Review Santa Fe {Reflections & experiences}

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Looking for tips and advice for your next portfolio review? This post is for you, as I share my experience from my first fine-art photography portfolio review called Review Santa Fe.

Review Santa Fe is something every fine-art photographer should be apart of if given the opportunity. The advice and assurance is definitely priceless, an experience I would do a million times over again.

Being judged by industry leading pros who represent art museums, galleries, book publishers, and the editorial world ain’t for the fate of heart. Yet, these people have the capability to shape and inspire us when the going gets tough, no different than an effective mentor.

If there was a premier juried portfolio review event in the world for photographers, Review Santa Fe would be it. 600+ photographers apply for the slight opportunity to catch the eye of industry pros. If becoming a needle in a haystack was possible, this would be it.

I was accepted. Yikes!

“Sir, my I have another,” my primeval instinct footnoted.

I’m humbled to have been accepted into the group of fine-art photographers chosen by esteemed jurors— it’s a honor to be apart of among of the best fine-art photographers in the world ranging from three-decade tenured professors to new MFA grads.

What Is This Portfolio Review You Speak Of?

The art world is one mysterious, moving, dynamic beast I’m finding. Standing out in any market ain’t easy, especially when talent trumps on my very own turf. I certainly haven’t figured it all out. However, I’m gaining traction.

Photographers have been blessed for the last three decades or so with opportunities to connect in these arenas long before painters, sculptures, video, and installation artists. We photographers have it so lucky.

Portfolio reviews can be one the the most stressful parts of your career, as criticism doesn’t come easy when your art is near and dear. A good review, however, will improve your work in more ways than one.

Turns out, making better art is my only solution. Or so I found recently.

Feedback instills growth.

Of course, green chile and the southwestern landscape make me very happy, too.

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Inspirational bonus: visiting nearby Plaza Blanca “The White Palace”, indulging in lots of green chili, visiting Georgia O’Keefe’s home in Abiquiu, and seeing the sign she hung at her home (also a fellow dog lover).

Intent & Mistakes

A journey of three years brings me to this blog post in which I share a few goals, lessons learned, and uncertainties fears as a mid-career photographer breaking into the “fine-art” world.

I approach my craft with the process I love: a balance between intent and mistakes.

Tuns out, MFA-speak can be learned. In practicum.

No different than a watercolor artist attempts to control the medium: it ain’t always gonna happen as intended. Gravity rules apply to water, the flow of the medium. Stuff happens, roll with it. Just be able to defend it.

Discovery and exploration is part of the creative process, I’m learning. My infant son thinks the same (we’re both forming new neuron connections, too). After all, we’re both human.

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The welcoming reception at Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe featuring winning artists and their work, a wonderful time to meet new photographers and reviewers. There is nothing like seeing work in final print.

Santa Fe, Reviewed

I recently spent the better part of four days spilling my guts to an esteemed panel of reviewers, among the best in their game. The process started months prior. The application alone was on-par with an MFA application (been there, done that, rejected, moved on).

Formalizing what’s often buried deep within takes effort. After all, we are photographers, not writers. We take pictures, create art.

Yet the process of writing an application/grant/proposal is a perfect Jedi exercise: it forces us to think out-loud to ourselves.

“Self-aware and self-critical beings are we, not this crude matter,” my art Yoda speaks.

On the cheap, this is what they teach in art school. Or at least try.

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My hand-made books from my series of animal portraits tracing my genetic homeland including Ireland, Iceland, and Norway, bound with brass tacks and printed on fine-art rag paper.

What’s The Experience Like?

Like doing taxes. Blindfolded.

Seriously, it was like going to a really good dentist. Someone who truly cared for me. Wanted the best for me. Was there for me. Yet wasn’t afraid to point out cavities and decay and was there to fix them before they became a severe problem.

The pain was there, yet it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. In fact, many of my reviewers laughed. In fact, at least nine reviewers laughed at least six times while I shared my work (I have a OCD knack for counting this kinda thing). While I’m not funny, but I’ll take credit if my work is a bit humorous.

Each photographer attending gets to meet with nine reviewers, selected by the photographer, then matched by lottery. Lottery results met my expectation, as I got 4/5 of my top choices (Anne Wilkes Tucker was the only person I wanted to meet with but didn’t). In talking with other photographers, most experienced the same, too. And there were a few others which I was able to meet with outside and still receive helpful perspective.

In sum, I met a wonderful group of supportive artists and reviewers I can call peers and mentors and friends. That’s priceless. Gosh, I get nostalgic just writing about it. I intend to keep in good touch with them over the years, holiday cards and all.

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Gay Block in conversation with Jo Ann Callis, a legendary photographer ahead of her time shares her work for the first time. I sat first row in this artist talk.

What’s The Preparation Like?

Exhausting.

Never thought it would be.. keep in mind this was my first time attending a portfolio review.

Fine tuning edits. Making final selections. Writing artist statements. Art grunt tasks: UG!

Ordering portfolio prints. Designing a custom portfolio case. Creating memorable leave-behinds (important). Booking travel.

Researching reviewers. Choosing reviewers. Memorizing reviewers.

Reading Mary Virginia Swanson’s tips. Reading more prep tip articles like this one (whoot whoot!).

