way to meet people, and a lot of people had come for that. Given I had 56 photographers to talk to, before I went I decided to ask every one at the beginning what they hoped to get out of the review (curiously, a few of them were caught by surprise and had to think about it). On one of the flights back home, I compiled the different answers into categories. This is what I got:
There’s a slight caveat here, namely that the photographers I talked to might not be a representative sample of the whole group of around 500 artists who showed their work at Fotofest. However, while that is possible, I’m tempted to think it’s not very likely (people can hand in their preferences for which reviewer to get, but from what I’ve heard there still is a pretty large random component at play). So these numbers should give you a pretty good idea what photographers come to the Fotofest portfolio reviews for.
I also ended up writing down some notes about the work I was looking at (since I don’t remember names very well). In eleven cases, I wrote that the photographer was very obviously not interested in what I had to say about the work. I did talk to other reviewers, and I learned that I was not the only person experiencing this. Eleven photographers - that’s one out of five (or 20%). Even if you “just” come to promote your work, being unwilling to consider any input might not be a very good idea. I mean, come on, if you really don’t care, at least pretend you do, right?
For me, the best moments were those outside the reviews, where there was no time pressure, and where I could just meet up with a photographer (or a group of photographers) and talk about what they were doing and/or thinking. For example, I had a long discussion with various people about how photography might be evolving, given all the technological changes happening right now. Some of the other reviewers told me that being able to meet people was one of the things they really enjoy about Fotofest.
So what I ended up taking away is that if you’re interested in getting your work in front of many people, the Fotofest portfolio reviews might be just the thing for you. If you’re interested in feedback or in seeing where your work is going, you might find the schedule to be a bit too restricting, though, there might just be too many people.
I have to admit, I came back with a somewhat funny feeling about the reviews; and I’ve been trying to separate what might be due to my own personal preferences from what might be more universal. All in all, the whole event did feel a bit like an industry (the setting, a chain hotel in downtown Houston, certainly didn’t help).
Maybe I’m just too naive or too idealistic about photography, but I love looking at it as an art form, where individuals speak to me through their images. I suppose with such an approach to photography it might not be too surprising that I ended up with very mixed feelings.
PS: If you’re a reviewer or a photographer and you went to the reviews, feel free to send me some comments, I’m happy to publish them here (anonymously or revealing your identity, your choice).