Portfolio reviews from the other side of the table. FotoFest 2014

If you are a photographer, you already know the importance of portfolio reviews for putting your work out there in front of curators, gallerists, publishers and other movers and shakers of the art world. You may have attended a few of them or at least may have read (scary) stories about them. Or you may have a great story of success to share yourself.

Well, mine is a bit different as I had the chance to sit along with a reviewer at the largest of them, FotoFest, and closely observe a full day of portfolio reviews with a wide range of photographers. And be the recipient of precious insider insights she shared with me. I can’t tell you her name as I don’t have her permission, but as this was a really invaluable opportunity to get to know a less known side of the art world, I thought it might be useful to write about the experience. What I saw was instructive, hopeful and overwhelming all at the same time. 

My reviewer was a quite open and friendly gallerist based in Europe, very knowledgeable of photography trends and with roots in both the US and Europe. For those worrying about the art world in Europe (uhm, me), the news is encouraging. As photography is becoming more recognized as an art form and new opportunities arise, the divide between both sides of the pond is becoming smaller and the art practices more similar. However, a word of caution: be sure to research the entities you are dealing with, like galleries, as the facade may be misleading.

The reviews I observed were really instructive.  I got to witness firsthand from the other side of the table the dreaded conversations or the great exchanges I had heard about, as well as her comments afterwards.  My reviewer decided to include me in the process, even though she wasn’t required to. We shared a chat and a drink at the end of the day and will be looking forward to staying in touch.

My takeaway? The art world is really a complicated place in which logic and order don’t necessarily follow established rules. Reviews are precious opportunities to connect, but it is so important to be prepared for them, otherwise they may be a waste of money and time. Here is some advice based on my experience, if you can make use of it:

1. While you should have a complete portfolio, it is unproductive to come to a review with just the goal to market a completely finished product. It is much more fruitful to  be flexible and open to advice and comments and further work on it. I saw a couple of photographers who brought portfolios that were so closed to any change that even their edition was completely done; they had just come to sell it and nothing else. This may be great for an art fair, but useless for reviews.

2. I will never understand the insistence on gigantic print sizes. They may have a better impact in a gallery setting, but my reviewer, for example, appreciated the few smaller prints as a welcome change. She wanted to spread photographs around, resequence, see how they work in different ways, make selections and this was logistically impossible with the large prints most had brought. She even asked one promising artist whose work she liked to go print small photocopier-grade versions at the nearby FedEx so that she could have a better overview of the selection. Bring one exhibition-size print, if you need to, but keep the size small for the portfolio as a whole.

3. Know your field before you make this big investment that a portfolio review is. Perhaps the saddest thing was seeing greenish photographers who had not done their homework and their work was quite  similar to what many others are also doing. A reviewer meets with 15 artists each day, from 9am to 4pm and in the end the whole process becomes a blur. If your work doesn’t stand on its own feet and is basically the same as hundreds of others, it is really pointless to show it. The reviewers will not remember it – if this is what your goal is – and you can be sure they will definitely know the other artists who are also working on the same vein.

4. Although some insiders advise that you try to connect with reviewers outside of their schedule, it is not a good idea. Reviewers are really overwhelmed with meetings and approaching them in addition to that is a signal for them to become defensive and hide. Not a good context  to establish contact that hopefully will lead to a good relationship or productive comments.

5. And finally. Be kind to all your fellow artists, no matter their station in (art) life. You never know in what setting you will encounter them in the future and an arrogant past will not be a good basis for interaction. Photography is a really small world and so unpredictable. I won’t elaborate, but take it as a witnessed piece of wisdom. I really mean it 🙂

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3 responses to “Portfolio reviews from the other side of the table. FotoFest 2014

  1. I find it quite interesting that the excellent advice you are offering here is quite applicable to storytelling reviews as well. Thanks!

  2. Really? I didn’t know storytelling reviews existed! A reminder to try and learn more, about the world and from things that don’t seem to have an immediate conneciton 🙂

  3. They are usually done in intimate group settings designed specifically for that activity. But I’ve seen so many tellers come in to them wanting nothing more than praise for a finished piece rather than ideas on how they could make it even better.

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