Portfolio Review – A Debrief From Two Fine Art Photographers

When my fine art photography students have completed a body of work, I encourage them to attend a number of Portfolio Reviews, which provides new artists with a professional opinion of their theme from reviewers who know the current pulse of the fine art industry and from people who may become clients.

Of course you don’t want to attend a portfolio review until you have a specific expressive theme (not a collection of images) and fine art prints that present what is in your heart and on your mind with clarity and a professional finish. All my portfolio bound students do a practice review with me before they leave wherein we make a final image edit, review the questions they may encounter, practice their introductions and discussion points, and make sure that they have all the necessary personal promotion materials.

Recently I debriefed Kathy Curtis Cahill and Tom Lowe, who have completed portfolio reviews in Houston and Palm Springs, and I asked them to share their experiences. Their answers and comments provide valuable insight into how reviewers saw their work and how each of them decided what steps they should take next.

Kathy Cahill

Kathy provided her reviewers with work from her Night Echoes theme. She made her presentation with 17X20 prints. www.kathycurtiscahillfineartphotography.com

Curvature © Kathy Cahill
Curvature © Kathy Cahill

Q. With respect to Houston did you feel that you were prepared for the reviews and comments?

A. Yes, I feel you prepared me very well for Houston. I took it very seriously and it was a very intense review process.

Q. As your reviews progressed what did you change in your approach to the reviewers, if anything?

A. I talked more about my background and why I chose this subject matter, it gave them a bit of my history and a point of view when looking at the photos, which helped the work make more sense to them.

Q. What comments did you find most helpful?

A. There were several. One, try to be more inclusive of gender, explore lower economic areas, and shoot to broaden the range of the type of window displays. Two, some reviewers wanted to make my reason for photographing the windows more apparent, i.e. is it Fashion/social commentary, criticism, or a documentary. Everyone thought the pictures were well shot, so no technical criticism. That was encouraging.

Q. Was there a consensus about your theme? Was it understood?

No No No © Kathy Cahill
No No No © Kathy Cahill

A. It ranged from “There is no there, there”, to “I love this work and it is very timely.”  Most of the literate reviewers saw it as a work in progress, but there was no consensus on which images to build upon.

Q. Upon leaving the review, what was the net outcome of the experience?

A. No concrete offers— yet. One gallery rep suggested a book, one gallery owner was interested in showing it in her gallery, but I have not finalized these projects.

Q. You also did a review in Palm Springs. How would you define the differences between the two reviews?

A. I found fewer reviewers I wanted to see, as I am not a photographer for hire. I found the gallery and museum reviewers to be about the same in the depth of their commentary as in Houston. I did remove some photographs and added a few so that the portfolio no longer was just the Night Echoes show. I tried to add pictures that represented the comments I valued from Houston, which met with varying degrees of success.

I came away with an appointment from a well-known art coach who feels she can get the show placed and a noted reviewer felt a number of the images were collectible.

Q. What advice would you give to a fine art photographer who is planning to attend a portfolio review?

Cinderella © Kathy Cahill
Cinderella © Kathy Cahill

A. Be confident, practice your presentation, LISTEN, even if you don’t like what they are saying. It is hard to take notes and listen, so make notes as soon as you leave a reviewer, it helps with accurate recall. Take a significant other with you if you don’t know anybody there. It can help keep your spirits up to have someone who believes in you no matter what the reviewers are saying. Try to remember that everyone will have a slightly different take on your work, listen to what resonates with you and why you are shooting this subject matter. Take to heart the comments of the reviewers who SAW your work, and tried to give you serious feedback, and let the others go. Do your homework, research your reviewers and open with “I choose you because.” That helps them focus on what you want them to see in your work.

Tom Lowe

Tom Lowe provided his reviewers with work from Mojave Moonlight and his 50@50 project. He made his presentation with 17X20 prints. www.tomlowephoto.com

Tortoise © Tom Lowe
Tortoise © Tom Lowe

Q. With respect to the review did you feel that you were prepared for the reviewers and comments?

A. After our rehearsal meeting I rehearsed and adjusted the opening lines for about five days, and I grew more confident. I also found myself being able to step outside of the work, talk about it as a body of work with a voice I hadn’t discovered before.

