PhotoNOLA debriefing

Hotel room view, Central Business District, New Orleans, 12/09
Hotel room view, Central Business District, New Orleans, 12/09. iPhone camera.

I’m a week status post PhotoNOLA, and finally starting to more fully assimilate the experience. Bottom line: I’m so glad I went. I learned a lot; got useful feedback; gained some much-needed direction and confidence; and saw a boatload of first-class photography. And all the while throwing down on epicurean food and drink. Not even the cold drizzle could ruin the trip. I’m still trying to make sense of all of it; but herewith, a few preliminary thoughts.

First, the people at the New Orleans Photo Alliance deserve major credit for the herculean work they did putting this event together. Nine months (at least) of labor went into this shindig. I almost hate to mention any names, because singling out some means slighting others; but Lori Waselchuk and Jennifer Shaw spring immediately to mind. Then there’s Sam Portera, who had to help run things as well as get his own (excellent) work ready to be reviewed. Plus, there was an army of volunteers around making the trains run on time and generally being helpful and encouraging. To everyone, I say a heartfelt “thanks.”

Curb, Chartres Street, New Orleans, 12/09. iPhone camera.

As for the actual review process itself, I had few preconceived notions going in, since this was my first-ever review experience. So for those readers who haven’t done a review, and are wondering about the mechanics of the undertaking, I’ll sketch the process briefly.

Bearing your portfolio, you enter a large room, and find your assigned reviewer among the twenty-odd who are arrayed at two-person tables just big enough to spread out your work. Ideally, you want the reviewer to be able to see and move through the work without having to struggle with the images. With this in mind, I had been forewarned not to print too huge. However, as if to prove me wrong, one of my fellow attendees who didn’t get that memo presented well-received work of at least 3 x 4 feet that she just left in the review room on its hand truck! That proves that some work just needs to be big; hers did, and it was beautiful stuff.

Though I think my work is too small at 8.5 x 11 inches, it doesn’t require huge size to be effective. Although I can print up to 17 inches wide in-house, I decided on 13 x 19 “Super A3” paper as the best compromise between a good visual experience and ease of transportation and handling. At my usual 6 x 7 image proportions, this meant images around 12 x 14 or 12 x 15 centered on this size paper. I had generous white margins all around for handling and “framing” the work. It seemed to work out quite well; no reviewer seemed obsessed with these sorts of issues.

Once introductions are made and you’ve sat down, the talking and image viewing, in some combination, begin. It was about evenly divided among my eight reviewers whether they’d like to hear my spiel before, or during, their viewing; but most of my reviewers wanted to do their own image handling. I had the work in clam-shell Print-File boxes exactly sized for Super A3 paper. These are both sturdy and attractive, and facilitate going through the work. You view an image, and then turn it upside down into the opened clam-shell lid. At review’s end you just flip the viewed stack back over into the bottom of the box, where it stays in order and is ready to go for the next reviewer. I’d recommend this way of doing things.

I carried two of these boxes in a lightweight portfolio bag, and had no trouble handling this bundle, or finding space for it on airplanes. For the trip to NOLA I had the images separated by glassine interleaving paper to prevent image chafing; but most importantly, the paper and the boxes were size-matched so that little or no shifting—allowing damage—could take place during transport. I removed the interleaving for the actual reviews. And though I brought white gloves, no one asked for them and I didn’t offer. I felt that letting people handle the work was important. Gloves would have seemed silly and pretentious.

I had briefly considered putting the work into a ring binder within those polyester portfolio binder sleeves backed by black paper. Some of my fellow reviewees presented their work that way, and it’s a viable option. But I wanted the reviewers to really be able to see the quality of the printing and of the paper itself, since I felt that these tangibles were working for me and my work—correctly, as events proved. However, I did carry with me a “mini-portfolio” in a 5 x 7 Itoya portfolio wallet with such sleeves bound in. This proved useful for quickly showing the work on the fly away from the actual review table—my primary reason for bringing it. However, it was also handy for allowing reviewers to quickly flip through the entire portfolio to consider my editing and sequencing choices, and to more easily gain an appreciation of the work as a body. I still don’t think I’d want to put the actual full-size review pieces into such a wallet; the tactile experience of handling well-made images is important.

