The importance of portfolio review events (part two)

In the first part of this two-part posting, I explained the basics of organized portfolio review events. Today, I am writing to share some of the things I learned having been on both sides of the portfolio-reviewing table, as a reviewer and a review-ee. Many (but not all) of the errors I allude to are mistakes I actually made at one point or another.

You can read another perspective on this, which is not that far from my own in a handbook on portfolio review events assembled by the folks at is Photo Lucida. You can download that (for free) by going to: http://www.photolucida.org/images/photolucidabooklet_2009.pdf

Things to keep in mind when attending portfolio review events are, in no particular order:

If you can watch others go through the drill, you will be much better off. Meeting someone for the first time, explaining your work, showing that work and making a good impression in twenty minutes (or less) is very hard. Some folks do it easily and others do not so, if you can watch others who are good at that, “learn from the masters.”

When you encounter a reviewer, remember they are human beings. Do not look at them as nothing more than conduits to fame and fortune. First, they really cannot snap their fingers and make you famous. Also, would you want to be on the other end of such a simplistic stereotype?

Look at the process from their point of view. After seeing the 12th portfolio in a single day, their eyes glaze over. I started every meeting by suggesting the reviewer get a drink of water and/or use the rest room. That simple gesture of empathy made a big difference with many of the reviewers. I also often had chocolate bars with me and would offer pieces to the reviewers. Some took the chocolate, but most did not. Virtually all of them appreciated the fact that I was treating them like a real person by trying to share my sweets.

After you introduce yourself and explain your work, shut up. Let the reviewer guide the conversation. If they want to know more, they will ask. Unless they ask, do not talk about the meaning of life, your dreams of dead relatives or childhood traumas. Let the work speak for itself.

Learn as much as you can about the reviewer, especially what they do, what they want to see and what they prefer not to see. That seems obvious, but I have been reviewing work where the review-ees knew nothing about me and they had no idea what kind of help I could or could not offer them. Similarly, make sure you know (and explicitly say) what you want from the reviewers, during the review. It is both impolite and foolish to, for example, tell a book editor “I want you to publish my work as a book.” You may end up at that same goal, after a time, if you start with a question like “What are the strengths and weaknesses of my work? With those in mind, what do I need to do to make the work fit within your publishing program?”

Always have something to leave behind with the reviewers, who will definitely have a hard time remembering your work, no matter how impressed they are by it. Seeing a dozen or more sets of work in a day is a sure way whatever they see to turn to a fog in their minds. There are a dozen (or more) strategies for “leave behinds.” Some resemble proof sheets. Others look more like small portfolio books. All they need to do is remind the reviewer of your work and make it very clear how to contact you. When preparing such “leave behinds,” work with someone else to edit the images you will be using in the final piece. Use only images that provoke a strong reaction in your editing partners, not ones that purely have a strong personal value for you.

Each body of work should have approximately 15 to 25 prints, no more and no less. Fewer than 15 and it may look like the project is not significant enough to produce serious work. More than about 25 images and it looks like you cannot edit (and/or the work lacks focus.) Bring with you (and try to show) only one or two bodies of work. No more! If you must, bring a third set of work, but only show it if you have plenty of time and if the reviewer specifically asks for more.

Do not be prissy and ask the reviewers to wear white cotton gloves, even if you provide them. If your work is that fragile, have it matted so it is protected. The whole point of a review is to look at the work, discuss it, churn through it a few times, etc. If the final presentation of your work is unusually large, bring one big print to show, ideally in a tube to roll out and share. Bring the rest of the project in more manageable print sizes.

A successful portfolio review will not result in the reviewer pulling out a contract and signing you to a multi-year book deal. The reviewers are looking for artists with vision, creativity and dedication. They are looking to start a relationship with the artist’s whose work they like. If they ask you to follow up with them, find out what they would like you to send to them. Each reviewer has different needs and a different way of storing work that they later want to access.

The last bit of advice is arguably the most important: follow up with the reviewers and seize the opportunity to build the long-term relationship with them. Most reviewers will tell you that the most frustrating part of the review process is that approximately 50% of the people they ask to stay in touch, never follow up with them. It is a pretty strange business that half the folks who are handed an opportunity to improve their place in the field do not do so. But that can be to your advantage if you are among the 50% who do seize that same chance.

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