On the first day of reviews, I leaned heavily on my success as an Artist in Residence to break the ice.  I felt that my print sales, self-published book along with a modest amount of publicity would put me in good light.  To my surprise, most of the reviewers wanted to see that work first.

Transitioning to the 50@50 portfolio was a little difficult. I leaned heavily on the intellectual side of this project and after looking at a series of night photography and only 10 minutes left to discuss my portraiture work, I realized all too late that 20 minutes goes by quickly.

Q. As your reviews progressed what did you change in your approach?

A. Thursday evening I regrouped and adjusted the presentation to weigh more heavily on the 50@50 project as an opening. It worked! I also stayed away from the intellectual discussions and let the reviewers discover the work for themselves. I spoke in broader terms about the work and not so specifically about each character within my frames, which allowed for a more open discussion.

Q. What comments did you find most helpful and why?

A. I have been working with overlays in Photoshop to give the prints a “peaking behind the scenes” feeling.  One reviewer said the effect really pulled her out of the portraits and made her look at them in a way that had her asking what had gone wrong technically. It is the first time I’ve heard that. She gravitated to and complimented me on the portraits with less of that effect, and said I should go in that direction to avoid being caught up in the effect instead of the portrait.

WWI Memorial © Tom Lowe
WWI Memorial © Tom Lowe

That comment made me question my approach and I really loved it. Funny thing is, I’ve been feeling a little bit the same about this issue and have begun to use a more subdued approach to the overlays. Her thoughts reminded me that art is very subjective and unless I, as the artist, am completely committed to the images, no one else will be either.

The same reviewer recommended that I pick an approach and stick with it such as the natural light portraits. During the captures for this project there have been several instances when I’ve been lucky enough to have beautiful natural light for my subjects, usually a soft bounce off a building or in the ambient softness in the shadows of morning. To me, these portraits are some of the stronger images in the series because I believe the subjects are less aware of the light. The comments from reviewers helped to confirm my belief.

Q. Was there a consensus about your theme? Was it understood?

A. My Mojave Moonlight project garnered great comments and support from every reviewer.  From the six reviews, I have three opportunities to move the project forward in new and exciting ways.

For the 50@50 project, I came away feeling that it needs adjustments. I do not need to reshoot but I am looking at reworking the post process, and presenting the theme’s voice with greater clarity. Is it about loss and roads not taken or is it more about old filmmakers still working in a digital age. I’m thinking it is the latter as it is more inspiring.

Q. Upon leaving the review what was the net outcome of the experience?

A. I was asked to submit Mojave Moonlight to one gallery for a possible show.  Another rep wants Mojave images for a large computer company as backgrounds for new software and I’ve been asked to submit large format images of Mojave Moonlight for consignment at a large gallery in Texas.  One reviewer of the 50@50 thought there would be interest in the images from New Yorker, Time, and others, as there is definitely an interest in Hollywood and new approaches to portraiture.

Q. How will this experience effect your future capture work; your post production?

A. Mojave Moonlight was a big hit and I will continue to pursue night photography as I enjoy its solitude and the “math” of exposure.  For environmental portraiture themes I’m using more natural light approaches (even if that light is from a strobe it should feel natural).  I’m looking at many of the images on my web site and now realize that my best work is with natural light. It is fascinating to learn something I’ve known all along!

Q. What would you do differently next time?

Dune Trails © Tom Lowe
Dune Trails © Tom Lowe

A. The biggest thing I took away from this experience is that I wished I’d had more time.  I didn’t get to really experience the conference because of my short stay.  I would’ve like to have met with other photographers and talked with some of the reviewers outside the confines of the review tables. When I go to another portfolio review, I will endeavor to carve out several days so I can truly immerse myself in the experience.

Q. What advice would you give to a fine art photographer who is planning to attend a portfolio review?

A. Make sure you have a coherent theme and then prepare, prepare, prepare. Your confidence in your work will speak volumes to the person sitting across the table from you.

Our thanks to Tom and Kathy for sharing and revealing their portfolio experience. 

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