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When is the Time Right for a Portfolio Review?

If you read my previous post “An Introduction to Portfolio Reviews”, you no doubt noticed a few references to the fact that the significance investment of time, energy, and money that it takes to do a portfolio review event is only likely to pay off if you are genuinely ready for it. The obvious questions then become: how do you know when you’re ready and if you’re not, what can you do to get ready?

Feeling like you are ready can vary from person to person. Some people have the resources and confidence to take a chance fairly early on and some want to wait until they are reasonably certain the investment will be worth it. My advice is based on my own experience, which is on the conservative side. Historically, I have waited until I felt very confident in my work and was willing to put it out there for critical feedback without the fear of feeling foolish. Also, reviewers can sometimes get irritated when they have to meet with someone who is obviously not ready; remember that they are usually volunteering their time and are looking for strong work to champion. So for me, this has meant that I’ve usually waited until I felt the work was finished, while still being open to hearing feedback on what I could tweak.

In reading this far, you may already understand that you are not yet ready to participate in a formal review event and are wondering how to get yourself there. As an educator, the most obvious option I can think of is taking classes. Community college classes are usually very affordable and can offer some great feedback and guidance, especially once you get past the intro classes. 

Another option is joining a camera club in your area. These groups are typically comprised of amateurs dedicated to their craft and the latest gear, but are usually still at the level where they are emulating others. They typically have competitions that are juried, sometimes with numerical scores only, but sometimes with actual live critique. Members often help and encourage each other and they sometimes do group shoots. In my experience judging for these clubs, there is a danger to them, however, in that members seem to have a hard time getting beyond the emulation phase and in to more unique and personal work. But if you are mindful of avoiding this trap, it is a great place to get feedback, especially in the beginning of your journey.

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Courtesy of Photolucida

If you are already beyond the camera club level, I highly recommend joining or starting an artists’ collective/cooperative or peer critique group. These can be harder to find, as they are usually fairly small and intimate (by design), so you would likely only be able to join an already-existing group by invitation. Starting one of your own is a great option, in that case. You can begin fairly informally, by simply inviting a few local artists that you admire to join you periodically to share work and feedback. If you get the right group of people together, these groups can be very rewarding and you can really help each other get to a place where you have a completed body of work that you feel is ready to take to a portfolio review event.

You may be wondering how to know when a project is “completed.” This goes beyond the question of quantity. It is true that, traditionally, a body of work contains about 20 prints, but in order for a body of work to be finished, you should have a considerable amount of time and effort invested in the work. This is not typically something you can create in a weekend, a week, or even a few months. Most photographers invest years in a body of work before they really feel that it is finished. Reviewers may actually ask you how long you’ve been working on the project, especially if they sense that there is a lack of depth. With that said, time does not always equal quality, either; it also takes a commitment to create work that is passionately yours. Photographers at the beginning of their creative journey often emulate other photographers who they admire. That’s normal, but reviewers are looking for work that goes beyond imitation—work that is uniquely and confidently yours—and that usually takes more than time; it takes soul-searching and vulnerability, dedication and grit.

It is also very important to take the time to know how your work fits into the contemporary world of fine art photography, not to mention how it relates to ideas from the history of photography. If you feel a bit lost in either of these areas, I highly recommend either taking a course or reading up on the subjects. There’s not much more embarrassing than realizing you should know a reference and either having to admit you don’t, or worse, trying to fake your way through pretending that you do. I highly recommend starting with two excellent, affordable, and fascinating books: for the history of photography, Juliette Hacking’s Photography: The Whole Story and for the contemporary world of fine art photography, Charlotte Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art.

Even though a reviewer may not read your artist statement during a review, the discipline of

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Courtesy of Photolucida

writing a carefully crafted statement will help you speak more intelligently about your work, so definitely invest the time and energy to write that statement. If you need some help with this, I highly recommend Jennifer Schwartz’s  Crusade for Your Art: Best Practices for Fine Art Photographers, which includes a section on artist statements, as well as lots of other practical advice.

 Some people bring multiple bodies of work in case they sense that a reviewer is uninterested in the primary work or if they think that a particular reviewer would be interested in one body of work over another. Given that each review is only 20 minutes, it is best to only concentrate on one body of work per review, but bringing other strong projects is smart, whenever possible.

I should mention that last month, for the first time, I brought a body of work to a portfolio review event that I knew wasn’t yet finished. I showed my latest body of work, Allegiance, to the reviewers at the Medium Festival of Photography’s Eye to Eye Portfolio Review event, even though I’d only been working on it for about a year. The trick was that I knew what I had so far was strong and I had enough confidence in past work (and in my ability to “perform” during reviews), that I was willing to put the work-in-progress out for critical feedback much earlier in the creative process than I would have in the past. The reason for doing this is that the work was new enough that I could still make major changes if the experts that I met with felt that the project merited it. And because I was working in a medium (video) that was new to me, I also knew that I was willing to totally give it up if enough of the reviewers told me to stick to still photography. Instead of major changes, however, what I got was very positive feedback and the encouragement that I am on the right track. It was a great experience, but not something I could have done earlier in my creative journey.

Once you have decided you are ready to participate in a portfolio review event, you’ll want to sign yourself up for one. Lenscratch lists several dozen portfolio reviews around the world: Typically enrollment happens months before the actual event, so you’ll have some time to refine the work and practice your presentation.

In the third and final post in this series, I’ll talk about how to prepare for the reviews themselves, so look for that soon!

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.