What NOT to do in a Portfolio Review

Image from Joanne Carter at TheAppWhisperer

Image from Joanne Carter at TheAppWhisperer

In 2008, I had minor success in the fine art photography world.  I was accepted into some juried exhibitions, and surprisingly, I won one of them.  I was also one of a hundred fine art photographers accepted to Review Santa Fe for the June portfolio reviews.  I was stunned.  I participated in a smaller review before, but nothing like Review Santa Fe, the premier event for U.S. photography portfolio reviews.

At the time, I was also in graduate school pursuing my MFA, only a year away from graduation.  I was engaged in a contemporary program in visual arts (not just photography), we were constantly being challenged to consider “process.”  I was the type of student that hung framed work on the wall for critique that was often called “too precious.”  I began to get the idea of this postmodern process before Review Santa Fe.  I didn’t realize that graduate school critiques and fine art photography critiques are worlds apart.

I flew to Albuquerque and shuttled to Santa Fe with work in my portfolio that looked like a bad postmodern process.  It wasn’t finished because we are never finished in postmodern art, we are only just beginning and we don’t make things that look precious or finished.  We generate ideas and don’t answer questions.  It would fly in grad school, why not at a renowned portfolio review?

Two weeks before I left, I ordered a newly refurbished printer that I wasn’t familiar with and barely managed to print my work due to technical difficulties. Let’s not mention the cheap photo luster paper I was using to keep costs down.  All my images had a magenta cast to them and I was too hurried and afraid to look at them with a critical eye before I left, so I brought magenta prints to Review Santa Fe.  I am Magenta Woman.  I almost crawled into my portfolio when not only reviewers noticed the color shift, but other photographers attending the event saw it too.

Image from Pressure Points shown at 2009 Review Santa Fe (with color correction)

Image from Pressure Points shown at 2009 Review Santa Fe (with color correction)

The review room was intimidating with the desks pointed toward the door and important gallerists, publishers, editors and museum curators sitting behind them staring at us as we walked in.  I had 20 minutes to show the prints and have the expert come up with some helpful information to give me. It was obvious I didn’t belong there and even one reviewer pointed that out saying my work belonged more in non-profit art spaces.  What did I expect?  I didn’t bring my “A” game.  I wanted to tell my reviewers, “I promise, I really am smart, I’m in graduate school.  Can’t you tell that I’m reading important books and will make good work one day?”

Learn from my example about what not to do at a portfolio review:

·      Don’t wait until the last minute to edit and sequence your work. Pin the work on the walls, move it around, give yourself time to live with the images and sequence them appropriately.

·      Don’t be cheap about paper.  Research and locate the right paper for your photographs.  It makes a difference.  Make sure the paper’s texture and thickness relates to the imagery.

·      Don’t show your process and think the reviewer can figure it out. Fill in all the blanks for the reviewers, have solid thoughts and ideas, ask for what you need.  Don’t go to get random “feedback.” Have a goal in mind.

·      Don’t forget a leave behind.  In Best Practices for Fine Art Photographer, Jennifer Schwartz defines a leave behind as marketing materials to leave with each reviewer at the end of your session.  She states, “A great leave behind has an image that will jog the reviewer’s memory.”  Invest in something contemporary and stylish, have a logo designed, anything that reminds the reviewer of your name, imagery and your sophisticated style (with appropriate contact information).

From the Series Borderline, Kerry Mansfield

From the Series Borderline, Kerry Mansfield

From the Series Borderline, Kerry Mansfield

From the Series Borderline, Kerry Mansfield

The reason I know now what not to do is because I met someone at the event who knew exactly what to do.  Her name is Kerry Mansfield and we quickly became friends after meeting the first day in Santa Fe.  Kerry had it all together, she had invested in printing a book for her series Borderline, she wanted the reviewers to see her overall idea of a book and the work sequenced as it should be seen.  She had stylish business cards and leave behinds.

Kerry had a pitch statement ready, she knew what she wanted and wasn’t going to waste time in the reviews with needless words and/or directions.  She had memorized the biographies of all her reviewers and she was also very strategic about choosing them.  Needless to say, that after Review Santa Fe, Kerry’s work really took off – it was all over the place; international shows, galleries, publications, etc.  It was everywhere I wanted my work, but I was showing my magenta prints, so that wasn’t going to happen.

I will never repeat the mistakes I made in Santa Fe, in fact, I haven’t applied for a portfolio review again.  I did continue on to make an artist book with the project I presented there.  In fear I may have tarnished my reputation as a fine art photographer, I have thought about calling each reviewer and apologizing for the mess I displayed that day.  I just hope they wouldn’t remember my photographs or me.  When preparing for your next portfolio review, I hope you remember this journal post and me, but don’t be like me.  Be a Kerry Mansfield.