2014 Portfolio Reviews
November 4, 2014
This past weekend, hundreds of photographers of all skill levels roamed the floors of the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City for the annual Photo Plus Expo. It's a great way to meet new people, check out all kinds of gadgets and gear, as well as an opportunity to learn a thing or two about photography from leaders in the industry. If it pertains to photography, you're likely to find it at PPE. Registration is usually free if you'd like to attend, with the only fees coming in the form of seminar registration, which is completely optional.
Photo Plus Expo also hosts portfolio reviews where you can sit with some industry professionals who don't look through the viewfinder.
These are the curators, art directors, editors, and agents that can potentially be clients, if you're looking to turn your skill into some form of income, or if you'd like to increase your visibility in a different market than you're used to. I did this once before, in 2013 and it was a pretty good experience, which I wrote about over on Medium. Feel free to give it a read if you're interested in the back story.
Over the years, I've developed multiple bodies of work. They're all me and my personality, but they live in different places. My street photography is very different from my cityscape images, and those are very different from my abstract work, which is again different from my concert material. I really wanted to focus on the abstract project and its progression, as well as my music photography. The street and cityscape work was just going to be up for discussion if I had the time. My two biggest concerns were seeing if there was a gallery interest in my abstract project, and finding out if there was any interest in my skill as a live music photographer.
As you may have read in my previous write-up, the reviews are sold in blocks of 5, and they are 20 minutes each. I chose five people that I thought would be a good fit for the work I had, and the organizers also ask that you choose between 5 and 10 alternates, just in case a slot fills up. They basically guarantee you a 60% match with your choices, or 3 out of every 5 reviewers you select.
When I was done looking through the reviewer bios, I had chosen 5 people that I thought would be an excellent fit. Two reviewers had experience with music photography, two were experienced with fine art, and the last was an all-around, which meant that I could discuss all of my work if I wanted to (and I did).
I had already done the reviews once, so most of my expenses had been handled a year ago—portfolio cases, thank you cards, etc. All I needed were some new, recent prints for the music portfolio. I also decided to bring a tablet with me, just in case I needed to present additional work from any category I was showing. Things that you should consider when doing this include how you want to display your work. If you're making prints, think about how you want them to look—borders/no borders, sleeved/unsleeved, in a book or laying flat in a box. I decided that I'd show my work the way I wanted it to be published by someone else, and so I opted for some paper prints, and the supplemental work I had prepared on my tablet was done using the SmugMug app. It's always good to be prepared to show extra, in case the opportunity arises.
My first review was going to be with Annie Etheridge regarding my music photography. I had been working hard all year to build a body of work that I thought was worthy to show off. My portfolio last year was quite anemic, with only 10 images. The photos were decent, but there just wasn't enough of them, and it was something that I heard more than once from reviewers in 2013. Well, the reaction to my new portfolio, which included 21 images instead of 10, was really positive. Annie told me that she enjoyed my work, but also spoke about a reality that I was already aware of: there's little to no money in live music photography. Her advice was to reach out to newspapers and magazines, since live music work is usually tied to media outlets that report current events, rather than magazines that would do full articles. Those types of publications really look for editorial portraiture. Editorial portraiture is really cool, but it's not something I have even the slightest bit of experience with, so trying to go that route would mean starting from the bottom with that and incorporating it into my current live portfolio. I wasn't really sure that I wanted to do that. After all, I really just love shooting shows. I'd love to keep doing it, just for bigger shows or more venues. I left the review feeling a bit deflated, since it didn't seem like there were many opportunities to shoot more often, but I'll get to that later. It really was nice to learn a bit more about how some things worked, and that it lined up with what friends of mine had been telling me. I'd have an entire day before my next review, and it was spent hanging out with some photo friends who I hadn't seen in a long time.
On the second day, I'd end up sitting with three reviewers. The first and last were in the fine art world, so I was ready to show them my abstract project. The reviewer between them would be another chance to showcase my music photography.
It seems that I have a streak of one reviewer being a bit late to the table. In this case, my first reviewer of the day, Martha Takayama, was a bit under the weather, and I think that she was trying to take care of that before sitting with me. She was very apologetic, but after that, we got down to business. She really enjoyed my abstracts, as well as my statement about them. We looked through the 15 prints I had made last year, and went through several new ones on my tablet. An interesting moment was when she asked if I had considered pitching this to the Museum of the City of New York. I had to let her know that I had already been featured in an exhibition at MCNY, and that the curator was present at the reviews, but that I couldn't get any time with him. Perhaps I'll reach out to him on my own since I have an established connection of some sort. She was extremely helpful, jotting down sites that I should check out, artists that I should view, and places that might be receptive to the kind of work I was doing. I also got to show her a bit of my street photography, but we ran out of time. I made sure to extend a line of communication following the expo so that we can continue the conversation. I'm hopeful that I'll be able to get some leads.
