My First Photography Portfolio Review
Many of you know that I traveled down to the Southeast Center for Photography (sec4p) in Greenville, SC early in August because I had a photograph on display there as part of the Forsaken Exhibition. This is my last post devoted to the events that occurred on this trip and the lessons I learned from my experiences.
If you read the post I wrote before heading out to Greenville (Holy Crap! I have a Portfolio Review!), you know that my portfolio review with Michael Pannier, owner/director of the sec4p, was the main reason I decided to make the trip to the opening reception. You also know that I was pretty nervous about how my work would be received. So, I’m using this post to describe the review and to share some tips and lessons learned. Hopefully, these insights are helpful to some of you facing your first photography portfolio review.
Why have a Photography Portfolio Review?
Although I was worried about my first review, I was also hopeful. Specifically, I had hoped to get an objective perspective on my projects from an experienced and knowledgeable reviewer. The primary reason one gets a portfolio review is to grow as an artist. In situations where the review is conducted by a gallery owner or director, there is also the secondary hope, of course, that the review will result in opportunities to exhibit more of your work.
Finally, my review also gave me some insight into how my recent work relates to some of the current directions and tastes in the world of fine art photography. It moved me closer to answering questions, like: How does my work fit in? Am I on the right track? Where am I possibly missing the mark? and How much do I care about these things?
I was very lucky to get a free and private portfolio review with Michael Pannier that lasted about 80 minutes. I know how unusual this experience is as portfolio reviews go and I am very grateful for the time and energy Michael devoted to my review. I’m glad that my first review was in person with a gallery director, rather than one of those impersonal portfolio reviews one can buy online. I’m also glad it wasn’t at one of the mass review events where one pays to get an in-person review from someone who sees dozens of portfolios over very short periods of time.
I was allotted much more time and encouraged to bring many more photographs than would be practical to bring to these events. I think it was also beneficial to me that I had already started to establish a bit of a relationship with my reviewer. As a result, I felt slightly more comfortable with the process.
At Michael’s direction, I brought two portfolios of current projects; one presenting a selection of photographs from my American Dream series and the other presenting a selection from A Southern Sense of Place. Both series deal with sense of place, but each embodies a different approach to the concept. I included a total of twenty-six 13 x 19 inch prints for Michael to review – fourteen from the first series and twelve from the second. I presented them in a plain, black, clam shell box, so that he could easily remove, handle, shuffle, and re-order prints at will.
The American Dream Portfolio Review
I arrived at the gallery just before 11 am on Saturday; the morning after the opening reception for the Forsaken Exhibition. My mother was with me, as we had plans afterwards that made it more convenient for her to tag along than to wait at the hotel. Although she didn’t sit with us during the review, she was able to see us and hear all that was said. I don’t think I would normally want someone else around during a portfolio review, but as it was my very supportive mother, it was okay.
Michael directed me to a table with good lighting just behind the partition defining the center section of the gallery. I was unsure about what to do as he opened my portfolio and began viewing photographs from American Dream; was I supposed to talk about each photograph or provide some background on the series? So, I asked him and he suggested that I provide a little background and then give him some time to quietly go through all of the photos before we got into specifics. I gave him just a brief bit of background on the importance of this series to me and then waited (you can find out about the background for this series in my post, American Dream: Can One Photo Transform a Life).
As he was getting started, he rubbed the photographic paper I had used to make the prints between thumb and forefinger and remarked on the finish. I used Canon Pro Lustre paper in my large format printer. He said that it’s the same type of print as he made for the exhibition; they are nice prints, but I might want to think about using a heavier paper for portfolio prints. When he got to the second photo, Michael asked if I had considered including only black and white or only color photographs in this portfolio, rather than mixing them. I had struggled with this question, but I explained that some of the photos really needed to be in color, so I had decided on a mixed series.
After that exchange, he focused on progressing through the photos. It was nerve wrecking, because he took his time looking at most of them, slowly examining the entire image. Others he looked at briefly and then put aside. I wondered if these were ones he clearly didn’t like. I couldn’t read his face as he scanned the images, so I had no idea what he was thinking.
