October 29th, 2012

PPE 2012: Facing The Lack of Diversity in Photography and The Arts

To provide some context for the PhotoPlus Expo panel discussion on “(Mis)representation: The Underrepresentation of Non-Whites and Women in the Arts,” moderator Charles Guice, an independent photo dealer, noted some statistics about the changing demographics of the United States. According to recent census data, whites in the US will no longer make up the majority of the country within a few years. Yet, he noted, whites still make up 91 percent of all museum goers, and white artists are represented in 91 percent of all museum and gallery exhibitions. “If the arts are to remain relevant who’s responsible for changing the status quo?” he asked. Guice asked his panel to look both at how women and artists of color are underrepresented in the arts, and what needs to change. His panelists were Manjari Sharma, a photographer born and raised in Mumbai and now based in Brooklyn; John Edwin Mason, a writer on photography and associate chair of history at the University of Virginia; Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, curator at El Museo del Barrio in New York; and Miriam Romais, executive director of En Foco, a non-profit devoted to supporting US-based photographers of Latino, African, Asian and Native-American descent and the editor of Nueva Luz, the photographic journal produced by En Foco.

Guice quoted the oft-cited statistic used by the feminist arts group Guerilla Grrls in its slogans: Less than 3 percent of the artists represented in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but women represent 83 percent of the nudes. Women also make up a tiny percentage of any “power list” of influential curators or gallerists. Sharma noted that the struggle for equality “begins at an early age”; she cited studies showing that girls talk less in class, get less attention from teachers, and tend to undervalue their performance.“The female gaze isn’t given the same attention,” she noted, and later added, “Women don’t recognize their own voices.” Aranda-Alvarado observed that throughout history, “The Academy was the training ground for male artists,” and tended to set the standard by which later art was judged. Sharma noted that the problem is compounded by the dominance of white males among the decision-makers and gatekeepers. “We need more diversity among the jurying panels.”

Mason offered two anecdotes about occasions when pointing out the blinkered view of certain jurors and gatekeepers helped raise awareness about the lack of diversity among the photographers they promoted. When a group of photo bloggers recently teamed up to name photographers who are moving the medium forward Mason noted on Twitter that the absence of photographers of color on the list was “stunning.” Mason said at least two of the contributing bloggers (all of whom were white and “overwhelmingly male”) responded with embarrassment and regret. “I think they were being honest … that we work with these kind of blinkers,” he said.

“The problem with lists is that whoever is compiling them should say, ‘This is according to me.’ No one can know everything. You can work real hard, but if you’re in New York or London or Charlottesville, Virginia, most of the names on the list are going to be American or European because that’s what we know.” He added that today, bloggers have gained the kind of authority and influence that mainstream media and arts institutions once had and, like magazine editors, they “have to learn to look inclusively.”

Mason noted that the Look3 Festival of the Photograph, which has taken place annually in Mason’s hometown of Charlottesville, was similarly limited in its choices of speakers and workshop leaders. However, once the festival grew from a private event in photographer Nick Nichols’ backyard to a large event that receives public funding from the city of Charlottesville, many people on the faculty of the University of Virginia and in the city wanted it to expand its list of featured speakers to a more inclusive list of photographers. The organizers responded, and its speakers in the last two years have included LaToya Ruby Frazier, Hank Willis Thomas and Stanley Greene. Mason said, “I think that the people at Look3 sincerely see that leaving out three-quarters of the world, or 30 percent of the American population, is a bad thing. They understood the rightness of what we were saying.”

He noted that such openness does more than bring additional perspectives to the festival’s educational programs. “We’re talking about photographers’ lives and careers here,” he said. “Sometimes if you’re not inviting them [photographers of color] then they’re not getting that networking opportunity and meeting those people and getting those mentors.”

Mentors, Romais said, are essential to help photographers build networks and contacts. En Foco offers many portfolio reviews and juried shows devised to give more photographers exposure, but she also noted that she has sometimes found it “heartbreaking” to see talented photographers who lack training in presentation, editing or preparing for portfolio reviews. Mentors, she said, can help new photographers understand the importance of being able “to talk eloquently about their work and without self consciousness,” and to present their work confidently to jurors and reviewers “without compromising their own vision.” Sharma, who said she was fortunate to have “strong female instructors” when she was a student, asked, “Should we feel an obligation to lift up other females?”

At this point, an African-American photographer in the audience said that he’d heard discussions like this, “identifying the problem” for years, but has heard few solutions. He noted that, as a member of ASMP, he is typically the only African-American at meetings, but he added, “I keep showing up,” in hopes that he’ll encourage other photographers to follow. Audience member Shawn Walker, a member of Kamoinge, the photographic collective, has supported African-American photographers since its founding in 1963.

In a discussion of the pros and cons of culturally specific institutions, Aranda-Alvarado said she worries whether, after photographers “make the rounds” of artists-in-residency programs aoffered by the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Bronx Museum of Arts and other organizations devoted to supporting photographers of color, they are also given opportunities to be seen by curators at larger institutions. “Not often,” she said. When El Museo holds its biennial, they invite curators from the Whitney Museum of Art and other large museums to view the featured work. Romais noted that En Foco changes the jury for its contests and portfolio reviews each year in order to help photographers get wide exposure. En Foco’s printed showcase of photographers, Nueva Luz, is also distributed for free to thousands of editors and curators.

