Not so very long ago I posted “Why I don’t take my portfolio to reviews.” It isn’t that I’m reluctant to have somebody whose opinion I respect review my work. However, the big review sessions such as PhotoLucida and PhotoFest seem to me to be mostly a cash cow for the sponsor and a lot more about marketing than work development. I’m not against marketing, by the way, but I’d prefer truth in advertising (and much lower prices).
On a whim, I signed up for a portfolio review with Jock Sturges at PCNW a couple of months ago. The price was right, I admire his work (and know him slightly through an internet group to which we both belonged once upon a time), and they were trolling for a few more people to make it go.
[Digression follows: Sturges went digital for a while because he had trashed his back schlepping about his 8x10 view. His back is better so he has gone back to film but is doing color. I saw some of his earlier color work, printed by a lab in San Francisco, at Butters Gallery in Portland a few years ago and, while I still prefer his black and white, it was stunning! He is currently scanning and printing his own negatives and, alas, they do not have the same razor edge. He has also fallen prey to the “make it big” demon. His new book will be an elephant folio (a little book biz talk here) so that the plates will be the size of exhibition prints. Here endeth the digression.]
By the time the day of the review came there were seven people signed up and a motley crew it was, too.
The format was a bit different than the “normal” one-on-one session with the reviewer. The entire group sat in on all the reviews, Jock had to insist on that format but the gallery director, who was there for a review, agreed that it worked. I thought it worked, too.
Three of the seven were pretty much raw beginners still struggling with the craft and flailing around trying to find a direction. I suspect they got the lion’s share of benefit from the reviews. His comments were very insightful.
Seems to me that a necessary ability for a reviewer is to completely divorce what he does from the work presented for review. Jock isn't quite there. His work depends on building long-term relationships with the people he photographs and he makes carefully selected and composed large-format negatives. He is much more conscious of (and concerned about) the formalities of composition – especially figure/ground, positive space/negative space, edge boundaries … What he does, how he does it, and the market for which his work is intended tints, in my opinion, how he sees other kinds of photographs. His discussion of the “no people in the frame” work (four of the seven) was a good deal less influenced by how he does his own work than of the other three.
I took my “Work of the Weaver” portfolio as well as a box of street portraits. Jock was openly dismissive of the Weaver portfolio as well-enough-done but documentary, an approbation in his vocabulary. He suggested that I should get a lot closer, mentally and physically, and pay more attention to simplifying the backgrounds in my street portraits. It was worthwhile to hear Jock’s opinions but I’m to the point of having strong enough ideas about what I do and how I do it to take them with a film can full of grains of salt.
Going to this review was fun, price was sort-of right, and I learned some – primarily that I don’t benefit much from portfolio reviews unless the reviewer is really good. I have had the good fortune to show work to two exceptionally good reviewers – Nick Hansen and David Johnson. Nick is the king. He, the education director at PCNW a couple of decades ago, could look at a group of prints and invariably say something about them that I would never have seen. After he left PCNW following a dustup with the management he taught privately for a while – the sessions with him in his living room in Ballard were what I keep hoping for. In the very unlikely chance that you have contact information for him, please let me know.