By Eliza Lamb
As a photographer I find that portfolio reviews are the perfect combination of exhaustion and exhilaration, community and competition, motivation and humility. After I returned from a whirlwind four days in Portland, Oregon at Photolucida I was still coming off the high of it all. I found myself trying to integrate the connections I’d made and the feedback I’d gotten with the life I knew and the assumptions I held before I left. Sorting through piles of leave behinds, business cards, signed books and pages full of notes, I was struck by feelings of accomplishment and uneasiness, and by my downright good fortune for being able to be a part of such an amazing community.
The process of creating visual art can be very isolating and often involves years of self-reflection, pondering and personal expense, punctuated by both excitement and doubt. It can feel antisocial as we create our images and crawl back into our studios or sit in front of our computer screens for hours upon hours of editing, processing and contemplating. Having trained for years as an actress and receiving instant gratification, I find it can be near maddening putting your work out there to radio silence. But portfolio reviews are a way for photographers to join together to gain feedback, camaraderie and opportunities, to gather despite their home locations or educational training and present their work to the community as equals with common passions, goals and frustrations.
At Photolucida photographers are given sixteen to eighteen twenty-minute meetings with curators, gallerists and editors from across the world. After deciding to attend the review, I spent weeks researching reviewers. I studied the organizations, publications or blogs that would be represented, and tried to determine who might be the best fit for my work. Because I was primarily trying to get exhibitions and features in print and online publications, I focused my reviewer preferences on non-profit exhibition spaces and monthly publications that tend to show work like mine: documentary fine-art color photographs with an affinity for cityscapes, objects and Americana. I then ranked the reviewers in order of preference from 1 to 60, and found out a week before heading to Portland that I was scheduled to meet with two thirds of my top choices. Some of my reviews would be with people I knew from previous review events, while some reviewers I was going to be meeting for the first time.
Often lovingly referred to as “speed dating for photographers,” every review session was a unique experience. Everyone wonders what feedback they will receive. Will the reviewers like the work? Will they have a place for it? Will they be kind and constructive if they don’t like it? How will I power through if not? And every one-on-one review carries not just an emotional but a heavy financial burden. Taking expenses into account, from my flight from New York City, the costs of my hotel and the review fees (which pay to commute and house the reviewers that are volunteering their time) each session was costing me just shy of $120—not an insignificant investment considering that most of the photographers there are funding their art through other full-time jobs.
To this review I brought prints of a newly finished body of work on my hometown, called “Hopewell,” that I was hoping to promote, and the beginnings of a related portrait series that I wanted to gain feedback on. I also carried a portfolio book with two other completed bodies of work in case reviewers wanted to see something more or different. My experiences at several prior reviews taught me that what some people respond to others may not, and while some reviewers may want the entire 20 minutes to discuss a single image, others want to see as much as they can as quickly as possible to get a taste for what you do.
Perhaps the most exciting and nerve wracking aspect of it all is that every interaction is a gamble and there really are no safe bets once you sit down at the table. No matter how carefully I research and rank the reviewers I want to see or how well-crafted my list of contacts, I never quite know what I am going to get. Personal taste is important to someone’s response, but logistics and timing also come into play.
In one case, I sat down with a reviewer that colleagues recommended highly only to realize that they were just about to exhibit a series dealing with a similar subject matter to mine. As the days pressed on, reviewers and photographers alike got tired and it became harder in some cases to engage with and talk about the work in a meaningful way, even with the people I was most excited to see. But I find it is always best to stay open minded and optimistic. Throughout the years I have come to realize that it is often the gallerist I had never heard of, or the editor that seemed to be interested in work very different from mine, that can have the greatest insights, words of wisdom or opportunity to give. At Photolucida, an extra review that I picked up in another photographer’s absence turned out to be one of my favorites and best fits, with the reviewer having a strong interest in multiple series and future exhibition possibilities. But in general, feedback can be scattered, and more than once what one reviewer remarked was their favorite image, another recommended that I edit out all together. In general these reviews are a practice in staying both open and guarded, allowing feedback to affect and shape your work where it might need to, but not letting it change who you are, and what you do.
I find time and time again that the moments between reviews are the most important for me. The time spent in the hotel lobby, the roving reviewer room or the neighborhood bar is where stories are shared and the casual conversations with both fellow photographers and reviewers about the field and work begin to emerge. In my downtime fellow photographers helped me draw connections between my images that I hadn’t considered, they recommended shows and contacts, and provided me with the suggestions and moral support that will inspire me as I kept shooting. Casual conversations with reviewers broke down the walls that existed in the formal reviews and allowed for frank discussions about the work and the field and what motivates those of us that participate in it. In these environments, friendships are made, experiences are swapped, insecurities are admitted and worked through, images are traded or sold, and very often the photographer you once knew as a colleague becomes the person giving you a show. Informal portfolio sharing, the portfolio walks and talks by other photographers, give us all a temperature for the field as it stands. We find out about what people are thinking, shooting and sharing, where, how and why. We learn about ways we are all surviving and thriving. Portfolio reviews like Photolucida allow us to establish connections and relationships that help pull us out of our quiet studios into a larger conversation that propels our work, and the field in general, to a new and greater place—and on that you cannot put a price.
Eliza Lamb is a New York City-based fine-art photographer.
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