Monday, July 18, 2011

Why I don't take my portfolio to portfolio reviews.

Portfolio reviews are a popular event these days. They have morphed from half-day or one day local events sponsored by the likes of the Photography Center Northwest (PCNW) in Seattle and the Photography Council of the Seattle Art Museum (when it had one – but that's the subject of another rant) to multi-day nationally advertised events. The two biggies are the semi-annual FotoFest in Houston and (on the alternate years) PhotoLucida in Portland, Oregon. Local organizations still have them – PCNW, Newspace in Portland, the Photography Council of the Portland Art Museum and so on. In all cases, the format is very similar. The sponsoring organization rounds up an appropriately sized gaggle of curators, gallery owners, teachers, editors and other luminaries as reviewers and hopes that an appropriately sized herd of aspiring photographers will bring their portfolios for review.

In addition to face-to-face portfolio reviews, there is a burgeoning crop of internet/digital based virtual reviews. The giant of these is Critical Mass – connected to PhotoLucida – that carries the process to an even bigger scale with a three-stage process. Thousands of portfolios are sent to a few of the hundreds of reviewers for an initial cut. The lucky winners in the first round get an in-depth review by a select group of reviewers who see all their portfolios. Winners in the second round (now down to 50 or so) each have a piece in a traveling show and a chance to grab the brass ring of a solo show and publication.

The hopes brought to the event by the reviewees are four:
1. the hope that a curator or gallery owner will see their work and offer a show, a publication, or gallery representation,
2. the hope that they will get leads for potential shows, publications, or gallery representation,
3. the hope that a wealthy collector will see their work and buy some,
4. the hope that they will receive guidance either in improving or marketing their work.

All worthy hopes. I have them myself. So why don't I take my portfolio to reviews? Well, I did so a few times. I also spent a fair amount of time schlepping my portfolio around to galleries for one-on-one discussions.

Regarding hopes 1 and 2: I met one (1, uno, ein, un) such person who felt that showing my work was a good idea. Alas, his institution was Seattle's Museum of History and Industry so, since my work is neither historical nor industrial, he didn't hold out much hope of showing it and didn't have any good leads for me.  I am going to get back to him if I ever get my "50 years at the Pike Place Market" in a presentable form.
On the other hand I had several reviewers who were openly dismissive of the kind of work I do. One flatly said “Why would anybody want photographs of people that aren't family or famous?” A gallery owner whose opinion I respect very much told me that my street photography was very good and he would be glad to show it if my name was Cartier-Bresson and/or I was dead. OK – that's useful information I guess. My work is so out of fashion that there is little hope of showing it in a gallery or museum (until I've been dead a few decades).

Regarding hope 3: I didn't meet any of these.

Regarding hope 4: One of the local photo supply stores, Rainier Photo – sadly now out of business -- used to sponsor a one-day photography meeting once a year. In addition to vendor displays and programs by vendors and local photographers, they had working photographers do portfolio reviews. Boy, were they useful! I can't say as much for the reviews by curators, publishers, and gallery types. I threw in the towel after a portfolio review at Seattle Art Museum. The first and last of the four reviewers clearly had no interest in my work and were trying to think of something polite to say to fill the allotted 20 minutes. The second hated everything about my work. She latched on to one print and used it to explain why my approach to photographing people was hopelessly voyeuristic, why the quality of my printing was mediocre, and why the presentation of my prints was quaint at best. With tail between my legs I went to the third review. He was very complementary about my work and latched on to the same print to praise my approach to people photography, the quality of my printing, and the clean, simple presentation I use for my prints.

There is also the little matter that portfolio reviews, especially the biggies, have become quite expensive. Juried $how$ and portfolio review$ have turned into $ignificant $ource$ of ca$h for the $pon$or$.

I am proud of my work – well, some of it – and I'm happy to show it either to someone who has some likelihood of showing or publishing it or whose opinion I respect enough to ask for comments about it. But, what with one thing and another, I don't find it worth my time, effort and money to take my portfolio to a review.

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