What my first portfolio review was like

By Joseph Irvin

In a nutshell: it was like a boxing match between me and the world, or perhaps between me and my ego.  I’m unsure at this point which, because I’ve now taken so many blows to the head that I’m surprised it’s still attached.

Like lambs to the slaughter?

What was I even supposed to get out of it?  I probably went in with the wrong hopes and expectations, and that definitely got me taken down a peg.  I was sorely mistaken if I thought that everyone would see my brilliance and that the world would open up for me immediately, as well as ashamed that I dared to have such high hopes in the first place.  But to carry the boxing metaphor farther, you shouldn’t step into the ring with a great fighter expecting to win, but because he will show you were your heart is.

Fellow fighters swapping war stories, figuratively

So let’s start out with some confessions: I was underprepared.  I didn’t know who I really wanted to have look at my work, just signed up for eight timeslots and then went down the list of people who sounded interesting.  And then I signed up for an extra one while I was there!  I didn’t really delve into what work they did or found interesting as much as just went off of suggestions from others as to whom I might want to talk to.  Because these people that were reviewing our work, I don’t know if I should think of them as gatekeepers to the art world, or people who struggled up from the same place we’re currently at, or gods delivering judgement on whom was worthy of bestowing Their wisdom.  I keep thinking of it as us vs. them, and naming them as “portfolio reviewers” seems to keep them on a level that makes them simultaneously more and less than Human.

From the public photo showcase later on that day

I also acknowledge that I may have been asking the wrong questions.  Then again do I know what the right questions are?  I was hoping to be told by these subhuman gods just where to go to have my work accepted.  Instead, they were more interested in telling me what direction to take my project to have it accepted by them.  Every reviewer had their own things that they liked and didn’t like, and hearing so many conflicting opinions was of course aggravating.  But despite what they might have told me about my work, I hardly ever got the sense that I was hearing what they really, truthfully thought of it.

It did feel a bit like a conveyor belt system

After a while though I was able to stop listening to the individual words coming out of their stone-faced visages and hear a buildup of consensus and that is what helped me get Direction.  The thing is that I was hoping find this photo project’s ending point and move onto different things; instead I consistently heard “you need to keep going.”  And while I initially found the upbeat encouragement flattering, there’s ultimately something soul-sucking about having so many people react so enthusiastically to your work while simultaneously making you feel like nothing you do will ever be good enough for them.  But I didn’t come to that conclusion until sometime on my second day.

This lady on the right was wonderful: we started out as enemies but throughout the evening built up a rapport and discovered she knew an old college professor of mine from back in the day

In the interim we photographers had a public showcase of our portfolios which was nice as a way to gauge the reaction of regular people.  That’s what all these black & white photos have been because I was far too busy during actual portfolio reviews to make photos for an article on this website.  Thinking about the experience afterward, the work I really wanted to show publicly to everyone at the showcase was in a little 5×7 box.  Instead I spread out everything I had over more than my share of table space and ended up giving everyone information overload.  It would have been bolder to display the box all by itself but I can only see that in hindsight.

It was there though, and some still got the message
Finding commonalities between this day and my ongoing photo project
Observing the subject of people’s attention without actually showing it

There were however some great little nuggets of Wisdom that The Reviewers imparted to me, to which I can cling.  There were a few that took the time and effort to give more of themselves, whether that was to come to the public showcase, or one guy who looked at my work beforehand and brought me some material to look through for inspiration: I really appreciated that.  Another guy told me that my work spoke about the relationship between land & people better than most of the other photographers there.  That was special and built me up.

And he tried to communicate something of the importance of context between consecutive images

But as the second day went on I began to realize just how tired I was, how sick of fighting I’d become.  Sick of everything, really, from my work, my own life, to everything in between.  And I suppose I bitched about it more and more to my peers.  If I can call them that, because nearly everyone I talked to was at least a full decade older than me and they all seemed to have so much experience, wisdom, patience, what have you.  I suppose that I didn’t take nearly enough time to get to know them, I was saving as much of my energy for The Fight as I could and might have missed a key element of the process as I was too busy focusing on my own problems.  They still helped me out by patching me up between rounds, as it were.

