Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Portfolio Review at Rencontres d'Arles Photo Festival

I just got back from showing my work at the Rencontres d'Arles portfolio review, and thought it'd be a good idea to share some advice and impressions from the whole experience. I'll also be doing a few write ups on the exhibits I especially liked, books recently published, and some photographers whose work was repeatedly recommended to me at the reviews.

For now, let's concentrate on the reviews themselves. I was definitely someone with some doubts about the effectiveness of these events, having read about and talked to photographers who had serious misgivings about the very idea of a portfolio review. I have to say that, in my case at least, these doubts were wholly dispelled. I think it's primarily a question of expectations, and of how much work you put in before you show up at the review.

First off, there are basically two kinds of reviewers, those that are looking for work to use in their respective venue (gallery, magazine, collection, ad agency), and those who are really only interested in giving critiques. This is as it should be, and what you as a photographer need to do in advance is figure out what you want to get out of the review process. If you feel confident with your work and are primarily interested in marketing, look for people who are there to find new work. If you're esentially still in need of good critiques, look for that type of reviewer.

It isn't always clear of course who's there for what purpose, but if you do a little research, you can narrow it down. It's true, I had a gallerist who I thought was there looking for new work turn out to be interested mostly in critiquing, but by and large, gallerists are interested in new work (even in today's economy). But it has to be the right fit. Take a look at what the gallery is showing and has shown recently, and make an honest assessment of how well it fits your type of work.

One good thing about the reviews at Arles is that you get to choose who you'll show your work to, and there's usually enough time to do some research before choosing. This isn't the case with all protfolio reviews, and the usefulness of such events is, I think, diminished if you can't choose your reviewers. One should keep in mind, however, that no matter how well you pick your reviewers, the whole process is still pretty much a roller coaster ride. Some people will love your work, some won't, and you just have to be ready for both. It is definitely an experience worth having if only because you'll very quickly get a sense of where your work fits in the big world of photography. You'll also get immediate, and pretty honest feedback from people who know what they're talking about. I made notes after each and every meeting, and have started to implement some of the suggestions I got already. But in the end, you have to figure out what it is that you can take from all those reactions to your work, and make sure it helps you go forward, not back.

The other very important point that needs making (obvious though it seems) is to make sure your work is ready to be shown. Do not show the early stages of a project you're not sure about, or haven't edited down to the very best images. Take your best work, period, and make sure you know why you made it. Also make sure it's presented in its best possible way. I brought along mounted contact prints, because my work looks best in that form. Other people brought laptops, huge prints, books of their work, inkjets, etc. The point is, make sure the way you show your work is the optimal way to show it. The only impression these reviewers will have is of what you actually bring, not of what you might have brought if you'd had the time.

Having chosen the right person to look at your work, and the right project to show them in its best presentation, you still have to tell them what it's about. Reviewers are as interested in listening to what you have to say as they are in looking at your work, so make sure you can say something useful and interesting about it. I'd actually recommend practicing this, by sitting down with a few people and walking them through why and how your photographs are worth looking at. The more you do it, the more comfortable you'll feel, and you might be surprised at how much you actually have to say about your work once you try it. Definitely do not wait until your first review to think about what to say.

Finally, the leave-behinds. To some extent, I think their importance is overstated. You should definitely have a business card with all your contact info and (ideally) a recognizable image from the project you'll be showing. A CD of your current work is also nice to leave behind, but if it's on your website already, it might be redundant. Some reviewers like to carry home stuff, some don't, so it's best to just ask. The most important leave-behind is the actual quality of your work, and how well it fits what the person in front of you is looking for. That's where I'd put most of my effort.

So that's it, for now. If you're thinking of going to one of these things, I hope my comments are of some use to you in getting ready. If you think reviews are a waste of time, they're not. People are getting anything from a good basic critique of their work to gallery representation at these events, so it's basically up to you to make the most of them. Do get in touch with me if you have questions or comments, and stay tuned for more on the Arles festival.