I comforted myself with the fact that he hadn’t done any of the things I had imagined. No, he didn’t excuse himself to go to the bathroom and then disappear. No, he wasn’t condescending, and he didn’t collapse in shock. Yet, he also wasn’t giving anything away.
Once he had gone through all the photographs in the first series, he went back to the first photo and gave me his overall critique. Michael said that American Dream was a very strong, very emotional series, and that the emotion would have been clear to him even if he hadn’t heard my brief back story as he was starting the review. Wow! That was a relief for me!
The relief didn’t last long, however, as he then began to move back through the photographs while commenting, asking questions, and giving advice. I tried to listen and take notes at the same time, but it wasn’t easy for my old brain to absorb everything. It took a long time to work through all fourteen photos in the series. I’ve paraphrased Michael’s comments below and tried to implement some of his suggestions into a few of the photographs. In some cases I have included before and after photos. The photos are listed in the order they were presented in my portfolio.
American Dream: Of course, I love this (the photo included in the Forsaken show). And it also has a very interesting back story.
Infrastructure: I agree that this image is best presented in color, because of the lovely contrast between the green moss on the roof and the orange wood (it was while looking at this photo for the first time that Michael asked me if I had considered presenting all black and white or all color images).
The Mudroom: This is a very emotional interior. Did you stage the scene? (I did not.) It would be improved by removing the texturing. It’s not needed and the effect is inconsistent with the series. Remove the texture so the shadows are deepened – disappearing into the black hole at the top of the stairs is a good thing. This image reminds me of some of Andrew Wyeth's watercolors; he is able to achieve a very special effect. It would be good to produce more images along the same lines, especially interiors.
Homestead: I like this photo a lot. I love the red of the house and the statement the photograph makes. The wide framing of the shot is good, even though it means the house is smaller in the image. It shows the context, which is important to the meaning and you can still see plenty of detail in the house. We’re doing another color show next year… (I took this to mean that Michael could see this photo in that show.)
Private Property: I assume the tight shot was necessary because of the things surrounding it (yes, there was a concrete parking lot in front). The framing is fine. Try darkening the wood, if possible.
The Backstairs: I like it. Did you try it in black and white? (Yes, but I didn’t think it worked as well.) Try bringing out more of the texture in the wood around the windows. I do like the green vine crawling up into view. But, you could try it in black and white and play with the color channels; the green could really pop or fade into the background.
At the Crossroads: It’s not good to split the color like this. Why did you do it? You have two photos in the series presented with the same effect. (I just liked the way it looked on these two photographs.) The split color isn’t good; it’s a little cheesy looking. I do like the composition; the cars coming into view, the road being the dominant feature in the composition is important. Try it in all black and white.
Country Estate: Of course, I love the “blue house”. (This is also what my mother calls it.) Great colors, textures, composition. Color was the right choice for this photograph.
Conveniently Located: I really like this photo. I love being able to see the context on the right side, but I could go either way on including the trailer. Black and white was definitely the way to go and I love seeing the detail inside through the windows.
Payroll Office: I really like this, I love the color and concept, even all of the junk inside and hanging from the ceiling. Did you catch your reflection in the back window when you took this photograph? (No, it wasn’t me and there was no one behind the door.) It looks like there is a figure in the window. I like it; we’re doing another color show next year… Play with cropping to make it more symmetrical or more obviously asymmetrical. But it’s a strong photograph.
Locally Owned and Operated: Again, the color split is not good. Go all black and white. It reminds me of a series of photos on kudzu (the vine). Get more detail in the blacked out window, if possible. Try photographing this location again after sunset, with the blue still in the sky, and the scene lit by the lights of passing cars.
Main Street: I love it, love the detail in the shadows. This should be in color. I like that you didn’t try to correct the distortion (from the wide angle lens). The perspective is perfect and shouldn’t be lowered; you wouldn’t want to lose the sky, the wires that are the context for the pole in the center of the image, or the antenna on top by lowering the perspective. Great photo.
Up In Smoke: I like this. I like the curling roof, the drama of the clouds, and even the lighting on the subject. I can see why tight framing was necessary. I would only suggest that you try raising the shadows in the windows.
