Palm Springs Photo Festival, and the Good, Bad and Surprisingly Pleasant thing about Portfolio Reviews – Part 1
Well, just spent a hectic but awesome week in Palm Springs, California at the 10th Annual Palm Springs Photo Festival. I have now done 3 or so festivals (of which only another in New York in the US) and must say this was by far the most relaxed and enjoyable and inspiring on a personal level. It was a complete whirlwind of a week, spending anything up to 15 hour days non-stop with workshops, reviews, networking, symposiums and presentations. Apart from the workshops (which I’ll come back to in subsequent blogs) the highlight had to be the daily presentations by some of the biggest and historically-significant photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark, William Albert Allard, Dan Winters, Jock Sturges and Frank Ockenfels. Seeing Mary Ellen Mark’s presentation in particular made the largest impression even though I must say I had seen and heard a lot of the stories about her seminal work before. Seeing her talking about it in person though was an experience of note. Along with Don McCullin and Lee Miller she is one of three photographers who inspired me most to become a photojournalist and get into photography in the first place. I have posted her talk on my fb page if anyone is interested. At 75 years of age and looking painfully frail I imagine this might be the last time I would get to see her talk and just being there to witness it was an honour in itself.
Meeting my fellow photographers from all walks – all connected by their dedication to the cause and seeing their work was almost as important and inspiring as well. Sometimes stuck out in a small village outside Cape Town I really miss contact with my fellow peers from around the world so just getting to hang and talk photography was such a great experience in itself.
On a professional level, the workshops and showing my new work was the main reason for flying all the way from Cape Town to attend. I have done a few portfolio reviews and had general conversations about their worth with people who sit on the other side of the review table and had my doubts before as to what I would ultimately gain from them. It is great that you have so many prominent members of the photog community that you might want to see in one place, but the fact that they are seeing anything up to 30 photographers in a day in small 20 minute segments doesn’t help you stand out and puts a photographer at an instant disadvantage. I had been told by a reviewer that in general a photographer is lucky if he gets one good contact to begin building a positive relationship with from all the reviews he might do.
Going in therefore my expectations were already low. But my experience after 10 reviews during the week was very positive. I think having done them before and knowing exactly what I wanted from them really helped. I was there to show a new style of work and artistic and conceptually-based long term projects, to get feedback and advice and to maybe start relationships to build on in the long-term with prominent members of the art and book world of photography – an area where I haven’t had much contact in the past. Firstly the general consensus was that the pieces worked and were strong (the Karoo project as I clearly stated from the outset was early in development and needed a lot more work but had good foundations but the Hangberg work was perceived as ready to go).
On the downside, the socio-documentary based nature of the work and South African content means that avenues especially in the gallery world in the US are limited. I knew that already but what came out of the reviews is that it is not necessarily impossible. What I will need to do (and something I knew before) is to start by approaching local globally esteemed galleries in South Africa and use such representation to build up interest elsewhere. As I said when this was brought up in the reviews, I essentially want both projects to be airtight and completely ready before approaching galleries in SA and I was more at Palm Springs to get the necessary feedback and use the general consensus to help in the development of the projects. And on that level, the reviewers connected with this approach and helped enormously.
In terms of starting relationships though I was more than pleasantly surprised with quite a few giving me their details and asking me specifically to keep them informed on developments. One really cool guy and also large and esteemed book publisher, who I thought would not develop into much, gave me his personal mobile phone contact details and allowed me to call him for advice as the projects progress. I think a lot of that as well has to do with the way photographers connect with the reviewers. I was particularly relaxed and often joked with them and just talked about all things even outside photography. I even talked about growing olive trees with the book publisher I just mentioned which is his passion now for a good 3/4 minutes of my review. When meeting Holly Hughes (PDN Editor-in-Chief – a highly respected and important mag for us photographers based out of NY – I advise all photographers who don’t already to read it regularly for advice, great work and keeping up with what is going on with all fields in photog- it is in fact my homepage) asked what I wanted out of the review I immediately joked back – well to publish all my work of course! I didn’t obviously knowing that is not what these reviews are about. But breaking the ice in such ways is a good way to settle in and hope to build later on a serious working relationship. One reviewer who I particularly wanted to see and who I found out later had told someone independently he thought mine was the best portfolio he had seen, ended our pleasant session by saying ‘Now get the hell away from my desk!’ – I responded with feigned puppy dog eyes ‘But I thought you liked my work?!’ to which he replied ‘Nah – not that much – now go!’. We both laughed as I walked away.
Ironically where I had most success in actual direct leads for work was the editorial side of things which I wasn’t really at the festival to focus on. I bumped into a couple of editors I had done jobs for before (and whom I had never met in person). It is so important – even in the inter-connected digital age to do things the old fashion way and meet face to face. Tracey Woods of Essence Mag in particular was great to bump into. I had shot Michelle Obama as part of the press pack for her when she visited SA a few years ago. Had a few long chats and even pitched one of my older stories I have done (the Life After Rape portrait series). Not saying it will be published but the interest was there and it is now up to me to follow up.
I even had interest to publish one of my long-term projects in a US-wide magazine. I didn’t really go for meeting mag editors at the reviews thinking that publishing such art-based projects might hurt my chances later to get them into the gallery and book publishing world. That turns out to be a load of nonsense. I should have therefore done more meetings with mag editors but have enough contacts anyway worldwide in that area to go back to SA and do that myself.
All in all, I came away very positive from the reviews and networking. But this is well and truly just the beginning of a long journey. The groundwork has been laid but it is wholly in my court how and where I take this and build on the positives that came out of the sunny desert of California in the awesome shadow of the San Bernardino Mountains.