Are Portfolio Reviews Worth It? Experiences from NYCFotoWorks’ Emerge Face2Face

Posted in Events by Nathan Lee Bush on June 18, 2011

Photographers from around the country converged on Canoe Studios in Chelsea this week for the third annual NYCFotoWorks Emerge Face2Face Portfolio Review. Over three days they met with top reviewers from across the entire industry, from Art Buyers, to Agents, to Gallery Curators. I had the chance to talk with some of the attendees about the experience.

Zack Arias – Commercial Photographer

Nathan Lee Bush: What made you choose this event over other portfolio reviews?

Zack: The diversity of who I could meet between advertising and editorial. And it fit in my schedule.

Nathan: And are you here to make connections or to get feedback or both?

Zack: The main thing is to get feedback. I’m jumping into new waters in the editorial and commercial world. And so this is a good chance to get feedback from the people who make the decisions. So I want to meet people and make connections. I want to have that face-to-face time, so that when I follow up, we’ve met once before. But I’m really just using it as a litmus test to see where my book stands with people.

Nathan: And what’s the best feedback you’ve gotten?

Zack: It’s tough. It’s this whole yin-yang experience where you freak out about your book over and over. Like an hour before my first meeting this week I reedited my book, came in and showed it to three people went back to the apartment, reedited it again, came back, showed my book, and what I’m looking for is what’s rising to the top. What’s an overall consensus on certain images or certain spreads, or the flow of the book. But you sit down with one person and they say “Oh my gosh, I love this picture,” and you sit down with another person and they say “Oh I don’t really like this picture I’d take it out of your book.” So you can go crazy!

Nathan: Do you have any strategies for making the calls in these cases of conflicting advice?

Zack: There are certain things. This is only the second event like this I came to. I came up for a Palm Springs event at PDN Photo Plus last October. And the overall consensus when I showed my book around then was anything that had any look of fashion to it, to take it out of my book, because I’m not a fashion photographer. And if I’m showing my book in New York, which is the epicenter of fashion photography – oh my God, don’t be this hack from Atlanta trying to show anything fashion. And I’m not trying to sell myself as fashion, but anything that even looked sort of fashion. So the book I got up this week has nothing that would be mistaken for fashion. And it’s made the reviews go much better. My book is more concise and I’m getting more positive feedback to the work.

Nathan: Have you thought about moving here or are you entrenched in Atlanta?

Zack: No, I’m married and I have four kids. There’s no way I’m moving to New York. I’d end up hating this town. But I’m up here as much as I can be. And I’m not even trying to get in New York. I’m trying to position myself as: “Hey folks in New York, I’m in Atlanta. If you need something in Atlanta, call me.” Atlanta’s a major hub and we have a lot of work that goes through there and with budgets as they are these days, they can’t always fly everyone around where they want them to be, and a lot more publications –  smaller agency work – they’re looking for someone within a region that can do a job for them. Of course the big jobs they fly whoever they want all over the world. But I’m just getting into this segment of the industry, so I’m looking for the small assignments to get the foot in the door, to deliver… there’s a whole lot there to work with.

Nathan: And how important do you think presentation is to these meetings? I feel like you have a good sense of branding.

Zack: It’s key. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rebranded and rebranded and it’s only just now that I feel real comfortable with my presentation. I believe print book is still king. I met with one agency yesterday here, and they said, “I love that you have a print book and not an iPad. We don’t even look at photographers unless they have a print book. If they show up at our office with an iPad, we’re really not interested. And so I have my print book, with 24 images. I want it to be short, concise, to the point. And I have an iPad with expanded work. So if they make it through the book, and they say “I’d like to see more of this kind of thing,” I have galleries set up on the iPad.

Leslie Hassler – Celebrity Portrait Photographer

Nathan: What is the value for this event to you? What do you get out of them?

Leslie: It’s good to get feedback and critique, because you can get really comfortable just resting in your comfort zone and looking at your own work. But when someone who has seen a lot of work looks at it, and they tell you things like, “I’d rather see more pictures of, say, William H. Macy than just this one…” – I thought they only wanted to see one, because two would be overkill. And usually I think I should narrow it to one. But today I met with the New York Times and the Photo Editor said, “This closeup is great, but I’d love to see one pulled back farther away, not that I can’t extrapolate and know that you can shoot it from farther away, I kind of would rather see it.” She also gave me the idea that it might be a good idea to put an image side-by-side – almost like a double page spread in a book –which I hadn’t really thought of on the iPad, because I thought it would take away the impact of the one shot.

Nathan: And how do you parse which advice is something you’ll implement and which to ignore?

Leslie: If the person seems extremely genuine and interested in my work, I take their advice. If the person seems detached – and maybe I’m not right for their publication, and I can feel it – then I don’t take their advice, because what they’re saying is their own opinion, which is so subjective. And a lot of times you’ll get conflicting opinions. Like yesterday, I had a man say, “I love how you have so much variety in your locations – a lot of studio and a lot of outdoors. And the next photo editor was Esquire, and she said, “I don’t like seeing this shoot here on a farm, and then suddenly there’s a shot on white seamless.” And I though, “Oh, that’s kind of the opposite of what I just heard! Wait a second!” So some of it’s confusing, and you just have to stick with your own style. But then I went home after that second meeting and moved the farm shot away from the seamless shot!” (laughs).

Nathan: So what’s the most essential piece of information you’ve gotten from this?

