PowerHouse portfolio review

Now that I've (mostly) recovered from my first portfolio review I've decided it's time to out myself and let all of you know that I attended powerHouse last month. There was some debate a while back on the blogosphere about the pros/cons of shelling out the cash to get face time with gallery directors, curators and the like, with Timothy Archibald weighing in with a hearty "don't do it!" via a comment on Whats the Jackanory, and a helpful pro-review rundown by Jörg Colberg culling various interviews with reviewers here, along with his own general thoughts here. After doing my research in the end I decided that for me the investment was worth it--having no other means besides a most-likely ineffective cold call to get my work in front of some of the well-known names on the list I felt a portfolio review would be a good opportunity to make some connections. And perhaps more importantly I was also at a point where I desired feedback from professionals in the industry--I wanted to see how my images would come across in print form to those who are used to judging and critiquing photography, and I wanted to be pushed and energized by some personal interactions. And in the words of Andrew Hetherington,"if you are not in you can’t win."

With all of that said I have to tell you, I was not prepared for how I would react to the feedback. During the 20 minutes I had allotted with the five individual reviewers I did feel quite present, open, and appreciative of their comments. But the second it ended and I walked out the door, complete exhaustion took over, and I spent the rest of the week in a tired funk. In particular one of my sessions felt quite brutal; certainly I'm aware that my read on the criticism might not match the intention of the particular reviewer, but I did come away with a sense that for whatever reason the spare quality of my photographs didn't jive. Each individual image was somewhat picked apart, and I found myself looking back on the comments thinking, oh my god, I'm not raw enough, I'm not saying anything new, I have to change the whole project, I have to rework my style, I'll never make it in this industry, I just create so-so shots that only deserve a place on Flickr under the surname mamahobbyphotog or some such.

Suffice it to say my experience was humbling, but it has been a good wake-up call that I need to step back and separate myself from the desire to be bolstered by the opinions of others, particularly those, like the reviewers, who are in a certain position of power. With a little distance (and some good old-fashioned feeling sorry for myself) I can now see the criticism as an important lesson. Once I moved beyond focusing on the disappointment of my work not being seen in the way I had hoped it would, I was able to reevaluate why that might have occurred.

In retrospect I think I started off by saying too much; I had a spiel that was a watered-down version of my artist statement, with an emphasis on the fact that I'm a mother and how I'm trying to freeze time, and my first photograph was the close-up of Edie in the bath. I think this combination of my summary and the image I chose to start with, along with the general sequence of pictures, placed the emphasis on something that was perhaps more simplistic than the overall concept of my work. I see my imagery as being layered, certainly not "just" about being a mother, or domesticity, or any one concrete overarching theme, but I now realize that in the short time the reviewers spent with my pictures they may have been hit over the head with the motherhood angle, and therefore were aiming their critiques from that vantage point, as in, "OK, you say it's about freezing time and being a mother, then this is how you accomplish that goal." I think I shortchanged the work in that sense, and if I were to do it again I would say less and show a different edit.

In another sense it brought up all of the insecurities I hadn't even realized were there. I generally believe in what I'm doing and have confidence in my work, and I was blindsided by how easy it was for me to hone in on the things the reviewers didn't like as opposed to what they did respond to. It was a bit of a shock to see that my confidence was more easily shaken than I thought it would be, and how intensely I personalized the whole experience. (So I guess Timothy Archibald has a good point about portfolio reviews preying on photographer's weaknesses...) It has forced me to confront why I'm a photographer, and has peeled away some layers, getting to a core of--dare I say it--perhaps a bit of desperation that I was only vaguely conscious of. As in high school no one likes to date the desperate girl, and the more you want for the "wrong" reasons--like the need for something outside of yourself to provide you with a sense of self-worth--the less you will simply "be" with your work for the right reasons--those reasons being that your art is fulfilling, and energizes you, and makes you feel whole. I'd lost sight more than I realized of the simple desire to create outside of the desire to belong.

I'm sure these things get easier the more you do them, and though it was tough on me it's been helpful to get back to focusing on the balance between making work for myself because it's part of who I am, and finding a way to communicate the ideas I'm trying to get across, along with reevaluating where my concepts might not be reaching the viewer.

