Portfolio Reviews… should I bother?

portfolioWhy on earth would a sane person put their work at the mercy of a seasoned reviewer?

Portfolio reviews are becoming increasingly popular for photographers.
So what can you expect if you go to one?
Is it a case of jumping for joy, or crawling out a disheartened character?

Reviews come at all sorts of levels… from help for college leavers/ amateurs / semi-pros, to the very top end where you get to meet curators from the world’s top galleries.

The reviewer’s job is to help
Believe it or not, that is true and they are well aware of it.
But you’ve got to remember that individuals have their own personality. Some may be kindly, others may be blunt, maybe even abrasive… but they are just trying to be honest.

Some you might have heard of

Redeye‘s reviews in Manchester deal with a wide range, from the ambitious amateur, the developing photography assistant or postgraduate, or an independent photographer working on an issue based project for publication. -  There are other reviews around the country… all aim to offer help and moral support at whatever level, or crucial feedback for independent photographer.
Format Festival in Derby attracts many independent photographers with substantial projects in progress. Their review panel includes seasoned  photographers, academics,  publishers and exhibition organisers and the occasional celebrity photographer.
Magnum is one of the legends in terms of photo-agencies. Now they also run a range of events that attempt to pass on the passion and knowledge that is integral to the agency. And of course this includes portfolio reviews.
Rhubarb Rhubarb is one of an elite group of international portfolio reviews. The panel includes some of the world’s top galleries and reviewers. Photographers will cross continents to book a place at this and similar events.

Are reviewers looking for anything in particular?
Well yes and no.

Firstly, they are looking for some clues as to what you want from them.
eg. “I am an amateur who enjoys travel photography… I want to know how to improve my images… and my eventual goal is to make them good enough to exhibit and sell”.
eg. “I’m engaged on a project about a special group of people… this is the story (blah blah blah) I want the images to convey, but I am not sure this is coming through clearly… I want to sell the final work to a magazine”.

Second, they are not looking for any specific type of photo or style… instead they will be keen to find out and understand what’s your style and direction.
As the creator of the work you can get a little too close to the work and not see its imperfections or faults. But hey, that’s part of what a review is all about. The way you present your work, plus what you convey when you discuss it, will help the reviewer identify what should be its individual elements. Its then possible to see if you’ve got the right balance between your own unique group of elements that should get your message across.

Vulnerability
If you’re doing this for the first time, it can feel very personal to have your work examined and perhaps challenged. You can feel vulnerable. But remember that the reviewer is always only ever talking about the work and wanting to help you make it better. Of course if you are challenging a convention do expect to have that questioned.

And if you haven’t worked it all out?
Don’t worry if you feel that you’re still working to establish a style or photographic voice… instead make that part of your introduction. In that way the reviewer can work with you to see what possibilities the combination of your work and your personality might have in store.

Use the time efficiently
Reviews don’t last long. Whether its 20mins or an hour, its never long enough.
The reviewer is well aware of this and wants to give of his/her best. If you’re not prepared, are argumentative, precious or protective of your work… well you’re just not going to get very far.

Heaven and Hell
The worst candidates are the ones who bring a random bunch of images and asked “what do you think of these”.
The best is someone who had planned visiting a series of different reviewers because they have worked out that each can give a particular type of perspective.

Preparation Checklist

1. Organise your work well; ignore anything that isn’t relevant; aim to give the reviewer a clear picture of the way you work… and what you’re working towards.

2. Have a good idea what it is you want out of a review (are you?… aiming to build your portfolio for a particular reason; in the middle of a specific project needing guidance; working towards an exhibition; trying to “sell” your exhibition to a curator).

3. Don’t think a reviewer is going to sort out your muddle!! A review is part of the refining process… not sorting out the basics.

4. Choose only those reviewers who are relevant to you. Find out the background of your reviewer (there’s usually info provided by the event) – that way you are going to exploit the opportunity to its best potential.

And finally… an answer to the question…
Yes – portfolio reviews do you good!…

  • the discipline of organising your work so it means something to another person
  • the challenge of justifying it to a new audience
  • working with another person to identify what’s strong or weak
  • the joy of talking about your work with someone who shares a similar passion

… are just some of the things that make it all worth it.

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