Last week I triggered a bit of a discussion on FlakPhoto’s Facebook group with the announcement of the Los Angeles Center of Photography (LACP) 2019 Exposure an event that includes portfolio reviews, talks, seminars, workshops and now a book competition. The FlakPhoto discussion went quickly sideways and was really off-kilter; a shallow focus only on the cost of a portfolio review versus a balanced discussion about cost/benefit (the value proposition) of attending such an event.
So first, what is a portfolio review for photographers? It is meant to be a meaningful discussion between an artist/photographer and an industry professional, which could be a museum curator, magazine publisher, or gallery directory as examples. The artist/photographer has a body of work that they have assembled for evaluation that they would like to have feedback on (part of the preparation for this event is for the artist/photographer to predetermine what exact feedback they are seeking for the person they selected to spend 1:1 time with). At most portfolio events there is a very limited amount of time, usually about 20 minutes, for the evaluation/discussion.
I have spent time on both sides of a portfolio review table attending my first portfolio review as a participant in 2008 at the Palm Springs Photo Festival with a body of work from a project that I was working on in China. Re-reading my write-up from this event it appears that not much as changed as to the portfolio review process. Now I am on the other side of the table providing reviews, as well as coaching artist and photographers to prepare them for these events. I will say it is very rewarding for me to hear that a portfolio I helped prepare for a review was able to get the photographer a gallery representation or included into a museum exhibition.
Why do these portfolio reviews occur? (and it’s usually not about making money for the sponsoring organization, as most break even) It is an opportunity for a local photographic organization, usually non-profit, to bring in a broad range of artistic professionals from across the country or in from other countries, as a service and opportunity for the local community to provide a wider exposure that they might not otherwise have. Otherwise it can be daunting and very expensive for a photographer to make a cross-county trip and vainly hope to gain access to the range of professionals who have now been brought together in one location for this type of event.
So why might you want to attend one of these portfolio events? The benefit to each photographer may vary depending where they are in their career, which could include:
One to one (1:1) feedback from multiple professional perspectives. Some of those you review with may understand your work and provide a meaningful critique and sometimes they may not. Which is why you need to spend time with more than one person during these events; the professionals are also human with their own experience and likes. Part of the preparation you need to do is to figure out who might be the ones who understand your body of work and schedule time with them. Such if you are a street photographer you may not want to spend time with a gallery director who only exhibits conceptual contemporary photography and does not exhibit photo-documentary work.
New project, body of work or new direction. If you are experimenting with a new approach or a different style, it maybe very helpful to obtain some broader and different opinions than what might be offered by your friends. Seek out those who curate or show the kind of work you have in development; does it connect with them or perhaps has it been done too many times before? Does your originality shine through? (aka, the acid test).
Introduction to new artistic opportunities. When the professionals are brought in from out of the local area this may be an opportunity to you to extend yourself beyond your local network. This could include the potential for: new exhibition opportunities with curators, new gallery representation with gallery directors, potential publication of your project with editors and/or publishers and maybe have one of your prints acquired by a collector or museum.
Networking with fellow photographers and potentially with the professionals. Usually there is some down time between events and a great time to introduce yourself and extend your artistic network. During many portfolio events, including the LACP event this September, there are also Portfolio Walks. Tables are provided and photographers are provided space to layout their portfolio for an evening of show-n-tell, which is usually open to the pubic. Usually pretty intense and you never know who might drop by for a discussion about your work.
I know that these portfolio events have been liken to speed dating; a series of short 1:1 discussions over the expanse of the day. From personal experience I know that these events are equally intense for the participants and the reviewers which creates a lot of high energy. I usually come away a bit overwhelmed, exhausted as well as being very excited about the work and photographers I spent time with.
It is up to the photographer attending a portfolio review to ensure that the necessary professionals they need to meet with in order to advance their specific career are present at the event they choose. Then carefully prepare for the event as you might any job interview. More about that in another post.
Attending a portfolio review is an investment. Both of your time and the cost to attend a review as the travel costs for the out-of-area professionals who have made themselves available need to be offset by the fees being charged. Likewise a nice venue for an event has a cost that needs to be offset as well. So expect to pay a fee to attend a portfolio review, but consider it an investment in yourself as you might make for a website or a new camera. Just purpsosefully choose which event you select to attend as to who do you need to meet with.
As to the benefits; how do you put a price (return on investment) if you are invited to be included in your first museum exhibition, a new gallery representation in a city across the county, an offer to have your first book published or be featured in a prominate magazine? These are things that can really propel the trajectory of an artist’s career. Attending may not be that dramatic of an outcome, perhaps it could be a bit more subtle; validation of an on-going project or maybe a slight redirection/tweak or adjustment that improves the visual impact of the narrative? Perhaps the results might occur years later as a result of a personal connection made with some else who attended?
Since there are a number of these events occurring across the country, choose carefully for the right match for you. Some of these portfolio review events might be oriented towards the working professional photographer to help obtain new assignments or clients (NYC events come to mind), while others might have a stronger contemporary artistic focus, such as Photolucida (Portland, OR), while LACP attempts to blend these two elements, perhaps leaning more into a fine art focus.
Douglas Stockdale; blogger since 2008 and Editor & Publisher PhotoBook Journal, the contemporary photobook magazine and Associate Editor, SoCal PhotoExchange Journal.
Exhibition: 2019 Summer Group Show, Fabrik Projects Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, exhibition opening August 3rd, 6 – 9pm, 2019
Portfolio Reviewer & Juror, Photo Book Competition, LACP 2019 Exposures event, September 13 – 15th, Marina Del Mar, CA