I don't know if this post will help anyone decide whether to attend something similar in the future, but I partially wanted to explain why my image-making has been quiet as of late. My ego took a small hit and my creative juices waned a bit with the distraction caused by those pesky self-deprecating voices swirling in my head. That and the end of winter doldrums are contributing to a lack of desire to make and do and write and all of those things that usually don't desert me in times of stress. I think I need to allow myself to hibernate a little and trust that the desire will return soon enough. My brain needs to ponder and stew over things for a while sometimes before everything can come pouring out of me again, but there are some seeds that feel like they may be ready to turn into something any day now.

Comments

I was at the same review! I've got so much to say about it that I haven't gotten around to making my post yet either. (especially since I've got an opening in two days that has taken precedence to blogging)

I wonder if we had any of the same reviewers.

It was a strange one, since we didn't get to chose who really. I ended up with a couple people who really weren't right for me, regardless of if they liked my work.
DoulaMomma said…
good for you, Elizabeth, for taking the chance, taking that leap...maybe the stuff you're pondering is not what you went there seeking, but good stuff to think about anyway.
Admittedly, I know nothing beyond what I like, but *I* love your work!
Thanks Kim--yes, good stuff to think about. And what we think we need isn't always what we actually need, it's important to keep that in perspective but all too easy to forget in the moment! I appreciate your support :)

Ian, will answer your latest email soon, thanks!
adayintheweek said…
The moment I read this post I wanted to leap to your defense to promise you that your work is evocative for ME.

Your description of being the desperate girl only wanting to be liked rang true and brought me back to my days of critiques and that by the end of my degree I was no longer sure why I was creating what I was creating because I was pretty sure I was no longer creating for my own satisfaction.

In the end you have to decide who's approval really matters. Don't let yourself stay too long in the post-critique doldrums, there is only so much self/creative-analysis you can do, before you become too self-conscious to make any of your own creative choices. There is nothing wrong with creating the occasional piece of sh*t! (Not that I think ANY of your portfolio falls into that category... but I'm referring moreover to the artistic process itself, as I have felt frozen in fear in the past of making something that *might* be bad.)

GREAT post.
george said…
Elizabeth,
My teacher at RISD used to say to me every week, "don't think, just take pictures." Years later I reminded her of that, and she disavowed ever saying it. But it echoes in my head, and often I think it is right. So don't spend too much time stewing. Your work is brilliant. Shoot away!! George
This was a great post. It made me think this was a successful critique because it really affected you and got you thinking...that is money well spent.
I do go to these things such as Review Santa Fe and have enjoyed them. My only concern was that as the economy was tanking they seemed to sprout up everywhere, for high fees, and it seemed like an easy way for organizations to hit their numbers for the year. It was the amount of them going on that I was protesting....and wanted photogs to approach them from a point of growth and strength, not hoping that these meetings would deliver success and open doors.
Yours did sound like a growth experience...so money well spent.
adayintheweek, YES! Thank you. A great pep talk, much appreciated, and I'm thankful for your compliments.

George, as always. See you soon?

TA, agreed. It really (obviously!) has gotten me thinking, and it's true, one has to come at it from a point of growth, not because there's the desperate hope that it will provide a magical silver platter of success. Happy you chimed in via your comment.
david bram said…
I have been a reviewer at two reviews and have been asked to be a reviewer at a third.

Make sure you know why you are going to these things and that you are sitting in front of those people who can help you.

And I can honestly say that you make terrific work. Keep doing it. Do it for yourself. Do it for your kids.
Stella said…
I love your work! Just keep on going--
Aline said…
This was an excellent post. I find portfolio reviews completely exhausting, and I always feel slightly diminished from the experience, but I think making those connections is incredibly important. The whole process makes you take a hard look at your work. From what I have heard, you didn't have a chance to interact with the other photographers, and that is a big plus to portfolios reviews--it's why I'm going back to Photolucida. It's wonderful to be surrounded by your community, share workm have dinner and lots of wine, and get to know each other on another level. Your work is amazing.. your images speak to a lot of people..you have a gift for seeing the details...
Trust me, we've all been there and knowing you are not alone really helps.
Aline, thanks for commenting. Glad to hear I'm not the only one who goes through the post-portfolio review exhaustion. I didn't get to meet any other photographers unfortunately (though I have to admit I was so tired when I was finished that I didn't linger, and if I had I might have had an opportunity to introduce myself to people). I just found out that I got into Review Santa Fe and am really looking forward to the community aspect, having dinner, etc. And many thanks for the compliments to my work. Yes, knowing I'm not alone through comments like yours really does help!

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