Review Santa Fe 2010 – Jonathan Blaustein

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.