After a short break, I got to sit with my second reviewer of the day, Anna Dickson. It was time for the music material to come out again. She was pretty knowledgeable when it came to music photography, so I was pretty excited to get some time (this is why doing your research is super important). First things first: my work seemed to impress her, and that felt good. Secondly, she said something that I think not enough people admit: good music photography is not a dime a dozen. Yes, the people looking to shoot are a dime a dozen, and that can be said about any facet of photography. However, good music photography and consistently good music photographers are not everywhere.
The whole 20 minutes was kind of mind-blowing. My first shot in the portfolio, a photo of Alicia Keys from last year, really got her attention. Her first question: "Where did you take this?" After explaining where it was, and how I got it (through a contest held by Keys on tumblr), the discussion shifted briefly to social media, which eventually led to her following me on Instagram. The next part requires a little backstory.
Last year, I had tried (and failed) to get a slot with Deborah Dragon, who in addition to having a cool name, is the photo editor for Rolling Stone. In retrospect, it was probably a good thing that I didn't get any time with her last year, because my portfolio was really on the thin side and it wasn't nearly as strong as it is today. This year, I was really excited to have a chance to sit with her again, so I requested a slot, and when the assigned reviewers came back, I once again did not get any time, and that had me pretty bummed out. Imagine my surprise when Anna says to me "Have you spoken to Deb?" I let her know about my attempt to sit with her, explaining the selection rules in the process. Her response? "I may have to have a talk with her after this." I couldn't have been happier. I was already speaking with someone who was knowledgeable and very helpful, and here she was going even further beyond that by offering to speak to someone else about my work. After that, we talked about my street photography a bit, more tumblr discussion, and overall I think it was the most productive use of my time. I think we even had time left over! So yeah, that part about not having many opportunities may not have been as bad as I initially thought.
Next, it was time to dust off the abstracts again and sit with Fabian Goncalves Borrega. It was really interesting to sit with him, because he offered some very simple advice on presentation that I hadn't considered. You see, all my works in that project are very abstract. I decided that for presentation purposes, I was going to have the title in the border of the print. His first question was "are you going to have that on the final piece?" When I told him no, he said that I shouldn't have it in the portfolio, either, and that it would be better to write details on the back of the print that include the title, the method of creation (in this case, intentional camera movement), and other details. I really liked that suggestion and it was one I hadn't heard before. He also spoke to me about continuity in composition and shape. He commented on how I favored blue and yellow hues in my work, which is true. One of the most realistic things he said was simply "this is clearly very personal. Some people will get it, some will see it and feel nothing." He is absolutely right, and I have continued to do it with that in mind. Some people have told me they don't get the abstracts at all. I once posted about it on reddit and I think the sentiment was along the lines of "it's just colors." Spoiler: it's not. I have the way the images make me feel and what they represent to me, but there's no requirement that any viewer feel the same. We exchanged contact information and that was it for day two.
My last reviewer was a familiar face: Miriam Leuchter. We had met at the previous year's reviews and she was really helpful. I was especially mindful of her advice on how to vary my music shots. I was really happy to show her my progress since we had last spoken a year ago.
Miriam remembered my work, and was really pleased to see the progress I had made. Her basic response with my music photography was to keep going. No complaints there. She asked me about my abstract project, and we discussed how I wanted people to view it. Her response when she heard how many images I had made so far was that I needed to sit down and really consider how this needs to be presented, which means working alongside a printer, deciding what paper to use, etc. Once that has been settled on, I need to start making full scale pieces. I have some time to work on that. The expectation is that the next time I have to show these pieces to someone, it will be in their final form. If someone asks me to display a certain piece or pieces, I'd already have it ready to go in no time. It's a big task and a lot to consider.
Lastly, I showed her my cityscapes and street work. She really enjoyed my street work and that made me feel good. I happen to think I have a good eye when it comes to street, She mentioned that the city work was nice but not particularly unique for showcasing. "Continue to do it if that's what you like doing, but I wouldn't present it in a portfolio." I think it was her way of saying that my street work, much like my other personal work, shows much more of who I am than my cityscapes do, and I can agree with that.
I have a lot of thinking to do, but I know that I will not be giving up. I have a ton of confidence issues when it comes to my work. I flip-flop between being reasonably secure in my ability and feeling incredibly inadequate. I've accepted that transition as a part of me, but I try to stay positive. I've never allowed my feelings of inadequacy to cloud the fact that I love taking pictures. That is not going to change.
I had a chat with Karen Hutton on Thursday, and I really appreciated her imparting some wisdom. She rattled off a number of things that she had done in her career. They were quite varied, but they were all her. It was extremely refreshing to hear that someone could do so much and resist being pigeonholed. She really stressed the importance of finding out who you are, what you want to say. I think that I have been saying what I want for quite a while now. I think that much is certain. I suppose that my concern, and the point of distress for me, is that I don't think anyone is listening. You can never really tell, though. Notches on the social media belt only go so far and a lot of times, people do see what I do, even if they don't leave a trace that they've been there. Knowing that, I'm content with just speaking the language that I speak in my photography, and hopefully, as I continue, more people will want to hear what those photos have to say—what I have to say.
Did you go to Photo Plus Expo? Did you attend seminars, participate in reviews, socialize? How was your experience? Let me know below!