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The Day of Your Portfolio Review

If you have signed yourself up for a review event, congratulations! Now it's time to polish and perfect the work you will bring and get ready to present it at the reviews. The information below is meant to walk you through the experience so you will know what to expect and be as well prepared as possible.

Traditionally, a body of work contains about 20 prints. If you are working on a larger project, such as a book, you may have many more than that, but the typical portfolio presented for a review will have a cohesive set of 16-20 expertly printed images, tightly edited and sequenced. Only show your very best work and pay very close attention to cohesion, while avoiding repetition. When sequencing, start with your strongest image and pay attention to how each image in the series "talks" to the one before and after.

Reviewers of art (as opposed to commercial, editorial, or photojournalistic) photography want to examine your prints closely; they do not want to look at them in plastic sleeves. Loose prints—unmatted—in a clamshell box are standard presentation for a review. Spend the time and money to perfect your prints so they are the same quality you would exhibit and sell. Don't bring editioned work because it will get handled and potentially dinged up. If your work is very large, you may bring a sample at the size you intend (rolled up in a tube), but the prints for the review should be reasonably sized—typically between 11x14" and 20x24". In short, the work should be impressive in its presentation, but still easy to carry and easy to show. You don't want to waste time out of your 20 minutes fumbling with your presentation.

Prepare your "leave-behind" promotional materials—something to help a reviewer remember you and your work. At a minimum, a business card or postcard containing a representative image and all your contact information is fine, but think about other ways to make an impression and help reviewers keep you in mind without burdening them with bulky items. One of my favorite leave-behinds is a digest-sized booklet of the series I am having reviewed, as it neatly incorporates all the images presented, in sequence and in a small package.

If the review event allows you to submit your preferences for reviewers, you will want to read their bios and research each one. Avoid the trap of going only for the big-name reviewers or institutions and think about what makes sense for your work. Once you receive your schedule of reviewers, do more thorough research on each one and prepare specific open-ended questions for each reviewer. For example, to take best advantage of a reviewer's known area of expertise, you might ask for specific feedback on photographic technique, printing, sequencing, editing, your artist statement, potential audiences for your work, etc.

This research can help in other ways. For a great first impression, start the review with a quick introduction and include a genuine compliment that shows that you've done your research, such as "Hello Aline, my name is Amanda Dahlgren and I'm from San Diego. Thank you for the tireless efforts you make at Lenscratch to feature such inspirational work." Then introduce your work with a concise and well-practiced description.

Stewart 150424 5DM33220There is a rhythm and unspoken pattern to portfolio reviews that can take a while to get the hang of. Generally, reviewers want you to introduce your work succinctly and enthusiastically but they do not want you to talk too much. Be clear in communicating what you are looking for from the reviewer—making sure it is realistic—and then let him or her lead the discussion. 

Be sure to allow time for the reviewer to contemplate your images (don't be afraid of silence) and to talk to you about your work. I cannot stress this enough, as some of us can start babbling when we get nervous. Reviewers typically want some context about the work, but they definitely don't want you to explain things they can see for themselves. In general, you want to present as confident and positive, but not arrogant, and definitely not defensive or prone to making excuses.

Twenty minutes will fly by. Stick to the time limit and definitely don't linger when the next reviewee is standing there waiting to start his or her meeting. Leave time at the end of each meeting to ask concluding questions, such as: if they would like your leave-behind; if you may have their business card; if you may add them to your mailing list; and if the discussion included talk of a potential opportunity, how and when they would like you to follow-up.

Professionalism and courtesy go a long way. This applies not just to your interaction with the reviewers but with the event staff and fellow reviewees. There may be glitches that give you every right to be annoyed, but remember that this is a small world and that kindness and compassion will not only earn you good karma points, but may pay off in tangible ways, such as a staff member remembering you when there is an opportunity to pick up extra (free) review slots.

I often have a difficult time remembering what each reviewer said, especially if I have reviews scheduled back-to-back. I used to take notes, but I found that it made it more difficult for me to interact during the review. Instead, I started using my phone to record each review. If you do this, be sure to receive permission to record the session from the reviewer before you start. 

Plan your time between review sessions; there can be a lot of downtime for reviewees. It's great time for re-energizing, networking, or simply being quiet and gathering yourself before the next review.

Once the reviews are over, make sure to follow up on any opportunities or connections that were made, including with other reviewees. And be sure to send a personalized thank you note or email to each of your reviewers. If a reviewer agreed to be on your mailing list, keep in contact with him or her, but don't be a spammer. Give yourself time to absorb what you've heard, chewed on, learned... and then observe how your work changes and matures as a result.

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.