In God We Trust: I really love this church. I love how they used a political sign to cover the window. The framing and composition are perfect with the sidewalk steps at the bottom of the image. The vignetting, and treatment are good. This image is perfect in black and white.
- This is a very strong series, which needs just a few tweaks.
- I think it’s good to keep the photos a mix of color and black and white.
- I suggest that you explore the interior concept more. I know it’s not always safe to go inside these structures, but more interiors can be quite engaging. Check out the book up front; it’s mostly interiors.
Pretty good overall, right? These comments are just the highlights; we spent a whole hour going over this one series. Michael hadn’t even seen one photo yet from A Southern Sense of Place!
A Quick Glance at the A Southern Sense of Place Portfolio
There was very little time left for Michael to look at these photographs, but the person coming after me was late, so I got a little more time. He flipped through these photos very quickly and I wasn’t able to take many notes, so I’m just going to include some of the highlights I remember.
The first thing that stands out is it seemed to be a visual shock for him to move from “In God We Trust” to “Roadside Attraction”! They are quite different. I probably should have chosen a different first image for this series.
Lost Tobacco Barn: This photograph seems like it doesn’t belong in either series; it’s kind of half way between the two.
Reviewer's Overall Comments: This series reminds me of some of Jack Spencer’s work. He just came out with a book of photographs using textures, effects (see his Native Land series). He has a very delicate hand – along the same nostalgic lines as your series. (I think maybe he was suggesting in a roundabout way that my touch is not delicate enough.)
Michael went on to say that he fell in love with Southern photography – it has an emotion and a unique look compared when compared to photos created by photographers from other regions. Southern photography is why he decided to have his gallery in Greenville, SC. (I choose to believe that he was suggesting that my work has the unique look of southern photography). Michael said that he’s trying to achieve the look himself, but he’s not there yet. He said that, overall, A Southern Sense of Place is a very nice series that could very easily have some success and sales. And… that was the end of my portfolio review.
Finally, the answer to that burning question I know you’re all asking: No, I wasn’t one of the lucky few to get offered a solo exhibition at sec4p. (Why, Michael? Why?) However, that’s not exactly a surprise.
Learning from a Photography Portfolio Review
So, what are my main takeaways from my first portfolio review?
- I guess I don’t have to sell my camera; I’m producing some good work.
- The first question I will ask next time is, “May I record my portfolio review?” I know I would have gotten a lot more out of it if I could have listened to it again.
- Self-doubt and insecurity are normal, but I consciously made a point of not apologizing for any of my choices during the review. That was the right way to go.
- I do need to think more carefully about my choices during the creative process and I need to be more prepared to discuss them. The answer, “I liked the way it looked”, is probably not good enough. I know that I’ve been in the process of exploration and experimentation, but now it’s time to be consistent throughout each series, and to simply exclude photographs I want to treat differently.
- I have to decide who I want to please; art world sophisticates, the public, critics, other photographers, or myself.
- I’m producing some very strong, emotional work. This is particularly true of my American Dream series of photographs.
- I’ve had my doubts about the treatments I have used in the A Southern Sense of Place series, but I should stop apologizing for this nostalgic and painterly aesthetic and stop indulging in self-doubt about the quality of the series. These bright and colorful photographs are beautiful and do ooze a sense of place that is unmistakable.
- I am a Southern photographer and those in the know can see that in my work. Yeah!
- If viewing my photos brings to mind work by Andrew Wyeth and Jack Spencer, then I am in good company.
Follow-up to the Review
At the end of my portfolio review, Michael asked me if I have a website and business card, as he would like to keep up with my work. I gave him a beautiful pamphlet on each series and my card. I have tried to stay in touch with him and hope to follow-up with some questions. Michael Pannier was a very kind and generous reviewer; he’s definitely a contact I’d like to maintain. I plan to repay his generosity by responding to more Calls for Entries from his gallery and by sharing his posts on my social media accounts.
So, that’s a wrap on the Forsaken Exhibition! I hope you enjoyed making this journey with me. I've learned a lot and I hope you have too. Now it's time to move on to new topics. Before we do, however, please comment and let me know what you think about the reviewer's remarks! Do you disagree with any of this suggestions?
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-- Angela Martin
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