Photography is often a lonely vice. The photographer often conceives him or herself as a voyeur, a flâneur, or an outsider moving through jungles both concrete and real. This is true, not only for photojournalists, of course, but for others as well. Even studio photographers concentrate on their vision and, despite the assistants and models, view themselves as detached eyes, rendering judgments and shaping beauty after their own fashion. Yet photographers need to congregate to compare notes, check up on the competition, and to seek opportunities. The burgeoning portfolio review scene draws upon this need. Two events in Portland, Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, typify the scene.

Portfolio reviews such as at the recent Photolucida and the Society for Photographic Education’s National Conference can only be described as speed dating for photographers. Each photographer has 20 minutes to try to make a connection with a reviewer, whether they are a museum curator, gallerist, publisher, or collector. Just like real speed dating, each photographer is judged on deportment, quality of presentation, valuable skills and various intangibles like charm and finesse. There’s an exchange of ideas, criticism or other commentary, cards, and vague promises of future shows or publications. Sometimes, indeed often, things actually happen between the reviewer and reviewee and the work will land in a gallery or in print in a magazine or book. Occasionally, there are direct purchases of photographs. With five or more portfolio reviews per day for a photographer and more than 18 or so for a reviewer, not counting unofficial reviews in the lobby or hotel bar, over a five-day period, it is an unbelievably grueling emotional roller-coaster for everyone involved, These organised review sessions, at Portland’s Photolucida, Houston’s Fotofest, and Birmingham’s Rhubarb-Rhubarb, have become a most important part of photographers’ attempts to get their work on the walls and in print. For the reviewer, too, there is the chance to find the next big thing.

In the beginning, of course, was Lucien Clergue’s Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, France, founded in 1974. Ten years later, Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss of Houston took up the idea, formalised it with invited reviewers and actual appointments, and the Houston Fotofest was launched to great success. Sensing a need for more review opportunities, Gregg Mankiller, former director of Fotofest’s Meeting Place, started PhotoAmericas with Portland-based partners Guy Swanson and Chris Rauschenberg. After various teething troubles, PhotoAmericas emerged as Photolucida, a biennial photography festival held every other March in Portland, the City of Roses.

Photolucida gathers together some 40 reviewers from Europe and the Americas and around 300 reviewees who pay to be matched with potentially appropriate reviewers. The elaborate software assigns documentary or landscape photographers to reviewers with those interests far more accurately than any dating software. A lottery system is invoked in case of overbooking of the most important reviewers, say someone from a major publishing house or institution that actively collects work. Photographers spend 20 minutes explaining their work, usually in portfolios of 10 to 20 well-edited images, get feedback, make connections, and do it over and over again. Almost no information is wasted. If one reviewer can’t help they will usually point the photographer to another potential reviewer. There is also a lot of “horse-trading” by photographers for coveted review slots.

Although the photography ranges from beginner to museum grade, the quality of work is generally quite high. Part of this is a factor of money. It costs money to come to Portland and to pay for the reviews, and that money goes towards accommodating the reviewers. This whole expense demands complete dedication to photography on top of whatever “day job” one might work at, so mostly only people with a significant financial and emotional interest in their imagery apply to show their work at events like Photolucida. It is also an event that builds on prior experience, and that experience is transferable to many of the other review-oriented festivals where many of the same reviewers attend year after year. The ability to network, and to know who is who, is as important as developing a portfolio over the years.

Beyond the hurly-burly of the portfolio reviews, Photolucida’s reviewers honoured Elaine Ling as the “Photographer of the Year” for her new series of portraits from the Mongolian steppes. A gallery walk-through allowed all participating photographers to show work to everyone present during two shifts on the fourth night of the festival. Finally, in addition to all this speed dating, Photolucida offers an on-going, on-line review process, Critical Mass, that facilitates portfolio reviews once a year and results in a travelling show and book project.

If Photolucida manages to keep up the good work, it all but guarantees that photography will take firm root in Portland, and as for the photographers, one may only hope that everything will be “coming up roses” for them in the years to come.

The Society for Photographic Education’s (SPE) annual general conference also provides a great networking moment for photographers, educators, and students to meet with each other in something that resembles a combination group therapy session and job course.

In recent years the SPE has become more of a forum for the discussion of photography and the inclusion of student photographers has provided a real opportunity to share experiences and feedback while potentially advancing one’s artistic and professional career.

This year’s theme, “Passage”, evoked metaphysical re-examinations of photography’s role in the development of the American West and photography’s own development from silver salts to pixels. Highlights included Mark Klett’s current Yellowstone project that takes his re-photography work, that traced the great railroad photographers of the 19th century, to show changes wrought in the intervening 100 years further into the 21st century’s multi-media, multi-disciplinary approach. Other presentations featured lectures by David Bate from the University of Westminster on Stieglitz’s famous image The Steerage, panels on transgender and transsexual people by Dean Kotula, Mariette Pathy Allen, and Cherie Hiser, as well as all manner of panels and workshops on photography in the digital age.

The SPE and its national conference reinforce their regional events like the old camera clubs of yore, but beyond the networking, criticism, and therapy, they do offer the indirect benefit of exposure and job opportunities. For younger photographers and photo students young and old, it adds another arrow to one’s professional arsenal. Next year’s event is to take place in Chicago in March 2006. The announced theme is “A New Pluralism: Photography’s Future”. 

Bill Kouwenkoven