Posted on November 8, 2018
I spent last weekend at the Javits Center in New York. New York has never been a favorite spot for me. The crowds, the priciness of it all, always make me feel the place is overrated.
The one reason I went to New York, New York was the PhotoExpo, for the Portfolio Review sessions happening there. The main convention floor had areas for the big camera brands, Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, etc, and booths for the various retailers from B&H Photo to Moab photo paper to copyright lawyers.
I wandered through the convention booths every so often, mostly to see the latest and greatest products. I tried out new ultra wide lenses from Tamron (a 15-30mm) and Sigma (14-24mm). I did some research on photo papers, tried out various Sony mirrorless cameras in the Best Buy area. (Yes, pro/enthusiast photo gear has become a focus for Best Buy.)
There were also nonstop seminars and workshops, sessions on street photography and fashion that made use of the city, sessions that dealt with how #timesup and #metoo would relate to the photography universe. Much of the educational sessions were timely if expensive for what you got in an hour. The one paying seminar, a $150 class on advance camera techniques like lens stacking, wasn’t fully baked.
But the portfolio reviews were what I needed to help me define my photography approach as a business. I’ve been treating my photo work as business for 5 or 6 years now, starting with my Utah photo guidebooks. And as my approach has evolved, I’ve taken my writing to a more personal level as well. And I’ve been asking how I can use the business side of what I do to support my creative goals. So showing my Iceland portfolio to an assortment of photo industry professionals was what I needed.
The Portfolio Review
The structure for the portfolio reviews was that the participants signed in and got the table number for the reviewer who would be working with you for that 20 minute time frame. Basically speed dating for your career. There were about 30 different reviewers working the room at any given time.
So shake hands, plunk your portfolio down on the table (whether it was loose prints, photo book, tablet, computer), and start talking. I had two actionable goals for the sessions, to jump-start my Iceland book idea and learn other ways of getting my images out to a wider public, especially through gallery shows or a web site.
There were only two reviewers who worked with photo books, one an editor at Rizzoli. I met with both of them. Four or five folks worked with galleries. Two were associated with publications that look for photo content — Bloomberg Pursuits, Culture Trip — and a few agents who were looking for bigger game. Some folks were more useful than others but having 12 people with an eye for the medium giving you feedback was a great takeaway unto itself.
Takeaways From the Conference
Quality of the work. No one had a problem with my more traditional landscape compositions. There was only one person, an agent, who wasn’t wowed about the quality of the work — didn’t think it was punchy enough. (She won’t be on my Christmas list.) The reviewers who seemed to have the best instincts said they really liked my stuff and only suggested that a tighter crop here and there or to use different printer paper.
Presentation of my work. For me, the 12×18 prints with 3/4″ white border was the way to go. Reviewers also seemed to like clamped together books of images. Tablets were less popular with reviewers because they’re one step removed from the medium but no one actively minded using a tablet of computer.
I did have images on two different types of paper — something I know wasn’t optimal but only one reviewer took me to task for that. The idea is that it’s good to have a consistency of look and feel.
Social. A couple of folks pointed out that social media engagement can be helpful, especially good Instagram numbers. So I’m cleaning up that part of my game, getting rid of images that don’t carry their weight, updating older shots that needed my current level of post.
Book Proposal. Both of the photo book specialists had useful points. They said that the book market has changed given the lack of independent booksellers. Now the publishers make sure books have a good chance of making money. The academic or artist photo book isn’t enough — unless it’s a book by a celebrity photog like Avadon, etc.
They want to see a proposal that shows your approach will appeal to a wider audience, that the cost of the book is appropriate, what part of the bookstore the book will fit into — basically show them your work will drive business their way.
Galleries. No one said you have to show at my gallery. The one gallery owner (she’s in SoHo) said most galleries in the city have such high overhead that they can’t take a chance on folks without a major track record. Several folks pointed out that there are lots of venues for work beyond galleries, businesses, cafes, etc.
Other Outlets for Images. One of the reviewers mentioned that my work would be of interest to art consulting services. Big companies of all kinds buy art but aren’t going to work with individual artists. They give their specs to a consulting service that can pull in artists and photogs working in various styles.
Photo Web Site. One reviewer also suggested that Smugmug is a rotten choice for a photography web site for me. That’s something I’ve been thinking for years. But I know from personal experience that commerce web sites can be a pain to set up and run. She suggested that I could try Format.com — and they do seem to have a fairly nice turnkey approach with various formats and the ability to take payments and track orders in some basic way.
As far as content I choose, she thought that structuring photos based on shot locations might be too narrow. That many of my potential clients really don’t care if you have Iceland or Vermont pics. They want the material to be more theme oriented. So I’ve organized some of my current Smugmug projects to be more theme oriented.
She also said I should look at issue.com. I’m not sure if that one is as applicable for my business but their material does have content that’s worth browsing.
Bottom line, know the bottom line for your work.