Lessons From Sitting in the Reviewer’s Chair for the First Time

©Andrew Benson

I view portfolio reviews and photography competitions with a heavy dose of skepticism. I think there needs to be more dialogue about portfolio reviews and the“the photography-competition-portfolio-review-exposure-complex” in general. There are a handful out there that are top notch, and incredibly valuable but there are more that really are nothing more than money making schemes.

So, needless to say I was a bit apprehensive when I was invited to sit as a reviewer at the ASMP fine art portfolio review. “Oh man, I’ve said some fairly critical things about portfolio reviews in the past. This would make me a hypocrite.”

I thought about it for a day but eventually didn’t really see any reason why I shouldn’t attend. Why? Well, it’s free for members for one thing. Also, let’s not beat around the bush, it’s good exposure for LPV. It helps me gain more visibility for what we’re doing. That’s important because I believe in the work we’re featuring and want to do what I can to share it with people who will appreciate it.

If it were a review where photographers paid a fee, the decision would have been more difficult. Or I should say, it would have been more difficult before my experience on Tuesday.

Going into the review I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was confident in my ability to talk about photography but also knew my weaknesses: need to learn more about the history of the medium; need to learn more about the fine art and commercial photography market; need to better understand the historical role photography has played in the media; need to view many more books; need to read Barthes, Sontag, Badger, etc., etc.

Despite those weaknesses, I was still confident I could look at a set of photographs and offer some honest feedback. I think most anyone whose spent time looking at enough photography could as well.

I wasn’t sure what type of work I’d be looking at or how many people would even have a clue about what LPV was all about. Given the exceptional list of fellow reviewers I was expecting I might just spend a few hours messing around on Twitter.

I arrived at Calumet and had a glass of wine. There were several familiar faces. I chatted with Julie Grahame of aCurator (which should be on everyone’s reading list) and Stella Kramer who somehow manages to be at every photography event in New York City. I don’t know how she does it!

©Tommy Forbes

Talking About Photographs

I took my seat and sipped on some water as the instructions were announced. Then it was time. Each review would be ten minutes. The first person to sit in front of me was actually a familiar face, which made for a very pleasant start to the evening. I don’t know the protocol on these things so I’m not going to name any names just to be on the safe side (even though I doubt most people would mind the promotion!).

I generally started each review with a few questions: how long have you been working on the project? What’s your goal? A book? A show? What are you struggling with right now?

As they answered I’d flip through the prints and then share my thoughts, which would vary from project to project as one would expect. There were some projects where the conversation flowed nicely, while others I really struggled to find anything meaningful to say. A few times I thought: “They definitely think this idiot has no idea what he’s talking about.”

And that was probably true. As I highlighted above, there are some areas where I still have much to learn

As the night progressed, an internal dialogue developed in my mind about the importance of being able to talk about photographs. Man, it’s important. You need to be able to articulate why a body of work resonates with you. It’s also important to sharpen your critical skills so you can figure out exactly why some photography doesn’t resonate with you.

This is hard. Really hard. But also really important.

This got me to thinking about how I present photography on LPV. More often than not I simply show the work without much commentary. I think is fine for the most part, but I’m also going to start writing more about some of the work I’m featuring. This is going to come in the form of book reviews, perhaps talking single images, and also bodies of work. It’s important, and something I want to work on.

Photographers Want Feedback

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from the review was that photographers really want and appreciate feedback on their work. Seems obvious, right? My cynicism probably got the best of me when I assumed that most people were simply trying to promote their work and show it to the right people.

After a few hours of discussing projects I left realizing that there are many photographers out there that simply want to produce the best work possible and fully realize their vision. This is something I should know because that’s how I feel about my personal work.

The biggest rush I get is when I’m able to talk with passionate photographers about their projects. That type of collaborative energy is a beautiful thing.

It was a great experience. I met some incredibly talented and inspiring photographers, and learned a few things along the way. Thanks ASMP!

  • http://www.hazelberger.com/ Hazel Berger

    In October, I participated in my first portfolio review in Atlanta at Atlanta Celebrates Photography. This past week, the executive director for Atlanta Photography Group asked me if I had been to another review since then. I honestly said, “No, I am still working through all the comments and suggestions I received at ACP.” I was at the – I’ve collected a nice body of work… now what? stage. Three reviewers had many suggestions; two others thought I needed to push myself to add something more to my images. I saw all the comments as valuable. Hats off to you, Bryan,  for reviewing work. Perhaps you will join us in Atlanta in the future.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.lampell Michael Lampell

    I usually try not to comment too much, because when I do it is usually too off the point and abstract or there’s nothing to add to what’s already been said.
    BUT communication and conversation are really important to learning anything, as much as studying from books, museums, etc.

    We are alive. Our photographs are not but they are “worth a thousand words”. Learning to articulate they’re meanings through conversation is a good way to wrangle all those unsaid words and understand better our own work.

    “Why’d you take that picture?”

    Thank you Bryan for sharing your experience so candidly.  It has helped me remember open my eyes a little wider through using my mouth.

  • Brad Hamilton

    Thanks for being there, Bryan. So true about developing a vocabulary to talk about one’s work (and the work of others). Something the ASMP review reminded me of as well. I look forward to more insights from LPV.