The importance of portfolio review events (part one)

A portfolio review is when you show your work to another person (duh). A portfolio review event is a more formalized event where reviewers (editors, curators, image buyers, agents, etc.) gather in one place with explicit plans to look at the work of the review-ees (in our case, photographers.) Portfolio review events have a long and important history in the world of photography. They have also recently turned into something of a big business. Having been both a reviewer and a review-ee, I can offer perspectives from both sides of the portfolio-reviewing table.

Though the format of a portfolio review event may vary, most use a similar format, with the reviewers sitting at large, rectangular tables, usually in a big room, with name-tags on the tables. The review-ees enter the same room for a defined period of time, usually twenty minutes. In that brief time, the review-ee needs to specifically introduce themselves, show their work, allow time for feedback from the reviewer and generally make a strong impression. The reviewers are typically seeing 12 to 18 people a day so the photographer that can distinguish themselves, is at an advantage. The key here is distinguishing yourself in a “positive way.” Reviewers I know will tell you many stories of photographers they met who were most memorable for being obnoxious, disorganized, impatient, crude and even rude.

The granddaddy of this type of portfolio review event is what is called “The Meeting Place, which is part of FotoFest in Houston. FotoFest is a month long, city-wide series of photography exhibitions and events, with a week long portfolio review event. FotoFest is held every other even year, usually during March. The reviewers who attend FotoFest, like to attend to see the many exhibitions, meet up with old friends who are fellow reviewers and look at new work in the portfolio reviews. Read more about FotoFest at: http://www.fotofest.org/ Read more about the portfolio review event at: http://www.fotofest.org/ff2010/meeting/

One of the oldest spin-offs of FotoFest is Photo Lucida, which is a similar series of photography exhibitions and events, with a similar portfolio review event. That happens in Portland, Oregon, every other odd year. Read more about Photo Lucida at: http://www.photolucida.org/ Read more about the portfolio review event at: http://www.photolucida.org/critique.php

If you are anywhere near either of these portfolio review events when they happen (or any other ones,) it is well worth stopping in, even if you are not getting your work reviewed. These can be great places to see how others store, present and organize their work for repeated presentations. Collecting copies of the promotional pieces/post cards that they leave behind with reviewers is worth the effort all by itself. Seeing the varying strategies that photographers use when showing their work to gallery directors, curators and image buyers, is a real education.

Many of these interactions take place outside the formal meeting area (where you will probably not be admitted without signing up and paying.) Hanging out in the waiting room and/or nearby bar is a great way to see how the process works before you actually spend the money for the reviews. Attending and having your work reviewed is even better of course, but just watching the process will teach you a lot!

A few other portfolio review events of note include:

2009 Rhubarb International Photographic Review. Registration there goes live next Tuesday May 12th at 10.00 am sharp. Read more about Rhubarb-Rhubarb (that’s the festival’s name) at: http://www.rhubarb-rhubarb.net/ Read more about the portfolio review event at: http://www.rhubarb-rhubarb.net/ and click on international reviews. The one down side of this event is the cost of getting to Birmingham, England.

Review Santa Fe is another well-known portfolio review event. One difference is that it is juried, meaning that a thousand (or more) photographers submit work and typically only one hundred are selected to be review-ees. In theory, this means the work being reviewed is of a higher caliber. Most of the other events are not juried and if they are oversubscribed, most places use either a lottery or a first-come, first-served system to determine who is included (or excluded.) Find more at: http://www.visitcenter.org/programs.cfm?p=Review

This list is by no means complete. You can also see a listing of photo festivals across the globe starting at: http://www.festivaloflight.org/ or http://thewellspoint.com/about/resources-fine-art-promotional-venues/

Note that not all photo festivals have portfolio review events (and not all portfolio review events are connected to photo festivals.) ALL of these portfolio review events tend to fill up quickly so if you are at all interested you should do your homework on the given event and be ready to sign up as soon as the registration open.

A useful handbook on portfolio review events that also explains what to do as a review-ee, has been assembled by the folks at is Photo Lucida. Download that at: http://www.photolucida.org/images/photolucidabooklet_2009.pdf

What started me thinking about portfolio review events was the remarkably honest footnote in the email blast I just received announcing the opening of registration for the 2009 Rhubarb International Photographic Review. They wrote:

Our review is not juried, but we request that you attend only if you have had at least one exhibition or publication during the last three years – beyond university – and are ready for international markets. We want you to get the fullest experience possible for your money, so please only book if you’re at this stage.

Frankly, they deserve a medal for their honesty. Some of the newest portfolio review events look more like money-makers for their sponsors, and less like real opportunities for the attendees. In the second half of this blog entry I will write about my experiences as a review-ee, including what I did right (and wrong) when I was on the paying side of the portfolio review table.

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