Review Santa Fe After-Action Report

Spent last weekend at Review Santa Fe. It was a terrific experience.

I had planned to tweet and/or blog regularly in real time while in Santa Fe, but I found I was too busy to dedicate the necessary mind-space to those tasks. And, as I was putting this post together, my new friend, photographer, and fellow RSF participant Jonathan Blaustein published his own account of this year’s review over on Rob Haggard’s excellent A Photo Editor blog.  JB really captures the feel of the experience, and I recommend checking out his post in addition to mine–if not instead of it.

A week out, my mind is still spinning, but a few preliminary thoughts:

• New Mexico? Love it. Except for a half-day driving near Los Alamos and Bandelier National Monument, we spent the vast majority of our time in Santa Fe. I love the landscape, the climate (a dry heat), and the people. I can’t wait to go back, and easily could be convinced to live there. Next time maybe I’ll actually have time to do some real shooting. (You can bet on it.)

• I’ve never seen so much world-class photography under one roof. The work I saw—and I probably got to see half of it in pretty good detail—was uniformly exceptional, each body in its own way. The level of craft and technical accomplishment was very high, as I’d expect from an international juried review. It was humbling to be among this group of talented people.

• For the most part, my reviewers were diligent and professional. I had the sense that each of the nine I met with (there were 40 present in all) was genuinely enthusiastic about being there. I can’t say that I, or my work, clicked equally with each reviewer—tastes, personalities, and communication styles obviously differ widely.  But I got the sense that they all loved photography and tried to give me their best advice. I also got the same sense listening to the other photographers talking about their reviewers. Downright god-awful experiences (as opposed to “I didn’t get a firm show/book/assignment deal out of my meeting!”) seemed to be a rarity.

• I enjoyed most of all talking to the other participants, viewing their work, and sharing my own for feedback and encouragement. Since to mention any one photographer’s help would be to slight many others by omission, I won’t. And while everyone I met approached the experience with a generous heart,  a few went above and beyond. You know who you are, ’cause I’ve already expressed my thanks. Much obliged.

What did I learn about my own work? The individual images in 52 Miles were well received, but can still use tweaking as a body. I need to better discern, and focus upon, one or two  individual themes among the several that I and others have found running through the work, to make for a more cohesive and disciplined body of images.

On the technical side, a couple of my reviewers and a few of my fellow photographers commented on the highly saturated colors present in some of my images. While this is an aesthetic choice I made when I chose the film and the light—I do very little color manipulation in post, beyond contrast and black- and white-point adjustment—I don’t want issues of color to overshadow composition and dominate the viewer’s perception of the work. So I’ll be scrutinizing my color rendition for ways to make it serve the images better, where that’s an issue.  (Strangely, one of my reviewers actually commented that he found the images to be undersaturated—that’s a first! Goes to show you how individualized is the human perception of color; and how it can be affected by many factors, even as simple as the color of the illumination in the room where the images are viewed.) In work I’ve done more recently than 52 Miles I’ve favored a more muted color palette overall, through choice of film. Lately, it’s been more Portra NC, less VC, with the occasional Ektar 100 when only surreal color will do. Fuji has somewhat forced this transition by discontinuing its entire pro color negative film lineup except for the fairly neutral-and-true 400H. So those nuclear Fuji greens straight out-of-box will be a thing of the past for me.

Further, several people pointed out a potential problem with color casting in a few of the images. I hadn’t noticed this before; it’s subtle, but present, mainly in images where I had to try to balance the warmer color of neutrals in direct sunlight in part of the image, with those in much bluer open shade in other image areas. Fortunately, this should be easily remedied.  I’d rather have discovered and fixed this before the review than during it, of course. But this kind of candid feedback, delivered constructively, was helpful and welcome.

Not sure what I’m going to do moving forward. Other than possibly Critical Mass this summer, I plan to withdraw from the contest- and portfolio-review circuit for a while to concentrate on making images. It’s a lot to manage the marketing and promotion of one’s work while also trying to create it at a high level. (Jonathan was right when he made the point that a high-intensity event like Review Santa Fe is not for the faint of heart, either in preparation or in execution.) I’m eager to go on to further projects and different images, and I’m mulling a few ideas for interest and logistical feasibility. I’m thinking of laying 52 Miles aside for a while as I do so, maybe to return to it with renewed eyes. It can stand on its own as it is, and it may be finished. Or maybe not.

So I’m taking the advice of a good friend and highly-talented, widely-exhibited fellow photographer—also a Review Santa Fe participant—to step off the merry-go-round and rediscover what made this fun to start with: making pictures. Nonetheless, I’d love another trip to Review Santa Fe, when the time is right and when I have a new body of work worthy of the event.


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