“Leave behind” materials are crucial, and I expended a lot of effort on mine. My fellow reviewees’ materials ran the gamut of what’s possible and creative, and most were excellent, so mine is but one method. I had decided on simple 6 x 6 inch cards with one of my portfolio images on each, above my basic contact info in the wide bottom margin. I’d read that it’s best not to make these too huge (hard to carry or fit into a briefcase) or too small (easily lost or overlooked), and I wanted them to have more visual impact than a simple business card.

one of my PhotoNOLA leave-behind cards
one of my PhotoNOLA leave-behind cards

I printed these on the same Epson 3800 I used to produce the review portfolio pieces, but on a slightly warmer-toned paper. I specifically chose this paper because of its heavy weight and unobtrusive surface sheen. They looked quite good, if I do say so myself. I had several favorable comments about their size, shape, portability, and tactile and visual qualities. I wish I’d made more of them; I brought about fifty, and had to ration them towards the end so I’d have something left to give my reviewers! Indeed, most of my reviewers took more than one; one person took four! That made me happy, of course.

I also brought a bunch of conventional business cards. These, I had thought, would be the primary leave-behind to give to my fellow participants and to other non-reviewers expressing an interest in my work. This was a tactical error. The cards contain a bright graphic image that was not a part of the review portfolio I brought. Marketing 101 #FAIL. They are heavyweight and well-printed, and stand alone well; but next to my review work and my complementary leave-behind cards they looked jarring and discontinuous. I got (rightly) chastised by one reviewer, who told me to leave them at home next time. Good advice, and a mistake I’ll not repeat. If I ever do bring business cards, they’ll seamlessly match the graphic look of the rest of my materials.

What about my spiel itself? This, as expected, was a work in progress, and got better (I hope) with each review session. It was a dynamic process, as editing, sequencing, and thematic feedback from my reviewers and from my fellow participants helped me focus and refine my concept of what the work is about, and how to talk about it. I still never felt exactly comfortable with my presentation, which mainly reflects an ongoing internal dialog about its themes and meaning. I did realize, though, that I need to rename the body of work; I’m considering that change right now.

Based on other feedback, and on things I learned at some of the lectures I attended, I’ve already tweaked my website, with more changes to follow. I’ve returned to my previous persistent menu, discarding the more “modern” but arguably less-navigable disappearing menu I’d added. I’ve cleaned up the typography and some of the text-page language, and trimmed the galleries’ image sets down to what I consider the absolute best work I have to offer. I’ve added an additional text page listing my exhibits and publications; previously, this information was found within my bio. (I’ve finally done enough so that the listing doesn’t look quite so, er, spartan.) There’s still more to do, though. Next up, tightening and refining my statements; and possibly a gallery rename or two. I welcome any feedback you wish to offer after visiting my site. I imagine it will always be a work in progress, but I feel like I’m getting there, slowly but surely.

As far as regrets or complaints about the experience—I have none of significance. Two things I’d mention: first, I had a heck of a time hearing some of my reviewers in the review room. With 44 other review pairs plus helpers in the room, it was quite loud in there. Not sure what can be done about this, except to spread people farther apart, which of course requires a larger room. That won’t always be feasible. So if you are a reviewer, please speak up a bit, and don’t worry about being overheard. Honestly, I don’t remember ever “hearing” an individual voice among the din, so focused was I on what my reviewer was saying, and what my responses would be.

The other quibble? I wish I’d been able more easily to really look at my fellow participants’ work. I felt like I should man my own table at the PhotoWalk, which was the main opportunity to see the others’ work laid out on tables open to all to view. So other than snippets, I didn’t really get to take full advantage of this opportunity. My other chance would have been in the “holding area” where we all waited between review sessions.. Much of the time there, however, I was writing or recording notes to myself about a review session just finished, or composing my thoughts for upcoming ones, so I didn’t feel particularly gregarious. Still, I managed to meet a number of my fellow photographers showing work I’d have been proud to call my own.

I’m left to consider what my further steps will be for this work. More on that as things progress. In the meatime, I have a lot of follow-up work to do. What a great experience. Thanks again, NOPA.


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