FOTOFEST 2014: A Photographer’s Perspective

For those who don't know what Fotofest is, it is a month long “celebration” of photography in Houston, Texas. Photographers from all over the world come to have their portfolio reviewed by a veritable "who's-who" in the contemporary photo art world. There are exhibitions and studio visits too. Some people claim to have been “discovered" at these sessions. I don't doubt it for a minute, but a more accurate description is a lot of people are “introduced” at Fotofest. At least that is the case for me. I met some very nice people and started relationships that will make life more interesting, if nothing else. If the purpose of my photography is to get out of my house and meet people I would have never met, then mission accomplished.

Live Through This , Platinum/Palladium, Ron Cowie

Live Through This, Platinum/Palladium, Ron Cowie

I kept reminding myself what my friend Jessica said, "You don't know who you're supposed to meet or who is supposed to meet you." That made it easier to show up and share enthusiasm for what I do. The guidance and help each reviewer gave was just gravy.

Some things I learned or had confirmed about portfolio reviews: the reviewers are human too. They like what they like, perhaps their personal or professional lives are a mess, and maybe they have been stripped of all power to promote or buy your work outside of the session.  In short: they are putting on a show too. There are no king or queen makers walking the halls of the Doubletree Hilton in downtown Houston. I also was reminded that photographers can’t expect their work to do the talking for them. I have to be a part of this deal also. I had to explain what I wanted, why I do what I do and how I do it. I’ve made peace with the fact that it always sounds better in my head. Keeping low expectations for each 20-minute session was helpful. Going in with nothing to lose gave me the opportunity to learn.

I didn’t base the success of the sessions based on using up the whole time. I introduced myself, showed the work, listened to their response, answered questions and exchanged cards. I’m a fan of the pithy portfolio review. The reviewers are all pretty sharp so getting what I need after fifteen minutes and leaving isn’t a bad sign.

Sometimes the review was more about the reviewer than it was about me. In those sessions, I learned what they liked or didn’t like in general and it was left to me to see where my images fit into that. I don't consider my sessions with these reviewers wasted time. Sometimes it is good to learn a little more about people I hope to engage.

Where There Is No Boat, I Will Put a Boat , Platinum/Palladium, Ron Cowie

Where There Is No Boat, I Will Put a Boat, Platinum/Palladium, Ron Cowie

Portfolio reviews are helpful up to a point. You won't have the chance to show your work to a more sophisticated audience face to face any other way. On the other side, they are expensive. There is a tremendous investment above and beyond the production of work made by photographers to attend these reviews. There are lots of opportunities for photographers to "invest" in their future with little or no return to be expected. Perceived exclusivity is a real selling point to these reviews. The idea that attendance at these events will get you closer to your goal of being "known" in the art world is sold pretty hard and often.

A more helpful and healthy attitude would be that attending these reviews is a great opportunity to establish relationships with people who love photography as much as you do. When I went in to every 20-minute session with the idea that the reviewer was just as curious as I was about photography it brought my agenda and expectations to their right size. I plan to maintain the relationships I started here. Making time to personally keep in touch with about 18 people in the photo world is a much better investment of my finite resources.  I can’t control the outcomes of that correspondence, however, I know everyone likes to be appreciated. Instead of thinking what I can get from the relationships at Fotofest, it’s better for me see what I can put into a relationship. Collectors, curators, and gallery owners need love too!

Ron Cowie is a Rhode Island based commercial and fine art photographer. His blog, A Working Artist details his current projects and insights into the business of making a living through images.