Let's Talk about Portfolio Reviews

We’ve just added a comments feature to our blog, thanks to our dedicated and tireless web designer. So go ahead and tell us what you’ve wanted to say about any of our previous posts – the new feature is retroactive to all posts.

We hope that adding comments will help this blog better serve artists by being a place where we can share ideas. To get the ball rolling, I’d like to talk a little about portfolio reviews. I just got back from Review Santa Fe, a fantastic event that brought together over 100 photographers with curators, publishers, and art administrators. There was some quality work there, including Jody Ake‘s amazingly rich ambrotype portraits (yes, he really does bring the actual plates to portfolio review events as well as prints made from them). Former Light Work Artist-in-Residence Chad States got a lot of attention for his Cruising series, which many people were talking about. It’s a real testament to the organizers, Center, that the event still felt really intimate even with so many people involved.

The Santa Fe reviews are 20 minutes long per person, which is pretty standard for such events. I’ve heard this format compared to speed dating, and that is really no joke. As a reviewer, within 20 minutes time you have to get a sense of who the photographers is and what they want to accomplish, gauge whether that is actually happening in the photographs, and then communicate that feedback in a way that is constructive and helpful. Meanwhile, the reviewer is trying to show enough of the work and tell enough of the story to provide context while also attempting to get specific questions answered. Whew.

To maximize the opportunities afforded in these types of reviews, a good dynamic has to develop pretty quickly. In the comments, post your stories of portfolio review victories, plus any tips you have on what works and what doesn’t work both as a reviewer and a reviewee. I’ll post my own tips farther down in the comments. —Mary Goodwin, Associate Director

Image: Jody Ake

6 replies
  1. onethousandwords says:

    Honestly, the best practice I got at portfolio reviews was just doing them over and over again at SPE conferences when I was an undergrad and then a grad student. SPE has regional conferences that make it possible to practice your review game closer to home before you take it to the big leagues at the national conferences.

  2. Amber Shields says:

    Review Santa Fe was an amazing weekend brimming with all aspects of photography. If you like to eat, sleep, and breathe photography (which I do) then you would love Review Santa Fe. I am still digesting everything I experienced over the weekend but overall, the Review was most helpful in that it gave me the opportunity to show a very personal project to a large group of educated people for critical review. It was valuable to see how reviewers, fellow photographers and the public during the public viewing night reacted to different images. And to receive advice from the reviewers on what direction to take the project to reach the most people or how to realize the final form of the project, i.e. exhibition or book form. I left the Review with a new viewpoint and energy about my project.

  3. Javier Chavarria says:

    Review Santa Fe was a great experience for me. I had the opportunity to show my work to an excellent group of reviewers and received useful feedback. Meeting other photographers participating at the review was one of the highlights of my trip to Santa Fe. Everyone I met was easy going and so excited to share ideas and portfolios. I am definitely more enthusiastic about continuing my work.

  4. Sharon Lee Hart says:

    This was my first experience at portfolio review and I found it to be an overwhelming, but positive experience. My 9 reviewers were a diverse bunch (book publishers, photo editors, museum curators, etc), Each person looked at my work differently, and through the lens of their area of expertise. This was extremely helpful, as I want to pursue multiple avenues with my project and the wide variety of feedback helped me consider my work in ways I had not previously.

    Everyone kept referring to the reviews as “speed dating” and I now completely get the reference. I have a new understanding of just how quickly 20 minutes can fly by. Knowing that, I would have edited down my 30 prints to around 20. I also would have written down my top 3 questions for each reviewer. This would leave room for a natural conversation, but also help me stay focused.

    One of the most helpful things I did was to create a little “Review Santa Fe” notebook. A pretty simple way to organize thoughts and feedback. I made a page with each reviewers name and bio, and after we met I found a quiet corner to sit down in and write about our 20-minute meeting. I also taped each reviewers business card into the book. This gave me some much-needed quiet time between reviews and also is enabling me to go back through and read and reflect on the feedback.

    Last tip: If you drive (like I did) and have 18 hours in the car, get the most fascinating, lengthy audio book you can. I started getting antsy half way through my trip in Oklahoma and my wonderful audio book saved me!

  5. Michael Sebastian says:

    This was my second portfolio review, and it was a great experience for many of the reasons that my fellow reviewees have already mentioned here.

    I found my reviewers to be forthcoming and engaged, and for the most part pretty specific in their feedback. On my part, I could have done better by more clearly enunciating what I hoped to learn at each review.

    Terrific review. I hope I have the chance someday to return.

  6. Jason Reblando says:

    I enthusiastically agree with everyone’s comments. I enjoyed meeting the reviewers, and I think many would agree that it was great seeing other talented photographers’ projects. I thought the portfolio walk-through was very valuable, as I got a chance to have various informal conversations with reviewers that I wasn’t able to squeeze into the assigned nine. Because there is so much feedback from so many people – and often not much time in between reviews – I found it helpful to make a little contact sheet of my edit for each reviewer that I met with and then circled the images to which they responded as a quick visual reference. It also serves as my notetaking packet.

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