Portfolio review cheat sheet

Often, a portfolio review is only as useful as the preparation you’ve put in before you sit down with the experts. Fiona Sweet is the festival director of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB). In 2017, it runs from 19 August to 17 September. More information can be found at this link.

One of the major events each time is the opportuniuty to attend a portrfolio review and have your work assessed by some of the best in the business.

Below, Fiona Sweet, who has been a portfolio reviewer for over three years for festivals like Obscura Festival of Photography, Daegu Photo Biennale and the Centre for Contemporary Photography Portfolio reviews, to name a few, shares important advice on how to prepare your portfolio as well as general etiquette to ensure your experience is as positive and successful as possible.

 The Quick Cheat Sheet

  • Your portfolio should be a complete body of work with a solid vision (15-20 prints). Do bring alternate portfolios and examples of other work if you want, but your primary presentation should be a complete body.
  • Package your portfolio such that you can carry it, open it, show it, and put it away with minimum fuss. Simple clamshell portfolio boxes are one perennial festival favorite.
  • Research the reviewers as best you can before you show up at the portfolio reviews, and honestly assess which reviewers are the best fits for your work. Not all curators are a good fit for your work. If they are interested in conceptual and you are doing landscapes, the fit might be off.
  • Be ready to talk about your work and explain the concepts that hold your work together. You should have a practiced and concise description that you can comfortably give at any time. Know a few questions that you want to ask each reviewer. Have these in your notebook to remind you if you should forget in the heat of the review. I can’t tell you how many people have wished they had remembered some key thing they wanted to ask!
  • Always be courteous to the reviewers and your fellow photographers. Craig Barber: Be polite. Be professional. Be informed. Do not make excuses about your work. Be patient, do not ask if they are going to give you a show or purchase your work. These events are a building process and generally it takes time for things to evolve.
  • Network with your fellow photographers as they can also serve as a source of contacts and suggestions during the Biennale and afterwards.
  • Respect the 15 minute time slot you have for showing your work and be ready to move on when your time is up. Some overlap is inevitable; however, when the 5 minute warning is called start wrapping it up. If there is more to be said, quickly make an appointment to meet afterwards: if the interest is there an additional meeting will happen.
  • Yes, the reviewers will remember who you are if you follow them into the bathroom to show them your work, and not fondly. Don’t do this. Really, don’t do this.
  • Leave a visual behind...inkjet print, announcement card, whatever. The reviewers are meeting a lot of people and it is the best way for them to remember you. Also, in addition to the hard visual, I generally leave a package with a statement, a current resume and a CD. When the event is over, send thank-you cards and then follow up. There is no point in attending these things if you are not going to do follow-up. They cost too much time and money to drop the ball.
© David LaChapelle
© David LaChapelle

Frequently asked questions

How do I present my portfolio?

The most popular way to present your work is loose prints (matted or not) inside a clamshell portfolio box. Some people use interleaving paper, some matt their work, some have protective mylar envelopes over their prints, some simply have a nice stack of naked prints. If your prints are the same dimension and reasonably flat, then nicely stacked in the same size box is an excellent way to go. If you’re showing book dummies to publishers and the like, you can have your prints bound into a book.

A less popular choice seen at photography festivals is the portfolio book with spiral bound mylar pages, used widely in the commercial photo world. In general, reviewers like to see the actual prints. These are not the only way to present prints, but are the most common. Present your best work and have it be a solid body of solid vision. A little of this and a little of that doesn't work. Limit your work to 18 – 25 prints. I usually present one finished body (18-20 prints) and a taste of what's to come (work in progress...6-8 prints). All work is presented in a professional manner and in a portfolio that is easy to access.

What size should my prints be?

Well, the short answer is: if you can carry it, you can show it. The most common sizes are in the range of 11x14” up to 20x24”. People do bring extra large work, but then you have logistics to work out (can you carry it easily to the reviews, and carry it from table to table easily?).

What should I leave behind?

Reviewers get a lot of leave-behinds to take home. The best are distinctive yet easy to carry. There are a variety of options: postcards, tri-fold cards, accordion booklets. They can be as elaborate or simple as you like, depending on your budget and time constraints. Include all your contact information in addition to the images. Ask if the reviewer wants a bio and résumé (you may be asked to send these rather than to leave them with the reviewer). Follow up with the reviewers afterward. The biggest mistake mentioned by many photographers at their second portfolio review is not following up at their first portfolio review.

Things to remember

If attending openings or parties with reviewers, that is NOT the time to push your work. It is a time to socialise...everyone needs a break at some point.

When you get home, update your contact list, and add your newest crop of reviewers to your mailing list. Keep them updated on your work by sending them postcards when you have new shows. Don’t forget to send materials out to reviewers who specifically requested more materials (slides, CDs, quick digital prints, and the like).