SPE and Portfolio Reviews

I just returned (sick) from the SPE National Conference held in Denver. It was great to have a chance to hang out with people I met last year, and there were some good lectures (although I did sleep through most of Edward Burtynsky’s talk—despite the fact that he is usually such a good speaker). Then there was the dance party. Even if I never picked up a camera again, and cursed everything remotely related to photographic education, I would still go just for the dance party . . .

Then there were the portfolio reviews. The formal waiting-list-only-20-minute-career-making/breaking reviews, and the informal grab-a-table-and-show-your-prints-(or iPhone)-to-anyone-who-will-look reviews. Unfortunately, both types are equally important when it comes to having your work seen these days. This isn’t the 70s and there are now far too many photographers in the world for everyone to simply call up the curator at anywhere and ask to show them work. I say unfortunately because the importance of these reviews is more on getting a job, show, book, dealer, etc. than getting feedback about how to make better work. Everyone wants to be Alec Soth.

The problem with reviews is the importance placed on the 20 prints, the photographer’s agenda, the spiel, and the marketability of the work. At the end of my second day at SPE I was tired of showing my prints, and giving my little speech. It became more about the idea or the project rather than the pictures, and all I wanted to do was sit down and stop talking. I was perfectly happy to answer questions, but I was tired of trying to justify what to me should have been obvious. At one point I actually told someone “these pictures came from nothing more than an unashamed response to beauty.” Surely a no no to some people.

Cara Phillips made a recent post about being rejected from the Review Santa Fe event, and the nature of the competition process. The juror is undoubtedly going to be biased as to what he/she thinks is good or undeveloped or derivative. Competitions, and even portfolio reviews, in general, are all a crap shoot, and you can never tell who will like what on which day. I’d rather save my money to buy a plane ticket and a box film. At least I know it will be going to a good cause—my own sanity.

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About Richard Boutwell

I am an emerging photographer originally from the Hi-Desert of Southern California, and relocated to Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 2002 for an intensive apprenticeship with the photographers Michael A. Smith and Paula Chamlee. I now live in Philadelphia, and concentrate on my own projects and writing.
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