That’s just preparation. It’s worth it.

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After months of preparation, I share my work in person at the portfolio viewing at the Santa Fe Convention Center, free and open to the public. This was the first time I was able to share my work with hundreds of potential collectors, reviewers, and photography enthusiasts. My good friend, Lou Krueger, pictured right.

What Is The Expectation vs What Happened?

Did I come out famous? Was I a Big Shot?

In my Midwestern stoicism, absolutely nope.

The experience is 100% what you take of fit. Like in school. You have to work hard, you get what you put in. After sitting down two months later and looking at my notes (which is what I am doing to prep for this article), I really being to process and deconstruct my experience.

I had a bunch of positive reviews with sound advice needing follow-up. Several genius suggestions (Holy, Shit, why didn’t I think of that!). A few with thoughtful advice. A few more with decent recommendations.

And one reviewer, not so much fun for me.

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My good friend and favorite second shooter, Matt Steaffens, drove down from Denver to be apart of the event. We went to Burning Man last yearand he has photographed dozens of weddings with me over the years. It was so good to have him along!

On Building Character

Let me preface: I’m not one to get emotional. I rarely cry. Even at weddings, my day job. However there was one reviewer who stated right out of the gates, “I’m exhausted, and I’m going to be blunt.”

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

“Tell me about your work,” the reviewer stated.

I spoke the layperson’s version of my artist statement in about 20 seconds. I was interrupted, then listened for the next 7 minutes about how what I was saying didn’t resonate with my words. What I needed was “a good MFA program meant to break me down and build me back up no matter how good my ideas… so to become a self-aware, self-critical person.” All this to digest in 20-minutes.

I was crying on the inside. But I’m tough, held it together.

“I agree to disagree,” I stated, eyes without quiver.  The reviewer did have a good point, of which I did take the message to heart.

I quoted one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes, “Never let school interfere with your education.”

Esteemed Review Santa Fe alum Alec Soth said to me, “I don’t have an MFA.”

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Creating social (art) networks remains an important favorite memory at Review Santa Fe. I met a photography enthusiast who shared the same taste in sport jacket! Smart minds think alike!

Is Education A Good Investment?

Yes, I believe. Just as long as the images marinate long enough. This could take weeks, months, even years. The key: there was intent from the start.

Keep in mind, I was the kid in school that asked lots of questions. Turns out, I learn best by asking questions, challenging conventions, and asking hard questions, then doing.

Good news: these same qualities are shared by great journalists, therapists, and inventors.

However, you must understand how you learn best. Which is why I offer perspective on choosing photographer workshops. A degree helps. There are some MFA first-years that would say otherwise.

The good news post Review Santa Fe: I didn’t have to go to therapy. In fact, it was the opposite. The experience affirmed what I was doing was along the right path.

The Perfect Portfolio Review?

Nope, nothing is. Yet it’s close. Actually, for what it offers, it is damn close. There are a few quibbles.

For one, the elevation. As with any 7,000 foot mountain town, getting acclimated takes time. Staying hydrated isn’t easy. And while no photo fest is without late night social antics (and the hydration that comes with it), getting to bed at a reasonable hour proved to be a challenge with all the stimulus and inspiration.

The Gallery 145

This was the most underestimated, under anticipated, and most bang for the buck memory!!! After all, it isn’t too often Christopher Rauschenberg reviews work into the wee hours of the morning. Print swaps with my favorite artists, yes please!

The Gallery 145 was the organic organizing of an epic print swap at the end of portfolio reviews at Review Santa Fe in 2015. The print swap began as an idea of exchanging work between a small group of participating artists in room 145 that would take place on the final evening of reviews. It was crazy fun. Word spread quickly. Threats of police ensued, and noise ordinace was respected. The result? Signed prints found their way into new homes and in front of new audiences across the world. I do look forward to seeing work and ideas shared in this unique, no-money-exchanged gathering. I only wish I had more time to view everyone’s work (and there are a few I still wish to exchange with!).

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The Dreaded Question

I know every emerging fine-art photographer is thinking, “Should I go?”

Tough call, as your knowledge is (a) pretty decent and (b) return on investment can be intrinsic, possibly measurable. If you are totally in love with a completed body of work (say, 3-years in progress), which hasn’t seen critical eyeballs, cash in those frequent flier miles and block off your schedule if you afford it. The price of admission for me was $745 (it pays to be a CENTER member!), otherwise $795. Plus $600 for lodging, transportation, you get the point. Grants and scholarships available.

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Camilo Ramirez and I exchanged prints, insight. I hand delivered his print to Boston two weeks later before we headed out to an amazing dinner. Priceless.

Conclusion

Making a creative mark on the world starts by taking your career by the reins, gently giving them a tug, I’m learning.

It’s the relationships, education, opportunity and experience that matters most. I trust you will make the right decision.

***
I thank my wife and family for their loving support. In addition, special thanks to Laura Pressley, the staff and volunteers at CENTER for providing with a meaningful experience to elevate my photography. And to Ecce Gallery for inviting me into their creative showcase in Fargo, ND. Here we are in my opening reception held July 24, 2015.
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Holy Cow! Did you meet Helga, above?

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