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An Introduction to Portfolio Reviews

There came a time in my creative journey when I started to want—and really need—critical feedback and unfortunately, the weekly critiques of graduate school were long behind me. Showing my work to friends, family members, and other artists was very affirming, but I found that, ultimately, it wasn’t very helpful when it came to refining and improving my work.

I had heard stories of people cold-calling gallerists and setting up appointments to show their work, but that felt extremely intimidating. Then I learned about portfolio review events, the most systemized way to get critical feedback from experts in the field of contemporary photography such as curators, gallerists, editors, and publishers.

Since that time, I have participated in quite a number of the events and, for me, each time has been a wonderful kick in the pants. From the motivation of a deadline to get my work ready, through the intensity of participating in the reviews themselves, to the reflection afterward when I sort through how to incorporate the feedback I received (and which to ignore), the entire process is exhilarating and very rewarding.

Stewart 150423 5DM33062
Courtesy of Photolucida

If you find yourself with a similar need for critical feedback, then I highly recommend that you research portfolio review events to see if the process would be the right choice for you. In this post, I’ll give you a head start by explaining what portfolio reviews are so you’ll have an idea of what you can expect.

First, let’s define exactly what we’re talking about. A review event is often part of a photography festival or conference which typically brings people together at a specific place and time every year. If you decide to participate in the review part of the festival or conference, you’ll have a number of individual portfolio reviews over the course of the event, anything from a few in one day to about 20 in a week, depending on the event.

Each review is a 20-minute, one-on-one meeting where you sit across the table from a reviewer, showing your photographic prints while the reviewer offers expert feedback. The entire event is often very systemized. For example, months before the event, you will be offered a list of reviewers to choose from and you’ll send back your preferences. Then weeks before you will be sent a schedule with names of reviewers and the days and times you will be meeting with each of them. And finally, on the days of the reviews themselves, there will be staff members helping you find each of your reviewers in a room full of tables and helping keep each meeting to the 20-minute time frame.

Sometimes portfolio reviews are free, such as those offered to award winners in PhotoPlace Gallery exhibitions, but the vast majority of the time—especially when we are talking about these large events—there is a cost associated with being reviewed. While reviewers might get comped event registration or even travel stipends, they are generally not paid for their work. They do it because they want to give back to the community and because they are genuinely interested in seeing what artists are doing. A reviewer might hope to find work to show at their home institution, an artist to represent at their gallery, or a book project to publish. The money you pay for reviews goes to the significant costs associated with running the event, and if you are genuinely ready, will generally be a great investment.

If you’ve never done portfolio reviews, you may be wondering whether the experience is worth the considerable investment of

Stewart 150423 5DM33017Courtesy of Photolucida

time, energy, and money. I would say that if you and your work are ready (getting ready is the topic of the next blog), it absolutely is! At the very least, you can expect thoughtful feedback on your work during each review from someone who is used to looking very quickly, but expertly, at photography. Depending on who you are meeting with, you may ask for specific feedback on photographic technique, printing, sequencing, editing, artist statements, potential audiences for your work, etc.

A review can also start a relationship in which an opportunity—or introduction to someone else with an opportunity—may come to fruition in the future, especially if you are skillful about adding the reviewer to your mailing list (ask first!) and following up. Although more rare, you may even be offered a tangible opportunity during a review, such as an exhibition, artist residency, gallery representation, a write-up in an article, an opportunity to have your work published, etc.

Some portfolio review events are juried, such as CENTER’s Review Santa Fe (which happens in the Fall in Santa Fe), or “vetted” like Photolucida (Spring, Portland), but many events are open to anyone on a first come, first served basis. Non-juried portfolio review events include those at the Medium Festival of Photography (Fall, San Diego), Filter Photo Festival (Fall, Chicago)  PhotoNOLA (Winter, New Orleans), and FotoFest (biennially, Spring, Houston).

For a list of many portfolio review events, check this resource by Aline Smithson at Lenscratch:

As a reviewee, your day for you may mean meeting with 6 reviewers, but the reviewers are each typically meeting with closer to 20 reviewees. And while it feels like they have the “upper hand” in each review, most of them work very hard to make sure you get what you paid for. 

Don’t miss my next post, in which I’ll talk about what to consider when deciding if you are ready to invest in a portfolio review event and a third post, in which I will offer advice on how to prepare for the reviews themselves.

Amanda Dahlgren is a San Diego-based photographic artist whose work opens dialogues about the way we live as a society and what we choose to value. She is currently an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Grossmont College, a Gallery Educator at San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts, Lead Producer for OpenShow San Diego, Contributing Writer for Lenscratch, and Chairperson for the West Chapter of the Society for Photographic Education.