A lost opportunity?


General Photography

I received a somewhat late response to the post about my experience with the Fotofest portfolio reviews. This response mirrors reactions/sentiments people have told me in person many times. (more)

I had a brief exchange of emails with the photographer, and I asked whether I could quote parts of the email. The photographer gave me permission to do that, provided I do it withholding the name:

“Most reviewers view it as a nice addition to their resume to be invited. Add that to the exponential growth in the size and number of portfolio review events (Fotofest meeting place itself has doubled in size since 2006). A vested self interest in being invited coupled with a sharply increased demand has inevitably led to some people in reviewers chairs with questionable qualifications and/or motives.

“Like yourself, I had a question I asked of all of my reviewers: ‘What brings you to Fotofest?’ Several replied ‘I enjoy seeing new work,’ some others said ‘I am looking for new artists to exhibit.’ Three out of the 16 I was assigned replied ‘Because I was asked.’

“Then there were the reviewers who were there because THEY were selling something. Such as the one who spent a good portion of the time pitching his website services for photographers, or one who openly professes that she is unable to refer artists to specific opportunities, but sells her consulting services for $200-300 an hour. I can’t argue with the right of these folks to make a living, but I think ethics would lead them to follow the example of those who keep the ‘selling’ out of review time that the photographer has bought and paid for.

“Then there are those reviewers who claim in their written bios to ‘want to see everything’ but when you sit down with them tell you flat out ‘We only show _____.’ (fill in the blank with photo-journalistic, ‘contemporary’, social commentary or any other highly specific term) It seems that some reviewers think portfolio reviews are staged so they can gauge the direction of current photography. I wish they would remember, it’s about the photographers, NOT the reviewers. It’s the photographers who pay for the meeting rooms, the reviewers expenses, the salaries of the permanent Fotofest staff. Income from participants is the single largest source of income for any portfolio-review event. (Hence bigger events equal bigger income without a proportionate increase in expense.)

“Please don’t get me wrong. I think portfolio reviews are worthwhile events. I have made worthwhile connections both professional and personal. But a trend is afoot that needs to be addressed or portfolio review events will continue to lose credibility, collapse under the huge financial structures they are building and become an opportunity lost to both photographers and the art world in general.”

As I said, I heard statements like this one (or similar ones) many times in person. I think it’s important to bring these issues out into the open, regardless of whether or not I actually agree with the different points raised here.

Feel free to send me reactions to the issues raised in the photographer’s email; as before, I’m happy to publish quotes (full name, initials, or anonymously).

Update (8 July 2010): A couple of months after it was published, this post apparently made the rounds, email-wise. I received a couple of reactions from readers, which I’ll post here shortly.

Update II (8 July 2010): Robert Holmgren sent the following (quoted with his permission, of course):

“In my experience, which necessarily reflects a narrow selection, the reviewers did a good job of indicating in advance what their interests were. I can see where a casual perusing of the list of reviewers might lead to some mis-apprehensions, but it seems to me the number one job of a Meeting Place participant is to do careful consideration prior to the event. I didn’t feel mislead. Some reviewers were clear about their regional focus, but my pairing by the Meeting Place process failed to take this into consideration and I wasn’t able to rectify the situation.

“It would seem highly likely that the structure of this type of event leads to some level of disappointment. The reality is that few opportunities are the norm and someone arriving with a profound sense of accomplishment in their photography would, on average, be disappointed. Such is the market. Alternately, if most participants were rewarded with the sorts of reception they would desire it would probably indicate such low standards that few would be willing to attend the event to begin with. Quantifying art has always been one of rejecting all but a few.

“The second level of reality is that reviewers, being human, must suffer a level of burnout that hinders their own considered reactions to what they are seeing. This seemed somewhat obvious to me on the last day of the 2010 Meeting Place. One reviewer in particular discussed getting a early flight out as if he couldn’t wait. I had to sympathize. Others simply had nothing much to say. Discussing aesthetic reactions was in the minority, and talking about presentation of work was the default. I sympathize with the image overload brain freeze, but my checkbook doesn’t.

“On the positive side Brian Clamp, Martha Schneider, Bill Hunt, Paul Amador and Catherine Couturier gave specific feedback and information I found useful without being offered anything tangible such as a show. I have followed up with emails to these individuals telling them that I appreciated the extra effort. For me the negatives were April Watson, Lisa Sutcliffe, Chuck Mobley, Karen Sinsheimer and Hossein Farmani who offered very little other than their attention for 15 minutes. I’m not blaming the reviewers for this; Their reaction is all too human due to the circumstances of looking at so much work. Their reaction is a declaration that the work I was showing didn’t engage them. That’s on me, not them. In salesman terms—It isn’t the pitch, it’s the product.”

Please note that in order to make this post more easily readable, I converted the quoted text (incl. the one from the original version of the post to italics).

