Portfolio reviews in progress

Fine Art Photographer Jonathan Blaustein, a participant in this year’s Review Santa Fe gives us his take on the event:

I’ve found that many people who’ve never attended a Portfolio Review are a bit skeptical about paying money for access, while most photographers who’ve been to one are fans of the process. I used to be in the former category, and am now squarely in the latter, having attended Review Santa Fe for the first time in 2009. I was invited back this year when my project “The Value of a Dollar,” was chosen for Honorable Mention in the 2010 CENTER Project Competition. (CENTER is the organization that runs RSF.)

I’ve heard great things about photolucida in Portland, FotoFest in Houston, and Photo Nola in New Orleans, but I can definitely say that Review Santa Fe has it all figured out. Laura Pressley, the Executive Director, runs a tight ship, and works hard to create a seamless event structure for the photographers and reviewers. The schedule is packed, yet things run smoothly, and her entire staff is laid-back and diligent.

The event began Thursday afternoon at the Hilton Hotel with a brief photographer’s orientation, followed by an opening night party. This year, the shindig was held at the Zane Bennett Gallery in Santa Fe’s trendy Railyard District. Both photographers and reviewers mingled together over wine and snacks, and I think it helped break the ice quickly. Most reviewers were happy to talk to photographers in social settings throughout the event.

Friday, each photographer had three 20-minute meetings scheduled over the course of the morning and afternoon. That left six for Saturday, totaling nine in all. I found all but one of my reviewers to be supportive and engaging. RSF employs a web-based lottery system to determine a photographer’s schedule, and I received seven of my top eight choices. (Together, my slate contained a cross-section of dealers, curators, publishers, and photo editors.) I was particularly impressed with publisher Dewi Lewis, gallerist Debra Klomp Ching, and photo editor Josh Haner, as each was very positive about my work, but also managed to give highly specific, expert criticism about how to move it forward. (Jamie Wellford from Newsweek was the most friendly and approachable.)

For Friday night, CENTER scheduled a Portfolio Walk open to the public that was hot, crowded, and very tiring. Few photographers ever get a chance to talk one-on-one with their audience, though, so it was worthwhile. Most reviewers were gracious enough to walk around the room for hours, chatting up photographers who weren’t on their schedule. I had in-depth conversations with Kevin Miller from the Southeast Museum of Photography, Ann Pallesen from PCNW in Seattle, George Thompson from the Center for American Places in Chicago, and Amani Olu from the Humble Arts Foundation in NYC.

CENTER’s closing party
CENTER’s closing party

Saturday night, after the official reviews were done, CENTER hosted a packed party with a cash bar & some light snacks. They also offered a raffle for limited edition prints from the contest winners, and other gifts as well. (It got a little rowdy.) Along with fostering community, collecting each other’s work seemed to be a theme for this year’s event, as a print trade between the photographers was also offered. After CENTER’s party wound down, David Bram of Fraction Magazine and über-consultant Mary Virginia Swanson both held after-parties for the out-of-towners, open to all.

Fraction Magazine’s afterparty
Fraction Magazine’s afterparty

By that point, things were more casual, the beer was flowing, and it didn’t feel like work for a few hours. I had a few pints and laughed my ass off well into the night. (Speaking of which, someone needs to follow photographer Hollis Bennett around the world with a 5D Mark II. Seriously. Sundance will beckon.)

Sunday morning, RSF wound down with a complimentary brunch at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Katherine Ware and Laura Addison, two curators from the Museum, were working behind the catering table, serving bagels and cream cheese on an 87˚day. It was a bit surreal, but then again I was barely functional by that point. I think my vocabulary had shrunk by half.

Overall, the event is both grueling and exhilarating. It is hard to talk about oneself for days on end without getting sick of the sound of one’s own voice. So listening to others becomes a vital strategy. Pitching gets old fast, but as this year’s festival was the most international to date, it was easy to engage with smart, talented people from around the planet. In fact, I think it’s the key to success at RSF, and reviews in general. If you go to meet people, build relationships, community and a network, you can’t go wrong. And looking at what everyone else is working on is inspiring.

As such, RSF had a dedicated room for the photographers to peruse each other’s portfolios. I saw a lot of amazing work across a broad spectrum. I was particularly taken with David Rochkind’s project on the Drug War in Mexico, Alix Smith’s hyper-real “States of Union” series, journalist Daniel Beltra’s aerial photos of Global Warming disasters, and Jody Ake‘s wet-plate collodion portraits.

