In March I received notification that my project, Life on Wheels: The New American Nomads had been accepted into Center’s 2014 Review Santa Fe Portfolio Review, to be held at Hotel Santa Fe, June 26-29. This is one of the top review events in the world, and judging by the difficulty of getting in, it is not a boast. It is a juried affair where a panel of esteemed photo professionals sift through the hundreds of submitted projects to come up with the best 100. Each selected photographer then gets 9 twenty minute reviews with photography professionals comprised of curators, editors, publishers, gallerists and others who can offer professional development advise and opportunities. Looking over the names is a veritable who’s who of the photo world.
The reviews themselves are broken up over a 2 day period and there are plenty of opportunities to connect with other photographers and often reviewers in between. There are around 45 reviewers to choose from. The only downside is I am not guaranteed all of my 9 choices. Center does a good job of connecting photographers with their top choices, but it is a sort of lottery, and sometimes more than a couple get left off.
The first time I applied in 2008, I didn’t make the initial cut. The next day however, I received an email saying someone had dropped out and I was number 1 on the waiting list. So I was in after all. Back then, the review was only a few years old and perhaps wasn’t quite as well known. The project I submitted was Marking Our Place in the World. I had only been working on it for a little more than a year and it wasn’t all that well realized yet. Needless to say I thought it wasn’t that big a deal getting in. Boy, was I wrong. The next year, I submitted the same project with a year’s worth of improvements. I was stronger and better realized, but it was rejected. Fast forward 6 years to today when, after trying almost every year since, I’ve finally gotten in again. The popularity of photography has exploded in that time, as has the number of people vying for a spot. My initial reaction this time was, “Well, I must be pretty good”. Once I got a look at the names and websites of the other 99, I went from “Must be pretty good” to “I’m lucky to be here”.
Getting in is only the first step. It’s good that the review takes place 4 months after notifications go out because there is so much to do. The biggest task of course is getting the work ready. Getting the prints made was actually pretty easy. I’d attended the Our World Portfolio Review, put on by S.F. PhotoAlliance, in San Francisco just last year, so already had most of my portfolio printed. It has just been a matter of adding 10 or so new prints to the mix.
There is, however, more to it than just making prints. Sequencing, writing and practicing presentation are all nearly as important. There is also the matter of creating some sort of take-aways to give reviewers so they might actually remember what they have seen. I also like to prepare another give away card for the night of open portfolio viewing, where the general public is invited to look at work.
On the surface, it wouldn’t seem like the order images are seen would make much difference. If one views a photo project as a story, and images as sentences, would you write a book by just placing random sentences in a row? The same applies here I think. I want the images to tell the story of my project in a way that is logical and pleasing to the eye. With that in mind, I created a mini set of prints of every image in the project – around 50 in all so far. From this, I wanted to end up with 20-25 pictures that tells the essential story of full-time RV’ers. 20-25 is generally considered a good amount of pictures to show a reviewer during a 20 minute review. Throwing more images at them reaches a point of diminishing returns. They should be able to get a good idea of what you are going for by then, and it leaves time to discuss whatever points come up during the viewing.
So I lay out my 50 4×5 sized prints, on a surface that I can leave for an extended period and just sort of live with them for a while. Every time I walk by I can stop and look and rearrange. I am looking for how images relate to one another when placed side by side and how images flow in terms of story. I begin to see which are either repetitive or a little weaker and should be pulled. It is really difficult to separate one’s self from the process and be impartial though. Some images I like so much, but maybe they don’t really add much to the mix, but I just can’t axe them. After a couple weeks of this, I formulated a sequence that very loosely conveyed a sort of morning to evening progression. The edit I arrived at was 35 images. Still too much. I sort of hit a wall. I couldn’t part with any other images and I just wasn’t rock solid on some of my choices. So what to do?
I contacted Kathleen Clark, a photographer and consultant with a great reputation as an image editor, who’s blog I’d been following for the past year or so. I liked her writing as well as her own photography, and I though perhaps she would have the objectivity and distance that could get beyond what I had already done. She also happens to be one of the reviewers this year. Over the phone we discussed my goals and she agreed to work with me. I set up a web gallery she could reference containing the entire 50 image group and asked her to select and sequence 20-25. After a few days, she came back with a 25 image edit. She did make the cuts I couldn’t – and it hurt. We discussed why some were left out and what she would add if I expanded the number a bit. I settled on 27 images that will definitely be in. Beyond the actual image choices, she also brought a fresh perspective in viewing the project. She made sequencing choices that had not occurred to me. A couple made me just a tad nervous, but that I still liked. I decided I needed to just go with it.
So I have my edit, and it is sequenced. You can see it here. There are actually 30, but 3 will be left out by review time. Which 3 would you drop and why?
After each review, it is a good idea to leave something for the reviewer to take with them. I bring a variety of printed material, depending on who I am seeing and how the review goes. When showing my main project, I make a 8.5×11 folded brochure that I can combine with a CD containing a more extensive selection of images. If the review goes really well, they get both, if the interest really isn’t there, they get the brochure only. When showing other projects, I make a half-page card the has a couple of images and contact info. The CD also contains all the other work, so they can look it over if the desire is there.
In addition to the actual 2 days of review sessions, there are quite a few activities planned over the 4 day conference. There are a couple of receptions for photographers and reviewers, public portfolio viewings, a print auction, an optional workshop and photo exhibitions and presentations. That’s in addition to all the smoozing going on in the bar and around the hotel.
I touched on this earlier in the post. In the next week or so, I have the opportunity to select my preferences for reviewers I want to meet with. As I said, there are usually 40-45 reviewers, and I have 9 to select. I have to be very careful how I rank my choices because I am not guaranteed getting every choice. Some will be so popular that conflicts will occur and so compromises must be made. It is possible to end up seeing people that might not be a great fit. At the very least, however, it is possible to have great conversations with any of the reviewers. I’ve had surprising outcomes result even from those I was sure would not work out.
There are really only maybe 5 that I absolutely want to talk with – that I think might have a great interest in the work or who might be able to offer an opportunity. There are probably another 8-10 more I’d love to meet with, but that I wouldn’t expect much more than a conversation. Which is fine with me. There is much that can be gained from these meetings – if not now, down then line a bit. So I will carefully rank all my choices, but especially my first 5.
So how to do that? I will be given brief bio’s of each reviewer. It usually contain a statement about what each might be looking for. I don’t really want to show work I know they won’t be interested in seeing. Beyond that, one needs to look at the institution they come from. Private galleries tend to show much different work than do museums. Non-profits tend to fit somewhere in between private galleries and museums. You should also look at the sort of work the gallery is showing. It varies widely. Are they more interested in alternative processes? Are they showing more conceptual work? Magazines tend to look for photographers they can work with in the future, so if you aren’t interested in getting assignments, this might not be a good choice.
The bio’s that we get are only a starting point. It’s probably not a good idea to base all one’s decisions on just that. The web is a great resource for examining reviewers backgrounds. It can sometimes reveal very different aspects than what is on the bio sheet. See what they’ve done in the past, shows they’ve curated, lectures they’ve given, books they’ve written. Doing all of these things will greatly increase your chances for success and will leave you feeling like you’ve done all you could.