Update III (9 July 2010): More feedback, this from Larry D’Attilio:

“I have been to the Fotofest review in 2006, 2008, and 2010. Along the way I have learned a few things.

“The reviews mix two very different types of people - the artists and the reviewers. To explain — I had the great pleasure of spending a little social time with Fred Baldwin at the 2010 review. His one statement of ideology to me was worth all the cost associated with me being at three Fotofests - ‘Wendy and I formed Fotofest to be subversive’. What to make of that?? But I believe the answer is handy. An artist is subversive anytime they go their own way. If they really are a true ‘original’ artists their work doesn’t pander to tradition, accepted trends in the market, or the public taste. In fact most often they are creating the tastes, styles and expressions of the future with the audience fifty years behind in understanding and appreciation.. We artists subvert the now to create the future. And Fotofest is a great place to subvert the market (aka reviewer’s) expectations and your own.

“The reviewer comes from the world of channeling our work to the public. They can only channel what they understand and usually are forced by the market to pay attention to what is already known and popular with the public market. Their income comes from the public through sales or the support for their institution. Thus they can’t reach too far to expose art work that is too controversial, too thoughtful or too deep and emotional, ahead of the current trends and isn’t easily tied to some historical context. Reviewer’s everyday reference is art work that fits into current trends and artists they already have heard of. Only a few have the instinct and confidence to see gold in the work of an artist who is ahead or out of the trends and not already known.

“If the artist is a person of strong voice or an innovator they may be less popular with the reviewers and get less opportunities.. But here I am claiming that these less accepted artists may possibly be the more highly regarded ones in the future. So of what use are the reviews to those artists? Ahh, but I can propose that reviewers are of great value to those artists. It seems impossible to head home after Fotofest and not have your head filled with new ideas, greater clarity about one’s work, and a host of new friends and contacts. If those experiences serve to keep you engaged with your work and you continue to strive for your most special creations then the reviews are worth all it took for you to be there. Because, inevitably, if you persist in exploring your expression even in the face of disdain, ultimately your work will find its own zenith and history will be in your corner.

“My view is that attending reviews is crucial, to encourage the artist’s ideas, revolutions, commitment, and introspection. Fred and Wendy had it right to begin with, thus the name MEETING PLACE.

“The artist has is to just keep showing up until, to quote Swanee, ‘sooner or later the market says, Oh you again, well we’ll just have to do something about you now’. So keep going to Fotofest.

“The artist should not expect too concrete a reaction in terms of being offered an opportunity. The time for that is in discussions after the review that are possible in follow up contacts.

“There are things I could also offer for reviewers to consider. No doubt I would be repeating most of what they heard before. I don’t accept review assignments despite my lengthy experience as an artist - and maybe there is more to know about reviewing then I understand. But I have mentored hundreds of emerging fine art photographers for decades and I have a rule I always follow in critiquing (i.e. reviewing), their work. To be large remain small. To be of the most benefit to the reviewee be humble and tiny. You will serve them when you engage with their work and them, looking for their ideas and intentions while encouraging any strengths you can find. And if you see the value of staying small (parking your ego), then you will finish the review with a sense of satisfaction that you brought all you could to the table.”

Update IV (9 July 2010): Another photographer who asked to remain anonymous, provided the following:

“I’m glad people are speaking up. Most of us haven’t because we don’t want to be perceived as negative or get on the wrong side of the people we hope to win over. I agree that there are many wonderful things about going to Fotofest, and I have personally benefitted many times. However, the process has become insanely expensive and has inadvertently created the expectation that all serious photographers will participate. So not only has going to Fotofest become more expensive, it has also become more necessary.

“I have nothing but respect for the serious reviewers. They spend their own money, give of their time, and work very hard. It can be truly exhausting. However, like the other [the first quoted photographer - JMC] writer, my pet peeve is the small group of reviewers, perhaps about ten percent, who are getting a free ride. They are often consultants (although they may have had a more prominent photo position before), or they are artists loosely affiliated with photography organizations. In both cases, they are promoting themselves and being subsidized while they do it. I do my very best to avoid appointments with consultants/cheerleaders who push expensive services but don’t provide any concrete opportunities for the artists. Ditto the guy with the ‘important collection’ that we may donate our best work to for free (excuse me! it’s supposed to be a trade) while he hawks his photography to the other reviewers.

“Another thought for the Fotofest staff: As photographers we receive advice on how to prepare ourselves for the reviews. Have the reviewers received any advice/training? Some are truly excellent, and I’m personally satisfied if the reviewer actively and honestly engages with my work regardless of whether they like it. Some people can successfully be both reviewers and artists, but I’ve noticed that many artist/reviewers either don’t care about the reviewees at all, or they filter things through the lens of how they would do it in their work.”