A couple more of the wonderful people I got to know, doing what they do far better than I do

There was plenty of hangout time and I could have stayed in our Green Room looking at colleagues’ work more.  Some of my fellow photographers were generous enough to ask to see my work, and I was happy to show them.  I did look at some of their work as well of course, but not enough.  One of the things I remember learning at college was how to avoid common words/phrases in critiquing my classmates, being encouraged instead to find different ways of imparting reactions to their work.  I definitely made use of that when talking to my colleagues.

There were always people willing to look at your stuff

I suppose that my mood changed quite a lot over the course of the two days, from one of giddy anticipation at the beginning to near total defeat by the end.  But I was open to opportunities and willing to accept invitations as they were presented, one of which involved sitting next to a woman whose work I found really fascinating.  It involved a little creative rearranging of the table seating chart and was a bold move for me, a bit out of character.

Delighted

I subconsciously tried to make up for it the next day by paying it forward to another photographer who was told he had a shot at a career as a photojournalist, and needed to get in to see this one particular reviewer.  I guess I could have given him my timeslot but instead asked him to buy an open timeslot of another reviewer that I was interested in talking to.  And that’s something we remarked upon, kind of treating the portfolio reviewers as no more than baseball cards: I’ll trade you Ken Griffey Jr. for Nolan Ryan!

In retrospect I turned what should have been a free Gift into a Bargain or Agreement.  And it was a poor bargain: that timeslot was the absolute last one of the day and I was so exhausted already, that I almost immediately regretted having to wait around for it instead of skipping out early.  And the thing is, I already went eight rounds, why didn’t I see that the fight was already over?

You’ve heard that all portraits are really self-portraits?  I can’t argue…

By then it was too late and I had to stick it out to the bitter end: the one thing I wasn’t about to do was shy away from one last round, even if I knew in advance that I was going to lose.  I went in and sitting down talking to this woman, I didn’t really want her opinions, I was too tired for it, I just wanted to complain about the whole experience.  At the same time, I wanted to acknowledge the generosity of time that all these wonderful people had put in, their stamina in looking at so many other people’s work for two whole days when I had the opportunity to leave the place for several hours at a time.

But I broke a cardinal rule of gaining acceptance at these things: Don’t go into the review saying that you’re sick of the work.  Because at the end of it all, I still wanted to know if this reviewer had anything different to say, and she did: she told me that if I couldn’t find my motivation anymore then I should drop photography and go back to making music.

And since that day in the middle of March I’ve had a lot of questions in my head: Do I believe that last reviewer taking her at face value, or was it just a Challenge?  What is Truth?  Can I believe anything anyone said now?

The woman whom I signed up for last-minute, who was the most enthusiastic about my work and I thought was willing to help further it along?  The man who asked me to email him a PDF of my portfolio because he sometimes publishes human interest stories?  The woman who said hardly two words to me during my review but was the only one to reply to my Thank You email?

Any little bit of helpful encouragement, little hints from the consensus of the chorus of reviewers saying: “Keep going?”

Am I good enough?  Am I even a photographer anymore?

Am I even still alive?

Is that a bell I just heard?

What a reminder every time I took a piss

Technical note: all images were taken with the Nikon F4 and the 35mm f/2 AI-S Nikkor lens (except maybe one or two as I did also have a 50mm f/1.8 with me and I’m too tired to judge which were which right now).  Film used was Cinestill 800T and Kodak T-Max P3200.
Lab developed.  Scanned/finished by myself using the Pakon F335 and Affinity Photo.
You can find my the sum total of my work at The Resurrected Camera or for strictly photo project work, my Instagram: @thefamouspdog.

