A photographer presents his small photo book, beautifully and thoughtfully bound in a rough earth-tone paper with an inset image, to the reviewer. She flips through the pages as he explains the project – he wants to express the feeling of enclosure and entrapment, question our notions of reality. The reviewer listens, mm-hmming as she turns pages, and then finishes the book, closes its cover and says, "Everything you said to me? It’s not in the photograph, it’s in your head".
This is the world of the portfolio review, a space where artists, whether emerging or already embedded in their practice, have the opportunity to show their work to industry professionals for feedback, guidance and occasionally a harsh reality check. This particular event has been put together by relatively young photography space Fotografiska as part of Stockholm Photography Week. For those without regular access to curators, editors and art directors, portfolio reviews provide a much needed space to join artists together with the people whose attention they most want to catch. It’s enormously constructive and helpful, bound to offer new approaches to work and yet, for those used to paternal pats on the head at school or from friends, it may force a lot of re-thinking, rather than recognition.
The portfolio review at Fotografiska hosts fifteen masters in the fine arts field and twelve representing commercial/editorial, from diverse backgrounds professionally as well as geographically. Darren Ching, owner of the Klompching Gallery of New York, sits with a fine art photographer to look over his latest work, some black and white images with the artist’s family members as models. Ching compliments the artist’s excellent usage of light and composition, and then he says: “The problem with this kind of work is it’s so personalised, and there are a lot of photographers photographing their own kids. Whenever you photograph your own kids, you automatically inherit a certain amount of baggage”. He goes on to say that his gallery doesn’t carry a lot of black and white work, so it needs to be something special. “It’s a luxury market, and with black and whites, it’s hard to find a hook”. Though Ching has a lukewarm reaction to the work, he names some galleries that might be better suited. He suggests for the artist to do his research, because every gallery carries a certain kind of work.
Another reviewer, Sasha Wolf, of the eponymous Sasha Wolf Gallery in New York, looks through a photo book that an artist has brought which a publisher has already expressed interest in, and seems duly impressed with the series of minimalist black and white night street scenes. She commends the work, noting these are the scenes we see every day, but he’s captured it well. “I want to see the banal elevated”, she says. “That’s what I’m asking of you: to see something again for the first time”. The work isn’t ground-breaking by any means, though it’s solid. And even though, as she points out, the art world is very occupied with new forms, she considers herself an exception: “Some people don’t like artists who riff on other artists. I personally love it. I think everyone should be saying hello to each other”. As the twenty minute session ends, the artist leaves, and Wolf says to herself, “Give me great old school over who-gives-a-shit new school any day”.
The value of a portfolio review which includes such a wide swath of industry professionals is perhaps exactly that variety. The evaluation of work is inherently subjective, depending on professional intention from both sides. While some reviewers look for work that will sell in a gallery, others look for what will sell perfume. On the other side of the table, some artists hope to have their work exhibited while others are commercial, hoping to push their personal or more artistic work, or even looking to move into a new field or subject matter. Based on who you’re talking to, whether a gallerist, a museum curator, a magazine editor or an ad agency art director, the advice you’re going to get will be completely different. They have different interests, different goals, different customers.
Ching looks over some portraits, but tells the photographer that the photo is giving too much away. “In fine art, the relationship with the viewer is very different than photos for a magazine. You don’t want to tell them everything”. Meanwhile, on the commercial photography side of the room, Corey Ingrasin, Senior Studio Manager for the agency Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, is also looking at work from a portrait photographer. Rather than approaching the images from the perspective of how they would look on a wall, he makes specific comments on the photos’ production quality, noting the lacklustre tonality of the subjects’ faces, the significance of the subject’s gaze and the commercial appeal of a photographer being able to take both head shots and full body or environmental portraits.
Mary Virginia Swanson (or ‘Swanney’ as she affably introduces herself), most prominently known as the co-author of Publish Your Photography Book, works as a marketing consultant to help photographers reach the goals they want, whatever the nature of that might be. In this sense, her advice is different from some of the curators and editors. She finds the weak spots in your photography and marketing practices that gallerists and agencies might react to, and helps you prepare for them. She tells one artist about his web site, “On your contact page, you don’t say why I should contact you. I don’t know what you most want – the jobs you want to do”. She looks at his portfolio images and asks if he’s considered the size that he’ll make his photos, noting, “For a lot of us who look at a lot of work, we see that everybody works on the same size paper: the size of their printer. But that might not be the right size for that work”.
For as many reviewers as there are at Fotografiska, there are as many different perspectives on the photographic works presented. For a photographer, it’s a unique experience to gain insight into the nature of this subjectivity by receiving feedback from such varied sources. And though the experience can be gruelling, from the no-nonsense approach of many of the masters to the efficiency of a fixed time slot, reviews are often a priceless educative experience. If your goals include making your work public, it’s a necessary step in upping your game.
So, how can you best make a portfolio review work for you? Here are some tips:
- Know what you expect to get out of the review
You’re showing your work – but why? Are you hoping to get a job in an agency or work as a photojournalist or have your photos hung on walls… or another of the countless ways of being a photographer? Reviews are typically not spaces where photographers with no exhibitions, publications or work experience are ‘discovered’, heaped with praise and offered lucrative contracts, so be sure your expectations are in line with reality. You’re there to show your work and learn what’s working and what’s not – but working towards what?
- Know your reviewer
Reviewer biographies and titles are typically posted before you sign up. Read up on their artistic interests, look at their web sites. Choose reviewers that reflect your personal goals as an artist. If you’re a fashion photographer, you might not want to be talking to a reviewer who focuses on photojournalism (or vice versa). If you’re looking for a gallery or an agency to get involved with, make sure the kind of work you do fits in with their tastes, or at least be prepared to understand the context that they’re coming from when they look at your work.
- Prepare your materials with your goals in mind
Portfolios come in all manners these days, and without delving deeply into what makes a good portfolio (for which there are plenty of resources), be sure you’re prepared with a portfolio that reflects your goals. If you’re looking to publish a book, it’s only logical to show your work in a book format, but if you picture your work on the wall, it might make more sense to bring prints. And, keep in mind some reviewers have strict preferences for one medium over the others – you can’t please everyone, but you might consider multiple formats to help the reviewer access your work in a way they’re comfortable with. In any case, be organised.
- Come prepared to talk about your work, but also come prepared to stop talking and listen
When looking at your work, the reviewer will want to try to understand the context that you’re working in – beyond your goals, also your working methods, how long and how deeply you’ve worked on the project(s) you’re showing. If you’re not able to talk about your work, this can quickly become uncomfortable and cripple the progress of the dialogue, limiting the reviewer’s ability to help you move in the right direction. Similarly, keep in mind that you’re there to get the opinion of an authority in the field, so know when to be quiet and listen to what they have to say.
- Be objective and receptive
While you have laid your dreams out before the reviewer, you must also consider it a very real possibility that your work will not be liked. Come with thick skin and an open mind. While the feedback may be rough, it’s important to distinguish the work from yourself, and hopefully the feedback you receive expresses a perspective that you can respect, even if you don’t agree.
At the end of it all, take some time to reflect on what you’ve learned from the feedback, decide what to take on and what to discard, refocus your attention, and then... get your camera and have fun!