In the new issue of Source we have a report on Portfolio Review Days. I spoke to Clare Grafik the Head of Exhibitions at the Photographers' Gallery. Last November the Gallery ran a day-long portfolio review session which photographers could attend for a fee of £75. Clare explained what the portfolio reviews were for, both in terms of the Gallery's responsibilities and as a service to photographers.
Some people are opposed to the very idea of paid-for portfolio reviews...
Let's get this straight. No one ever needs to pay for a portfolio review or should do. Don't pay and those that charge will stop!
— UN OF PHOTOGRAPHY (@UNofPhoto) January 13, 2014
The argument takes different forms. One contention is that photographers should not be paying to submit their work for exhibition or publication. Another belief is that curators and editors should offer support and advice to photographers who are trying to make work for them to show or publish.
Currently the biggest portfolio review event in the UK is part of the Format Festival. Louise Clements is the Director. Asked about the value of the reviews she says, 'At Format we try to make it as cheap as possible and we try to select reviewers who offer short and long term opportunities for people. We have feedback about the reviewers from the photographers, if they're not good then we might not invite them back again.' The 2014 reviews at Format cost £250 to see eight reviewers. Clements says that photographers have different expectations of the reviews, 'It depends what experience they have. Some expect an offer straight away, some say "when can I have the exhibition?" But that's quite rare. It may be only two years later that I have space to show work'.
Carlotta Cardana is a photographer who has attended a number of portfolio reviews including those at the Photographers' Gallery and Paris Photo (which started last November and cost €695). She says photographers have to be realistic about what they can expect from these events, 'I think it's a bit like speed dating. You don't go there expecting to come out with a marriage proposal.' The benefits of paying for a portfolio review are, 'To see people from different countries that would be difficult to reach – I saw two curators from Korea – and to talk to people and get their advice. People say that you can just phone them up but if I do that they don't have to give me advice. This is buying time with experts in their field. These people are overwhelmed by photographers who want to show them work.'
The contentious aspect of portfolio reviews is therefore to do with the purpose they serve and who benefits from them. The Photographers' Gallery have had a changing approach to portfolio reviews. In 1999 they started Folio Forum which 'gives a selection of photographers the chance to show work in progress in an informal atmosphere and gain feedback through group discussion.' To participate a photographer had to submit work in advance but they were led by a photography professional and were free. Then in 2011 the Gallery started portfolio reviews, 'an opportunity to discuss a body of work, and receive feedback from a member of The Photographers' Gallery team'. Initially participants were asked 'to contribute a £10 admin fee' but by May 2013 there were invited reviewers as well as gallery staff involved and the fee had risen to the current charge of £75.
Nevertheless, I attended the last portfolio review day at the Photographers' Gallery and all the photographers attending said they were there for feedback and advice rather than in expectation of the Gallery exhibiting their work. They also accepted the fee to attend. As Clare Grafik says, the staff do not have time to give feedback to any photographer who comes through the door of the gallery and a formalised portfolio review allows the exchange to be of benefit to both parties. However, although the Gallery say they have a submission process (distinct from the portfolio reviews) this is not advertised anywhere so a photographer might reasonably assume the only way to show their work to a Gallery curator is to pay them to look at it. In the end, the ideal of complete accessibility to curators comes up against the reality of shortage of time. In many cases, for a professional opinion, a photographer's best option is to attend a paid-for portfolio review.
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