Opportunity and Hazards Attending Portfolio Walks
“You get only one chance to make a first impression.” This adage rang through my head as I walked through a sea of photographers with work on view at the 2014 Society for Photographic Education (SPE) portfolio walk. These increasingly popular events are often held over a two- to three-hour window during a photography festival or conference. They tend to be casual and are usually open to the general public for free, in contrast with the more structured (and fee-based) portfolio review. As an informal event, a portfolio walk is more in line with introductory networking opportunities than as a venue for print sales. Here are a few lessons I noted last year, as well as helpful tips from eight of the SPE student scholarship recipients I corresponded with to research this story.
This originally appeared in the PDN.EDU’s PRINTED magazine and web site. (PDNedu is a bi-annual print publication for emerging student photographers and their instructors, brought to you by the same folks who publish Photo District News.)
SPE has held a portfolio walk at its national conferences since 2008. This is a particular high point for the ten students who receive SPE scholarships. In addition to a conference fee waiver and cash award, scholarship students get an individual table in a prime location and early access to set up their work. During SPE’s 2014 portfolio walk in Baltimore, the strengths and weaknesses of certain presenters’ approaches rose to the surface as I circulated through the packed space. While these events are supposed to be causal, the photographers who took greatest advantage were those who took the opportunity most seriously. There were hundreds of portfolio cases, laptop screens and stacks of prints to look at, yet considering the limits on both time and attention span, it’s essential to use one’s time wisely.
HONE YOUR LISTENING SKILLS
According to SPE’s executive director, Virginia Morrison, “The portfolio walk has become a favorite piece of our conference programming, with interest and attendance growing every year. We seek the largest space we can find in our conference venues that will support as many tables as possible, with room for the crowd to navigate between all the tables. We’ll have 252 tables to accommodate 504 portfolio sharers at the 2015 event in New Orleans” Morrison adds. “We plan to admit folks in stages, like boarding a plane, to hopefully manage the opening rush.”
In the best of cases, portfolio walks give a wide range of photographers an opportunity to get his or her work seen and to receive essential feedback from an informed and interested audience.
As Chadric Devin, a 2014 scholarship student and University of Nebraska-Lincoln master’s candidate explains, “These walkthroughs present an opportunity to have individuals with amazing minds and perspectives, with whom I would not normally interact, see my work and discuss it with me. The most important thing I’ve learned is to be a good listener. If someone is taking time out of his or her night to talk with me about my work, I should appreciate this by acknowledging any advice, constructive critique or compliment given by always saying thank you.”
PICK YOUR SPOT
Ideally, scout the venue in advance to determine what the traffic pattern might be like. Arrive and set up as early as possible, and try to get a table. Presenting your work in the middle of the floor can look unprofessional and make it harder to view. Most important, when approached by visitors during the event, do not make excuses about either the surroundings or your work.
Hannah Cooper, a 2014 scholarship student and master’s candidate from Louisiana Tech notes, “In the past, I’ve lined up an hour before the doors opened, along with many other students. Once the doors opened, we’d all rush to claim a table [to] share with a partner. There wasn’t a lot of time to choose a space, but I tried to look for a table that was visible, not in a corner and easy to get to.”
These types of events can be a great place to discover what your peers are doing, to see what technical, aesthetic and intellectual approaches others are working with. Sandrine Arons, a master’s candidate at Savannah College of Art and Design notes, “My biggest regret was not seeing what other work was being presented, because I had to stay at my table the entire time. [Next time, I’d] have a friend who knows my work well come and represent me for a little while so that I could [walk] around the room.”
Following this suggestion, toward the end of the event (or when you’re not participating), walk around with your analytical hat on and try to experience what it’s like to be on the other side of the table. Listen to how your peers pitch themselves and their projects. All this research should improve your presentation the next time you talk about your work.
Also, if you hear about a portfolio walk happening but aren’t participating yourself, consider going as a spectator for some valuable lessons on what other people are doing and how to refine your approach. When doing this kind of research, you’ll likely note examples of people violating the adage “Don’t show work too early in your career, before it’s ready.”
After about half an hour of surveying the scene, I noticed how I gave each photographer’s work a second or two to catch my eye. When I interacted with photographers whose work did catch my attention, I noted how quickly I devolved into a system of giving each person about five seconds to hook me with his or her pitch before moving on.
With this in mind, it’s important to understand that presenting a heaping stack of images as singles or from a variety of projects looks like a mash-up and suggests that you’re indecisive. Don’t show too many pictures! A tight edit of 15 to 20 images from two distinct bodies of work should be more than sufficient and will best show what you’re good at and what you care about and will suggest that you’re decisive and your work is focused. (Pun intended.) Remember, it’s far better to have reviewers ask if you have more work they can see later than to have them walk away while you’re still shuffling through prints.