Leslie: That photography is really hard to make it to the top… and I don’t even know what the top is anymore. And it almost makes me feel like, “alright, I’m happy where I am.” That’s a good thing to take away from this because I’ve been thinking, “I want to be shooting for such and such…” and I still do want to shoot for the New York Times, because money isn’t the issue with them, it’s more the exposure and the credibility. So that’s one thing I’ve been taking away, that I’m happy where I am. But another thing is that it’s good to get out of your comfort zone, which I never really do. And I have this great saying that’s on my fridge, that says, “the road to success begins at the edge of your comfort zone. And it makes me remember that you have to let the light in through the cracks, or else you’re just staying the same. So even though it’s hard for me to get feedback sometimes, it’s also opening me up a little bit.

Richard Gary – Commercial Photographer

Nathan: What have you gotten out of it so far?

Richard: The experience so far has been absolutely wonderful. To have all the people I
wanted to see, in a three day period of time – it could have never happened over a year to meet this many people. I would definitely do it again.

Nathan: And what was the single best piece of advice that you received?

Richard: Just to keep shooting. And everybody mostly loved the work, and wanted to see more work, and to stay in touch. So everything was absolutely positive.

Nathan: Are you planning to adjust your portfolio based on your feedback?

Richard: No, because much more than a review, it was more of a getting to know one another. So it wasn’t too much critiquing on the actual work. It was more about staying in touch and what their projects were coming up, and how I might be able to benefit in that.

Nicky Woo – Portrait and Fashion Photographer

Nathan: How will you change your presentation of your work following this event?

Nicky: For editorial clients, I’ve always included both fashion and portraiture into one book. But a few different editors said that it left them feeling a bit confused as to what I did. So in the future, I’ll only show one type of work at a time.

Nathan: How will the feedback affect the work itself in the future?  

Nicky: Commercially I think, I need to add a few more “real people” to my work, as art buyers can’t always tell what I’ll do with an older person or not-so-perfectly coiffed one.

Nathan: What was your strategy in choosing the reviewers that you did?

Nicky: I mostly chose well established reps. I recently left my agent who did most of my editing in the past, so I was curious what others thought in terms of layout, etc.

Nathan: Were you surprised by the feedback you got?

Nicky: I wasn’t. All of the advice I got was very sound business-oriented, which in our life as artists (at least on some level), is easy to lose site of. 

Nathan: Would you recommend this event to your friends/colleagues?

Nicky: I would!! I think this event will help further your work from a business standpoint and get the work to the next level. I really enjoyed the range of reviewers and condensed time slots (usually it takes weeks to get meetings and prep your book for each). This way it was all very streamlined. 

Chris Davis – Architecture and Fine Art Photographer

Nathan: What were you hoping to get from the review?

Chris: I was hoping to get some good feedback as well as some exposure for a new body of work.

Nathan: Was the event worth it to you? Did it meet your expectations?

Chris: It was. I made some new contacts with art producers/buyers as well as a few agents and a couple of photo editors.

Nathan: How do you distinguish what to take away with the often conflicting criticism/praise?

Chris: As a photographer, it’s important to know your vision and to stay focused on your goals. During reviews, I try to listen objectively, and if a comment really resonates with me, then I know it’s something I need to reevaluate. Not everyone is going to love or even ‘get’ your work; reviewers will make snap judgments about how they perceive your vision. You need to be confident, and not put so much pressure on yourself.  Instead of focusing on specific clients I want to work with, I concentrate on marketing myself for the types of projects that I feel passionate about shooting, because a great shoot can come from any client.

Moshe Brakha and partner/son Eddie Brakha – Editorial and Commercial Photographers

Nathan: Tell me about the event so far.

Eddie: It’s been a really cool experience. I don’t know where you get the chance to meet with so many magazines, agencies and galleries in one sitting. It really gives you an opportunity to meet faces, and that’s a lost art.

Nathan: So you like the variety. Have you met with people from different segments of the industry?

Moshe: Yes, of course. You get to meet the people behind the computer, alive. The rest is a surprise, it’s funny. To see who represents who, you know? I’m actually excited to see it, who is the human that represents which magazine, what type of human? It’s funny, how you feel them up.

Nathan: Any advice that’s really stuck with you?

Eddie: The biggest thing for us coming to this was stepping away from the computer and going back to hand-to-hand combat. Actually showing your work and having the opportunity to explain it. Or not even explain it, but just seeing the face behind the work. And that’s why everyone got into artistry. It’s about the work and about the human being as well. And today maybe you don’t have that as frequently, but this event gives you that chance.

Nathan: So any changes to your portfolio or is this more about connecting for you?

Moshe: No! this is a joke in a way. I do what I do, they do what they do. I didn’t come here to get a lecture about my work. If anything, I’m here to give them a lecture about what I’m doing and explain about myself: who I am? I don’t get to see these kinds of people every day, because I produce, I do. But uh, no, you’re not talking to juniors here, baby.


Nathan Lee Bush is a fashion and fine art photographer and filmmaker in New York City. His work is on his site and blog.


2 Responses

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  1. Lee Love said, on June 18, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Thanks for these interviews. I wanted to attend this year and the perspective of Zack and others is helpful.

  2. […] this blog, Through The Looking Glass, I asked six photographers who attended the Emerge Face2Face Portfolio Review at Canoe Studio about their experience, and how valuable these events are for their business; […]

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