I’ve always believed in the value of showing your photography to other people, particularly other photographers, but have had some doubts about ‘portfolio reviews’.
Most of these doubts are about how these events aid in the institutionalisation of photography and how they serve to legitimize and cement the control of the medium by a relatively small group of curators, editors and other controllers of taste who are the reviewers at such events. I’ve always been an outsider, and indeed have relished being an outsider, and a believer in photographers as being the most important people in our medium, and those most qualified to comment on photography and to shape its future direction. Of course curators and editors and critics have their place, but to me they are the tail and shouldn’t be wagging the dog.
I’ve never felt a need to take my own work to one of these events as a photographer, though I don’t doubt that I might get some useful advice – as I have done in the past when I’ve shown my work to other photographers – and on one or two occasions to curators. I’ve taken part in (and helped organise) events where photographers show their work to other photographers on a fairly large scale, and found them of some interest, but it has been the largely less formal and more long-term associations with a few other photographers that have for me been more productive.
The only review I’ve taken part in as a reviewer was an interesting and enjoyable experience – and also a great way of getting to know a large number of people in the wider photographic world, perhaps more about networking than about photography. I think at least some of those who showed me work will have gained a little insight from my views (and some still greet me in a friendly manner!) But reviewing the work of living photographers whether in print/web or in person is often somewhat fraught.
Of course the two things are rather different, and in person as well as trying to understand and appreciate the work perhaps my main preoccupation was in exploring the differences in how the photographer and I as a viewer see the work and in suggesting possibilities for further development and exploitation. In writing reviews there is a greater need for evaluation and communication with the readers rather than the photographer. Usually photographers have appreciated what I’ve written but I’ve had just a few angry emails and phone calls over the years. It’s safer reviewing the dead!
The New York Times Portfolio Review stands out from the others for several reasons. As Jonathan Blaustein writes in APhotoEditor,
“it is free, which is rare. It’s announced via a Lens blog post, and then the photographers are selected from applicants all over the world. Even the application process is free, so you might consider applying next year.”
In this, the first of two posts about the review he shows the work of half of those he saw over the two days of the event, of whom he states “all of them had a voice, and showed me at least one picture I found worth publishing here.”
I can’t say I react positively to every picture that he has selected, but there is plenty to look at here and on the web sites of the photographers he features – worth following most of all of his links in the piece. I look forward to seeing the second part of this post and the work in it.
The fact that this review is free is I’m sure important, and the reason for the overall high quality of the work. It’s perhaps more a matter of attitude than actuality, for many of the photographers will have travelled long distances and have high hotel and other bills to bring their work to New York for the event. But it does mean that the work will already have been carefully selected for the review, while some other such events are open to anyone who signs up and pays while places are still available.