This past year I have had the privilege of reviewing portfolios at Filter Photo in Chicago and Photolucida in Portland, Oregon. While there are many articles that provide advice for photographers (reviewees) on how to present their work, there are few resources for the people conducting the review (reviewers). At both events, I asked several people on both sides of the review table to offer some advice on how to be a good portfolio reviewer. The following suggestions are complied from reviewers and reviewees who have participated in portfolio reviews in the past 12 months.
Provide Reviewees with a Helpful Bio
While your credentials and credits as a photographer are interesting, your professional experience and employment history are much more useful. Even more relevant are the genres of work that excite you or those that might best be presented to other reviewers. Most useful are comments about how you approach looking at work and your strengths as a reviewer.
Begin the Conversation
Don’t expect all photographers to sit down at the table and launch into a speech. Offering an access road into the discussion can be helpful to reviewees. Try asking straightforward questions about what they are showing—knowing how many bodies of work and how many prints in each will help you gauge how long to spend on each image, finding out how long they have been doing each body of work will help you to understand their artistic process, and knowing whether the series is finished or ongoing will ensure that you aren’t reviewing completed work as though it were in progress or vice versa. All of these questions are useful but nonthreatening and give both reviewer and photographer time to adjust to each other and establish a rapport.
Allow Reviewees to Record the Session
Some photographers like to record their review session. While you might feel strange having your off-the-cuff comments on tape, the recordings can free the reviewee from the distraction of taking detailed notes. It also allows them to better understand the dynamics of the overall review and adjust their approach at subsequent events.
Do Not Make Promises at the Table
Most reviewees know there are only so many shows to be had, gallery slots to be filled, reviews to be written. Connecting with a photographer whose work you enjoy can be exciting, and that excitement combined with the pressure to be helpful might create temptation to offer a book deal, publication, or exhibition during the review. But back home after the dust settles, you may feel differently about the work or need to adjust the timeline. If you are still excited to make the offer once you are home, then by all means do so, but committing at the table may create problems both for the photographer who thinks he or she has gained an opportunity and for the other artists, with whom they will surely share the news.
Concomitantly, commitments to multiple artists beyond what could be actually be fulfilled calls the reviewer’s intentions into question and damages his or her credibly.
Explain Your Critical Thinking
Twenty minutes isn’t a lot of time to devote to a body of work, but it is enough time to know if there is an interest in exploring it more in depth. If you are not interested in the work, or if you are but do not think it fits with your organization, explain your thinking to the reviewee. Taking the time to explain how your organization functions and why that photographer’s work doesn’t make sense for it allows them to learn more about your industry without perpetuating false hope.
Do Not Throw Out a Bunch of Names for Referrals
Even if you think that a colleague would be interested in a photographer’s work, don’t hand out a name or contact information without speaking to them first. If your colleague isn’t interested, or doesn’t have an opportunity for the photographer, then they become the bearer of bad news. Instead, drop them a line after the review and allow them to take it from there.
Be Honest About Accepting Elaborate Leave Behinds
In the last few years, the “leave-behind” has gone from being a well-printed business card to a professionally designed set of postcards, packages, books, and even original artwork. If a reviewee offers a lovely yet cumbersome leave-behind, and you don’t think that you can travel with it, or feel uncomfortable accepting an elaborate gift, politely explain the situation and don’t just throw it away in the hotel room. These take time to make and should be respected.
If you are interested in following a photographer’s progress, before they leave the table let them know the best way to keep in touch and how often; email or snail mail, newsletter or postcards. Most will send you a note immediately after the event thanking you for the review. Most will spend more time than you think trying to come up with the perfect wording. If at all possible, make the effort to respond, even if it is just to say “it was nice to have met you too and best of luck.” If you have decided that you really do want to offer a show or some other opportunity, this is a good time to give them the good news.