The questions and comments from audience members made it clear that there are numerous barriers for photographers of color to be recognized by arts institutions as well as gatekeepers in media. An Arizona-based photographer and professor who is Native-American said, “The people who buy photography and the people who hire photographers for magazines—I could never reach them. I had to do powwows and Monument Valley.” An African-American woman who credits her uncle, a photographer, with mentoring her early in her career, said she tries to make her own opportunities. “I don’t wait for anyone to open the door for me because I open the door.”

Guice noted that photographers like Roy deCarava who questioned the status quo were sometimes labeled “difficult” or “trouble makers.” Mason said that during the push to diversify Look3, “I didn’t expect the young photographers to speak up.” The fight, he said, was largely lead by academics with tenured positions. However, he said, “There’s an issue of personal responsibility. If you reach a position where you have the juice, you have to use it.”

Near the end of the panel, Guice asked the panelists again: Who is responsible for challenging the status quo?” Romais replied, “Everyone in this room.”

Note:

Audience members were provided with a hand out of articles referenced by panelists, and a lit of the following organizations providing education and outreach in support of diversity:

http://www.elmuseo.org

http://www.enfoco.org

http://womenintheartsfoundation.org/index.cfm/fa/c.about

http://www.nmwa.org

October 25th, 2012

PPE 2012: How to Survive and Conquer Portfolio Reviews

Portfolio reviews can be costly or, depending on what you make of them, cost effective. This idea—set forth by Center For Photography at Woodstock Executive Director Ariel Shanberg—was the focus of a panel this afternoon at Photo Plus Expo that aimed to help attendees understand how they can maximize their time and money during portfolio review events.

Shanberg was joined on the panel by creative consultant Mary Virginia Swanson and moderator WM Hunt, a photography collector and former gallerist. The three spoke of their appreciation for portfolio reviews and their atmosphere of discovery, where reviewers are excited to find and discuss new work that they can share with others in the photo community. “If you strike a chord [with a reviewer], they will become your advocate and refer you [to others] and try to help you,” Hunt told the photographers in the audience.

Each reviewer gave examples of photographers whose work they reviewed and were amazed by, but they also offered a host of practical tips that should help photographers make the most of these 20-minute “speed dates” with editors, collectors and curators:

Mary Virginia Swanson described several different portfolio reviews but also pointed out that her article in the new issue of Emerging Photographer magazine had information and listings of several top portfolio reviews, as does her blog, here.

Swanson suggested that photographers consider bringing a tape recorder and—with the reviewer’s permission—recording their reviews rather than taking notes so they could engage more fully with the reviewer.

She also recommended that photographers ask at the end of a review if the reviewer would like to be kept informed about the photographer’s work, and if so, how (via email, print cards, phones or discs with images….). Swanson further suggested that the photographer should ask what to put in the subject line of the email to be sure to get the reviewer’s attention.

The thickness of a photographer’s portfolio is often inversely proportionate to the quality of the work, Hunt said. He explained that the most serious, confident and thoughtful photographers have the thinnest portfolios because they have refined their work.

On the subject of how much work to show, Shanberg suggested that there is a polite limit of 20 prints. You may want to show more to a book publisher who wants to see that you have 80 images for a book, or reviewers might want to see more work if they are excited about it, but putting a white piece of board as a divider in your portfolio to suggest that a reviewer can stop after 20 or so images is welcome, Shanberg said.

Swanson added that bringing multiple bodies of work to a 20-minute review is fine as long as the photographer is comfortable with the idea that they will spend the whole time watching the reviewer look at work instead of engaging in a discussion.

The panelists and moderator agreed that following up with a handwritten, physical note of thanks made a big impression. Swanson shared an anecdote about photographer Dave Anderson, who made notes at a portfolio review of which image each reviewer he saw liked, and then sent the reviewer a note with that image.

Swanson encouraged the audience to be similarly thoughtful about their leave behind pieces, whether they are cards, accordion folds, small handmade books or other pieces. Make the text style and branding consistent with your website and other materials, and choose an image or images that will easily remind the reviewer of your work.

Shanberg encouraged the audience to think of the review process as the start of a longer conversation, and reiterated the idea that although a reviewer may not give you an exhibition or publish your work themselves, each one has the potential to nominate you for a grant or fellowship, or recommend your work to an editor or curator.

Other tips:

-If you are at your first review, tell the reviewer, that so they can help you manage your 20 minutes better [Mary Virginia Swanson]

-When in doubt, shut up. Which means that talking too much suggests nervousness and distracts the reviewer [WM Hunt]

-Don’t ask what the reviewer wants to see; they don’t know you and can’t answer that. Show them what you are most excited about [Shanberg]

-Don’t hand a reviewer an artist’s statement and ask them to read it. Why would they read it when they can just hear directly from you? And it shows you aren’t confident speaking about your work [Swanson, but echoed by the group]