Three takes on portfolio reviews


General Photography

I received a bunch of emails after writing about my experience with the Houston Fotofest portfolio reviews, and I thought I’d share some of that feedback. (more)

Needless to say, the following texts are all shared with explicit permission by the photographers. Peter Ainsworth, whose work I had the pleasure of reviewing (I linked to him earlier this week already), wrote the following:

“In response to your analysis of the portfolio review as a way to view photography I would say this. I have been to many portfolio reviews at different stages of my career to date. The first one I attended in 2003. Reviewers were highly critical of the body of work that I had taken to the event. I was fresh out of my undergraduate degree in Fine Art and had no real understanding of the photographic market place or the roles that the reviewers had within this context, i.e. what they actually did professionally. I assumed that they would all like the work and that they would be jumping over each other to show it in magazines, gallery spaces. Unsurprisingly I was wrong. It was a real reality check and made me profoundly question my approach to the photographic image. It made me think that I needed to produce better more coherent work and that I needed to get educated.

“The next review I went to Rhubarb-Rhubarb in 2005 I went with a specific agenda. I have 12 images. I am applying to an MA. I have to submit 6, could we discuss the merits of the work? This was really useful for me as in essence I had some 20 interviews with industry professional. When it can to my MA interview I was used to talking in a structured articulate manner about my practice and was, I feel, more acutely aware of the wider concerns that the work touched on. I was getting professional contacts; making people aware of my practice and staring to develop an intimate understanding of both the market place and trends in photography through exposure to the work of people that I met at the event, talking with them and questioning their motivations as photographers.

“In 2009 I received a Bursary to go to the fantastic Rhubarb-Rhubarb in Birmingham and from this prize was awarded the opportunity to go to FotoFest 2010. At Houston I felt like I was not only making new contacts but re-establishing links with people who I already feel I have a genuine dialogue with. Yes it is often really hard; yes it is draining and perhaps not the best space to get an in-depth understanding of a photographers practice. However professionally and in terms of future opportunities these events are invaluable.”

Kevin O’Connell, who also went to Houston:
“This year marked my third time presenting work at FotoFest (‘98, ‘04, and ‘10) and I felt obligated to chime in on the dialogue regarding the experience. I can say that my experiences have been only positive. I’ve made lifelong friends, made professional relationships, and developed opportunities that would simply not have been possible by any other means.

“Over this time I’ve also had a front row seat to the changes occurring in the photography world. I am not referring to changes in taste or vision, which are to be expected, but more to the machinery of image making and getting images seen. Perhaps these changes are the subtext to your ‘funny feeling’ about the reviews that have left you with a bit of an industrial aftertaste.

“After reading the post on your site by Jeremy Moore “‘Why Should I Care About Your Body of Work?’ and several other blogs about FotoFest, I was reminded of a quote by Kiki Smith: Art is ‘…like standing in the wind and letting it pull you in whatever direction it wants to go.’ It seems that this has become an antiquated notion because today the winds of photography swirl with motives, agendas, and ambition. Maybe it is because of the present economic, or maybe it is because, as a good FotoFest friend once said, ‘There are too many cameras.’

“While at FotoFest, I was surprised at the number of my colleagues that were bewildered when I told them that I tried not to talk too much when showing my pictures. No, I didn’t have a practiced presentation: after all, I was there to listen and if things went well a genuine conversation would arise over the pictures. (And I know that when I’m looking at pictures the last thing I want is someone yammering in my ear about what they mean or why they were taken - when I want to ask a question, I will ask.)

“But of course, it seems humans are uncomfortable with silence and anyone who spent time in the reviewing room can testify to the extreme decibel level, which in itself is contrary to looking at pictures. At one point in Session #1 a woman stood up in the middle of a review and shouted ‘SHUT UP’. A silence fell over the room for maybe three seconds and then, to complete comedic effect, the din went right back to where it was.

“So the fallback (read - easy) position may be for a reviewer to ask questions that are ultimately rhetorical. In fact, the first question posed in Moore’s post is the kind of questions one might expect if going into an interview at IBM and is in danger of sounding snarky, or even condescending or pompous, depending on the tone of voice. My gratuitous advice to any reviewer asking this type of question would be: look at the pictures. If you care about them, great; talk about why. If you don’t care about them then it would be incumbent on you as a reviewer to articulate that position. But, Socratic Method aside, it is odd to expect a photographer try to talk you into liking them. This seems contrary to the intent of a review.

“So my wish for the utopian photo review would be one where the photographers did not prepare canned presentations for their work and listened, the reviewers did not ask prepared questions, and both parties were prepared to ‘do the work’ over the pictures in front of them. Not an easy task, especially in twenty minutes.”

And the last email I want to quote from comes from Ida C. Benedetto:
“I hope you don’t mind me writing to you regarding your post on Houston FotoFest even though I didn’t attend. It has been a long time since I attended a portfolio review, but they have had a lasting impact on my career for some of the reasons you hint at in your post.

“When I attended portfolio reviews at NPPA events and the Eddie Adams Workshop (obviously very different from Houson FotoFest, but the point is still relevant) I thought I wanted to be a documentary photography and that I was getting feedback on my photographs. The most influential reviews involved conversations about things that weren’t in my portfolio, and more often than not those conversations continued after the review sessions. The conversations that stayed close to the images and confined to the time allotted rarely left me with any new insights. Maybe that reveals a flaw in how I conducted myself in the reviews or maybe that’s a flaw in the process.

“I walked away from those experiences convinced that I would be miserable should I continue to pursue a career as a professional photographer. Sometimes I feel bitter about all that, but your post helped me reconsider. Just because I didn’t get what I went for doesn’t mean I came away with nothing. Photography is still a central part of my creative practice, but it took long conversations with a few generous (or restless or conflicted) reviewers to realize that it should probably be only part.”