As CENTER is a non-profit, the $695/$745 fee (member/non-member) goes directly towards putting on the event. So ultimately, it’s necessary just for the Review to exist. But it ends up seeming like a small price to pay for all you get, as the 20-minute review sessions are just one part of a much larger experience.

To be blunt, I don’t think I’d recommend Review Santa Fe to anyone who isn’t confident in his or her work, and strong of mind. It’s difficult to stay sharp in such an intense environment, as criticism becomes harder to take when you’re worn down. So the event isn’t designed for beginners, which is probably why it’s juried. But for photographic artists, editorial photographers & photojournalists who are further established in the profession and comfortable working under pressure, it’s a potentially career-altering event.

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  1. Great recap Jonathan! It truly is a good event. Hats off to Center for putting such a good group of people together. I was also in attendance and had a very similar experience with what JB described. If you have a cohesive, strong body of work then this is a great place to introduce it to the ‘right’ people.



  2. Taylor, so great to hang out in SF. We had a lot of laughs, man. Come make some turns in the powder this Winter.

  3. Jonathan –
    Thanks for an insider look into the portfolio review experience. It is great to know that the event is a weekend unto itself, and there are multiple opportunities for making connections with reviewers and peers outside of the review itself.


  4. […] together, my new friend, photographer, and fellow RSF participant Jonathan Blaustein published his own account of this year’s review over on Rob Haggard’s excellent A Photo Editor blog.  JB really […]

  5. Disclosure: Clearly I am posting this message as anonymous, because I am a sissy, but considering the sensitive nature of my feelings on this matter, it seemed prudent.

    It is my opinion that this entire thing is complete nonsense. I attended this year, and the feeling of having to pay people to look at your work (something gallerists and photo editors should be doing anyways as part of their normal duties, although whether they do or not is a different story obviously) and the whole love-in, group hugging, business card exchanging mentality that goes with it is just about enough to make me feel queasy (don’t dare to offend anyone! it could ruin your career!).
    Not to mention the hilarious side topic that many branches of photography are dead and dying (a newsweek editor was there. how much longer is that guy going to have a job?), which is a topic that never seems to come up.
    Also, I thought the reviewer list, while making a respectable showing, could have been significantly stronger considering the cost of the event, as well as the level of prestige they attempt to project. I could get into specifics on this, but
    the proof is in the pudding if you compare it to the reviewer list at this year’s Fotofest in Houston (which is also cheaper and features many more reviews).
    I did fine at RSF this year, which I mention because I know it sounds like I am probably just crying sour grapes. And it was pleasant to actually chat with a couple of photographers for once. Brooklyn was well represented, which was also pretty nice, lots of talk about life in Greenpoint and Bed-Stuy going on in the hallways.
    At the end of the day though, I can’t help but to feel one would be better off just calling a few editors / gallerists one like’s and bugging them until they age. I might even agree to grab a coffe with you, which might even net you more than 20 minutes with them; further that strategy features a total cost probably somewhere in the range of around 5 bucks, saving one roughly $995 as well as a trip to
    a headache inducing, wallet gouging city in the middle of nowhere.

    • @Dr. Grumbles,
      Good to have another point of view. I was asked to review a couple times when I worked at Outside. It was a lot of work and I was paid nothing for my time. I did it because I wanted to find some new people to work with. I think for some this is a better method than cold marketing.

    • @Dr. Grumbles, you still paid the $995 even though the reviewer list could have been “significantly stronger”? This does not make sense to me.
      I too went to Fotofest to show my work and it was like a meat market. Exhausted reviewers and way too aggressive photographers.
      Can you please explain your statement “I did fine at RSF…”? What does this mean? Did you get a group hug or a show?
      I thought RSF is a well run and important event. Oh, and I did fine too.

  6. @Jonathan,

    I really enjoyed meeting you and your recaps of Santa Fe and LOOKbetween. Dissapointed we didn’t get to chill while you are in NYC. Next time.

  7. very interesting thanx for sharing this

  8. […] Fe is the best), who reviewed my work, etc. I had read some other blog posts like this one and this one. I have not posted anything because I am still processing what happened and what was said about my […]

  9. Great write-up, Jonathan…right on target (well at least from last year’s).

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