Friday, April 1, 2011

Danielle Avram Speaks. How to Sing Your Song

Some of us consider ourselves emerging photographers. As such we should have two priorities: 1) get good, and 2) get known. If you were among those gathered for the Atlanta Photography Group Speaking of Photography discussion with Danielle Avram on “Building a Portfolio” on March 16, you heard about one of the prime ways to achieve both these goals. Danielle went into just the right amount of detail on how to prepare a formal portfolio of your work and then how to have your portfolio critically reviewed by experts who are knowledgeable about what good photography looks like.

Danielle is indeed in a position of knowledge. She had, until recently, the position of Curatorial Assistant for photography at the High Museum and she played a major role in assembling the current Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition there. Danielle also curated the Point of View exhibition that is currently on exhibition at the High. She’s also reviewed portfolios for Atlanta Celebrates Photography and the Society for Photographic Education, and will review at Photolucida in Portland in April. More details of Danielle’s experience can be found on her Linkedin page.

So, you want to get good. For most of us it is pretty difficult to improve our art without feedback, both positive and negative. This is what a portfolio is all about. We need to assemble our best work into a cohesive package that we can share with people who, like Danielle, are in the know. Our portfolio is our song and the individual images are our notes. Our song is ready for others to hear if the notes come together in harmonious chords and if the chords join into a score that is pleasing to the senses.

Why compose the song?

Danielle told us that our portfolio has multiple purposes.

  • It is our introduction to the artistic world, saying who we are and what our art is.
  • It is what defines us, artistically: what interests us, what processes and genres we are pursuing, and how we choose to present ourselves.
  • It is the primary way we illustrate that we know how to use our artistic tools. 
  • It shows that we have a good idea of what our work represents and that we can tell others about what it means to us.

What is between the pages of the score?

It is clear that we need more than a few notes to create a complete song. Danielle made the following points.

  • A proper portfolio used for review is typically comprised of 15 to 20 high quality prints. The prints alone though are not the complete portfolio. We also need to provide the following.
  • A formal resume or CV (curriculum vitae) of our photographic activities needs to be associated with the portfolio. This presents a list of academic experience, exhibitions in which we’ve shown our work, any periodicals or books that have included our work, and other activities that relate to our artistic endeavors. 
  • Anyone who is looking at our portfolio with a critical eye benefits by knowing more about us. The artist’s biography is similar to the resume but is less formal and written in paragraph form. It says how we came to create our photographic art and our recent successes in singing our song. 
  • We then need a paragraph or two about what our song says. This is the artist’s statement that some have difficulty writing. If we think we take pretty pictures but cannot let others know why we took them, then they are just pretty pictures and not a song. 

What king of song are you writing?

We heard Danielle tell us that there are three different types of portfolios.

  • It is usually expected that our portfolio is comprised of a single body of work that is held together with a consistent idea that we can describe. It is the track we download from iTunes.
  • Now, if we create an album, or even a multi-disk set, we have a continuing series. Some artists work on closely-related themes for years. Danielle used the example of Richard Misrach’s Desert Cantos, a lifetime epic of man’s place in his environment. The portfolio can represent exemplary work from this extended series.
  • For artists who have been doing their thing for decades and who are well known for many separate but complete bodies of works, a portfolio might contain an overview of selected pieces that define key songs or albums from a historical perspective. These “greatest hits” portfolios probably do not apply to most of us. Most of us are happy to just get one song on the charts.
Danielle set the stage, so we now have a better idea of what our portfolio is. However, a song played to an audience of none has little meaning. We need ears to hear us. And this is where Danielle’s six years of expertise in curating photography exhibitions and reviewing portfolios comes in. She and others like her are who we are auditioning for.

Who are you performing to, and why are you playing your song?

When the Black Eyes Peas played to 100 million Super Bowl viewers, they didn’t have to worry about knowing the tastes of every member of their audience. You do though. When you open your portfolio in front of a reviewer like Danielle, you would be advised to know a little about who is on the other side of the table. A museum curator will have a different point of view than book publisher, and the gallery owner will look at a body of work in a way that an academic does not. Learn about each reviewer prior to the review and think about how you are going to address their individual interests.

While you have prepared your portfolio and arranged a review to receive feedback on your artistry, you also need to think about just what you want to do with your work. Do you want a gallery to represent you as an artist? Do you want to work with a publisher to see your hard efforts published in a book? Are you thinking about going a more commercial route and are presenting your portfolio to a potential client. Be clear about you intentions and communicate them effectively to your reviewer.

Now it’s time to audition

You’ve prepared your images and you’ve prepared yourself. Before you perform to an audience, you need to perform for the reviewer. Danielle told us that she has a few likes and dislikes for the portfolio review.