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About The Author

By Joseph Irvin
Joseph Irvin is a Colorado-based composer/photographer/filmmaker. He started shooting film after rescuing his grandpa's 35mm cameras from being neglected in a drawer. Since 2014 he has operated the photography blog The Resurrected Camera and is currently shooting a photo project documenting the Colorado tourism industry.
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Joseph Irvin on What my first portfolio review was like

Comment posted: 23/07/2023

Hi guys, thanks for your thoughts, but I'm hardly giving up.
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DANIEL CASTELLI on What my first portfolio review was like

Comment posted: 23/07/2023

Well, as you state in your bio, you're looking for love. Get a dog. The dog will love you unconditionally. You're not going to find love at a portfolio review. I just rediscovered the work of a London-based photographer. I don't have his name at the tip of my fingers, because I'm at my laptop, and the article is in a folder in my darkroom [the two don't meet.] The point is, his work consists of city shots with strong, almost pure black knife-edged shadows. The subject is illuminated by narrow, bright areas. Very dramatic. I bet his failure rate is high to get one great shot. Now, I can just imagine a critic saying to him "this shot would be much better if you retained more details in the shadow area" or "What is this picture about? Geometric patterns? Isolation of urban life? If the human figure is the main element, then you should emphasize their presence by printing them larger." To many critics, no song is sweeter than their own voice. See. Shoot. Refine. Distill. Reshoot. You'll get there, your soul will be intact, and your dog will love you.
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Geoff Chaplin on What my first portfolio review was like

Comment posted: 23/07/2023

Having seen many other people having reviews, and also listening to people's reactions to other art, I soon realised that reviewers too have their own personal taste. I decided to do what I wanted, what I liked, and in the way I like to present it, and if the rest of the world doesn't like it I don't care. As a consequence I've had many public exhibitions at third party gallery space, satisfying in a way but not something I feel I need. Echoing the comments of others - do the sort of photography, and presentation, that you like, but find a philosophy!
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Jerome on What my first portfolio review was like

Comment posted: 22/07/2023

Art, like beauty, is, and always will be, in the eye of the beholder. I like Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh — impressionists, generally speaking. Their works are revered today, but were harshly criticized initially. Bizet’s Carmen was booed when first performed, but is now a favorite. Any judgment of art is necessarily subjective, and what is lauded always shifts with time. Reviews are good for technical aspects perhaps, and if one can become a darling of the critics, it could lead to money and recognition faster when it gets work into galleries. But at any given time, the critics will make their choice, and with changing times will often be wrong. Posterity decides what endures, not critics. One must follow his or her vision.
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John Fontana on What my first portfolio review was like

Comment posted: 22/07/2023

I was so de-moralised by a failed attempt at a Royal Photographic Society award that I gave up the hobby for over 5 years, selling all my gear and destroying years of work. When the spark re-ignited ( a costly process in terms of new equipment), I pursued my interest with a different philosophy that did not chase after peer approval but only self-reward. Still, the desire to share my work with others culminated in my staging a small exhibition of thirty monochrome prints in my village this year that was visited by many and produced very positive feedback. I will be cautious however that this won't change my personal approach of now making images primarily for self-fulfilment.
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Helge on What my first portfolio review was like

Comment posted: 22/07/2023

Becoming your own worst critic is super super important. Most people will be too shallow in their self critique. Picking up small flaws, insignificant or unimportant for a developing photographer. Or they will be too damning and despairing and give up photography, or not show their work to anyone. You have to develop an ability to see your work through the eyes of other intelligent people.
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Jalan on What my first portfolio review was like

Comment posted: 22/07/2023

Joseph, I think your feelings are pretty normal! Interesting that I read your post this morning as I am heading out for my first art show. I am feeling a lot of what you wrote - what if no one buys anything? But that social fear is also tempered with the thought that I like my prints! I am proud of all the work I did. I quit my job to be a full time artist and here I am doing it. So if I don't see a whole lot that's OK. I am doing what I wanted to do so I should be happy!
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