According to Phoenix-based photo-based artist Claire A. Warden, “Portfolio walk-throughs can help distill the language you use when discussing your work as well as help define your audience. The portfolio needs to be portable for spur-of-the-moment meetings but large enough to be representative of the exhibition size. For me, 16-by-20-inch prints were a perfect portfolio size. I also created some prints specifically for my portfolio box size that I could unfold to reveal a larger print.”
If you’re showing electronic media rather than prints, do your homework and have the movies or images stored on your laptop or tablet to show at a moment’s notice. Practice your show in advance, whether it’s a slide show, PDF portfolio or a movie. You must have the content set up properly on your electronic device in Preview, Keynote, Lightroom or Bridge. Do not be that person I finally walked away from as they were praying for the Wi-Fi to work.
Anna Garner, a master’s degree graduate from the University of Arizona, explains, “I’m a video artist, so I set up a laptop and an iPad to continually play multiple videos [instead of having prints spread out on the table]. I felt that having a slightly different setup drew people in to look, and having the work on loop engaged them to stay and watch. I also set out postcards with a video still and information about my work so people could take it with them.”
As Garner points out, handouts—ideally a promo card with images and links and a business card with full contact information—are essential to give to people you meet so they’ll remember you and you work. It’s well worth looking at the marketing materials that others use (and collecting those you’re drawn to) for future reference. Given the speed with which contacts now change, it’s advisable to include multiple points of contact— e-mail, phone, physical address, links to social media—to make it easy for contacts you meet to stay in touch.
PRACTICE YOUR PITCH
Portfolio walks are about more than just showing your work—of equal importance is what you say to passersby to quickly draw their attention. Yet in the live theater of a big, crowded space, there is little time for art-speak or a lengthy project statement. You need to boil things down into a one-sentence elevator pitch. If you don’t already have one, study the introductory pitches used by your peers, then create your own and practice it constantly. You have only an instant to make the right impression, so you must have a clear, succinct pitch, and it must be well practiced. In the heat of the event, by all means don’t project your personal anxieties or other background issues onto your audience.
University of North Texas master’s candidate Ellie Ivanova notes, “I prepared a one-minute (as well as a three-minute) talk about my work to present it in a succinct yet complete way. However, a really valuable way to use the occasion was to take cues from viewers’ [reactions] and their immediate questions to refine the talk in action. This ultimately [allowed me to better] understand the direction of my work. The inspiration I got from random people who commented or asked me about my work helped me see it in a different light,” she adds. “That gave me many new ideas on its further development.”
Acacia Johnson, a recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, builds on Ivanova’s advice, saying, “I think it’s important to let your enthusiasm shine, to engage with people and, most important, to narrow down your pitch to one sentence. There are hundreds of photographers in the room, and you want to be able to [explain your work] in the time it takes people to breeze past you.” Another helpful tip from Johnson is to come prepared with something to drink. “The one thing I wished I’d had [but didn’t] was some water to drink in between pitches.”
Accept the reality of the photography market’s highly competitive nature and understand that the fine art world is in fact a market in which self-promotion, relationship building, professional paperwork and the like are all part of the business. While being randomly discovered sounds nice, most successful photographers build their careers on hard work, networking and business skills.
No matter how chaotic things might get, avoid the temptation to stand around jabbering with your peers, with your back turned to your audience. I was stunned by the number of photographers who stood there blocking my view of their work and ignoring potential contacts/opportunities. As I walked, I was open to making eye contact, and I was surprised at how many people missed the opportunity to at least try to connect with me.
While novice reviewees might expect some magical instant when they and their work are discovered on the spot, it doesn’t often happen that way. The connections you make at a portfolio walk are just the start of potentially long-term relationships with curators, gallery owners, editors and other photo-industry professionals.
The first test of that relationship is whether you even follow up on contacts made. As most seasoned reviewers will attest, more than half the people they meet and interact with at these type of events will never even follow up on the initial encounter, let alone work to build the kind of long-term relationship that can lead to real career success.
“I met several people that night who offered to either help me show my work or just help me in making more work,” notes University of Georgia master’s candidate Anna Gay about the 2014 portfolio walk. “[But] next time, I’m bringing a better takeaway. I’d encourage people to bring something a little larger than a business card—a small brochure type takeaway with a few images and a brief artist statement would look amazing and really help you stand out.”
And, as Acacia Johnson sums up, “You never know when you’ll encounter someone whose feedback is worth its weight in gold. Not every reviewer will bestow you with some profound new insight, but the more portfolio walks and reviews you attend, the more you’ll increase your chances of that happening.”
So remember to do your homework, practice your pitch, refine your work, keep your expectations realistic and follow up on every contact you make. After all, every encounter at a portfolio walk offers an opportunity to learn something