  • Your entire series for a given topic may contain dozens of images but keep the number you bring to a portfolio review to 15 or 20. More than that becomes too unwieldy. Plus, you will probably have only about 20 minutes to show and discuss your portfolio.
  • Don’t bring anything but what you believe to be your best, exhibition-ready prints, even if your series is a work in progress and is not quite complete yet. Danielle said that any size between 8x10 and 16x20 inches is fine to bring in. If you do 30x40s, leave them home. Also, leave your prints unmated. Danielle likes to move the images around the table to see what fits with what and matted images are just too cumbersome.
  • So you just put down $600 for a shiny new iPad. Don’t be tempted to use it to do your portfolio review. Unless you have a multimedia project, galleries don’t display your work by electronic means. So leave your toy at home. 
  • You are using the portfolio review to gain advantage from the reviewer’s expertise. Use it. Ask questions, take notes, find out the why and why not. Although Danielle didn’t mention it, other artists who are experienced with reviews tell me that it is a good idea to bring thumbnail prints of your portfolio images for your own use to take notes about comments of a specific image either during or immediately after the review. 
  • Be prepared to talk. The portfolio is not just about your work. It is also about you. The reviewer will want to know what you think about your art. Help them along on why you took the approach and what it means to you. 
  • Not everything you will hear from the reviewer will be “Gee, I really like this.” Frequently you will hear “This just doesn’t work for me.” Get over it. You are there to learn to get good. Carefully consider your reviewer’s advice. Of course we’ve all heard the horror stories about the reviewer that relishes in destructive, rather than constructive, criticism. They don’t have to like your work, but they should be able to tell you why. If they don’t tell you, ask.
  • How many portfolio reviews in an organized review event such as Atlanta Celebrates Photography lead directly to a show? Not many. Rather look at the review as a networking opportunity. Reviewers and gallerists talk to each other. Word of good work gets around.
  • Leave something of yourself behind for the reviewer to refer to later. In a large reviewing event, a reviewer may see dozens of portfolios. The ‘leave behind’ will help them remember you. A business card, a well-executed mini-image, a resume with your contact information – they all work.
  • Follow up. You should always thank a reviewer for their time by email or personal note after the review. Remember, it’s all about networking. The courteousness of a thank you goes a long way to keep the network active.

You’ve prepared, you’ve auditioned, and now its showtime.

So you’ve gotten good, and you’ve gotten an exhibition. In most galleries the show is not yours; it is the curator’s. You provide the score. The curator directs the orchestra. Here are a few things that Danielle says that the curator, or you if you are directing your own show, needs to consider for the exhibition.

  • How large should the images be, and should they all be the same size? Size depends on the available space and the opinion of the curator. Sometimes consistency in size works. Other times it is boring. There is no fast rule, but all options need to be considered.
  • How should the work be matted and framed? This depends on both taste and current trends. I’ve noted lately that many galleries use classical white mats and black frames for black and white work but often go without a mat and with a white frame for color work. 
  • There are three primary styles of display on a wall: single side by side images, a grid where the images may be stacked, or salon style. Salon style is a seemingly casual random placement of different sizes and different positions. I say “seemingly casual” but be assured that a lot of curatorial work goes into what piece goes next to what other pieces. Ryan Nabulsi used this style very effectively for the Life Support Japan silent auction held March 19 at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery. Be flexible with your curator’s choice on what work best in the wall space available. (By the way, there are a few of the 70 images originally in the Life Support Japan auction still available. They are just waiting for the right benefactor to come along and buy them, supporting a very worthy cause and getting a fine piece of art to boot. Go here to read about the auction and to see the remaining available images.) 
  • Do you see your work in a book? You might think about it, but photographers I know who have gone that route say that a lot of Work, with a capital “W”, should be expected before it is done. My guess is that very few bodies of work are large enough or consistent enough to be considered for the book format. But, if it can be achieved, the end result is often beautiful.
  • Major exhibitions are often accompanied by ephemera relating to the prints. These might be published magazines, letters, or bits and pieces that tie closely to what is on the wall.
  • Danielle told us of the effectiveness of non-traditional ways to display our work. She sites Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, done as a slide show set to music, as being a particularly meaningful example. 

Have you forgotten the finale?

Danielle left us with a few “Don’t forgets” – tips and hints that will make our performance a memorable one.
  • It’s all in the print. If you have a first-class image but you can’t effectively render it on paper then it will go nowhere. If you print yourself, learn to do it well. If not find a first class printer. Danielle told us that to a curator it matters little if you or a third party does the printing, as long as it is high quality.
  • Edit, edit, edit. If the print is not of the highest quality, don’t put it into the portfolio. Is it in focus (or obviously intentionally out of focus)? Is there sufficient detail in the shadows? Are the highlights burnt out? 
  • Aren’t iPhone apps and Photoshop filters fun? They may have a place in a few galleries but most often, not. Be careful about contrast, saturation, and using overworked fads in processing. As Danielle said “The best work is a combination of expert technical execution and solid critical thinking.”
  • Yes, wall-sized images are impressive. Don’t assume though that the curator will choose the largest size you can arrange just because it is big. There is something to be said for intimacy.
  • Be flexible. The curator has the experience to know how your images will look best. Go with their flow, even if your opinion may differ somewhat.

Before you take the final bow…

Danielle Avram told us to be aware of where you are in the grand scheme of things. If you are in photography for the sheer fun and approach your art and your craft casually, be happy with the fun but don’t be surprised if your work doesn’t get onto the walls more often. However if you want to get good and to get known, put the hours into it, prepare your portfolio with diligence and care, and approach a portfolio review with enthusiasm and with an open mind.

After digesting Danielle's talk, you might also want to peruse the Photolucida guideline document for portfolio reviews. 

Thank you, Danielle for an enlightening evening and for the advice on how to make beautiful music from our photographic art.

Text other than direct quotations are copyright 2011 by Richard Ediger.

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