About three weeks ago I attended FotoWorks NY, an event designed to allow photographers to meet potential clients. For about two months prior to going, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. My concern was that in my experience, feedback is most trustworthy when it is spontaneous and free. The event was not free. Depending on how many meetings you paid for, the event could cost as little as around five hundred dollars for four meetings, or thousands for the dozens of meetings that were possible. I wondered if the feedback received at this event would be the same as what I might expect if I met the art directors, photo editors, and art buyers at their place of business.
When I was working as an illustrator, it was never difficult to arrange meetings with art directors. Certain people might be tough to get appointments with but others were more than willing to fill the gap in my schedule. Those meetings were free, which had the effect of making me trust the feedback more. With no fee paid to the art directors, they had no vested interest in making me happy. Now, in the post 9/11 world, I have found it is very difficult to get appointments with anyone to show my portfolio. This likely is also related to the advent of the Internet, which makes web-based portfolio viewing more convenient for art directors than arranging an in-person meeting. The problem with Internet portfolio reviews is that I had no idea how people react to my work. Sitting across a desk from an art director, it is very easy to get an impression from their facial expression, posture, how quickly they go through the portfolio, which images they linger on, what they say, and how they answer questions. On the Internet, they can look anonymously, leaving no opportunity for feedback.
Feedback is second only to cash as far as value to creative professionals are concerned. FotoWorks, I was told, was a venue where I could get the feedback I needed to tailor my portfolio to the needs of the kind of clients I wanted. On top of that, I would meet people I might not have met otherwise, some of whom might become clients. In the end, I decided to go. The reason is that the price of a dozen meetings at FotoWorks, as high as it seemed to me, was still less than the cost of travelling to New York City the four or five times it would take to meet the same number of people. With FotoWorks, I could get twenty meetings a day if I was so inclined, a near-impossibility if I tried to make the appointments on my own and had to travel from building to building between each meeting.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the streets of New York City, fair warning: Do not enter “29 West” in your car’s navigation unit in place of “West 29th Street”. I did, and had a very long drive as a result. It took me through Connecticut and left me out near LaGuardia airport on Long Island, with ten minutes to go before my first meeting. Luckily, they gave my spot to someone else and then I got the other guy’s spot when I arrived ten minutes late. This is to FotoWorks’ credit, because they were prepared for things like this. Throughout my time there, I saw this several times. An art buyer or photographer would be late or cancel but they quickly found substitutes and kept things moving.
Although I understood that FotoWorks NY was a portfolio review, I came away with a different impression. To me, a “review” is when someone examines a portfolio and provides constructive feedback. That did happen from time to time during the meetings I had but only as an incidental feature. The meetings more closely resembled the pitch meetings I’ve had with art directors. In those, the goal is to pitch my work to the art director so that they hire me on a future occasion. The difference between a review and a pitch is that the photographer would be expected to be more passive in a review, active in a pitch. Because I thought of the meetings as reviews, I was fairly passive in the first few meetings I had. I handed over the portfolio and waited for the feedback, which was slow in coming. Later, after having a few conversations with other photographers, I realized I should be pitching my work. That meant introducing myself, my work, the kinds of things I shoot, and my background as I narrated details of various shoots while the reviewer looked through my portfolio. My impression was that pitching was more effective than waiting for feedback, if for no other reason but that the reviewers seemed to expect it and were perplexed when they weren’t pitched to.
Meeting other photographers at FotoWorks was almost as useful as the meetings with art buyers. These happened between meetings, in a large room set aside for attendees while waiting for their appointment times. When I originally signed up, I wasn’t that keen on the sometimes long gaps between meetings. One such gap was three and a half hours long. To help pass the time, I brought my iPad and Apple pencil, with the intention of sketching while I waited. As it happened, I only had time to sketch one person, a photographer named Aladdin Ishmael, because the conversations with other photographers kept me too busy to concentrate on drawing.
Aladdin comments on the work of another photographer, displayed on an iPad
Because I made a sketch of Aladdin, he inquired about my other drawings. I showed him some of my dream journal sketches and a few of the comps I’ve made for photo shoots. Normally I do not show these to anyone but he seemed to think I should. There are a couple reasons I don’t show them but now I’m weighing whether my reasons outweigh Aladdin’s advice. For the record, the reasons are these: 1) I don’t want art buyers to get confused whether I am selling photography or illustration, 2) my sketches help me determine the elements I want in front of the camera but I rarely stick with the composition in the comp. That is, I’ll shoot the composition from the comp but almost always find another composition I like better. This happens because it is difficult to visualize all of the details of a location prior to visiting it in person. Once there, opportunities that would have been impossible to visualize before the fact are available to be shot. That said, the sketches are very handy for me because they give me a fair idea what resources I will need to get the shot I want, even if the composition does change on set.
On left, a comp and the finished photograph, on right, a comp based on a scene in my dream journal
FotoWorks was a three day event. Originally, my meetings were scheduled on each of the three days. That raised the possibility that it might be a good idea to get a hotel for two nights. I had wanted all of the meetings on the same day but that was impossible because some of the people I wanted to meet with weren’t scheduled to be present on more than one of the three days. Luckily, my one meeting scheduled for the second day was cancelled and replaced with a meeting on the first day, so I only had to be there for two days instead of three. For that reason, I just drove down twice. At the event, I discovered that I could still buy meetings, and the prices were lower after the event started than they were in advance. For that reason, I added quite a few extra meetings to my schedule. In the end, I saw twelve people for a little less than a thousand dollars.
My first meeting was with an art buyer from Saatchi and Saatchi. She was paging through my book when she stopped at my most recent shoot, featuring a couple of models wearing cycling jerseys. She liked the look, saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that before.” I was glad to hear it, though I wasn’t sure how many more shoots I was likely to do that were like it. I like to shoot athletes and sports-related themes but the shoot this art buyer responded to was a beauty shoot. I did it at the suggestion of a makeup artist I knew. I agreed but was hesitant because it was outside my specialty. To make myself more comfortable, I put the models in cycling jerseys and golf shirts, so there would be some connection to sports. Listening to the feedback from this one art buyer, I started fantasizing about hiring out a studio in New York to do a fancier version of the same shoot, something that would have been difficult to arrange at my home studio. However, her feedback conflicted with everyone else.
Bora Fona and Kennah Shoemaker from the “Jersey Girls” beauty shoot
Although the beauty shots were well-received, the most consistent feedback was that I should concentrate of shoots with athletes, real athletes, not fit models dressed in sportswear. Secondly, my environmental portraits were worth pitching as well. This meant removing fashion and beauty shots from my portfolio. The rationale was that the athlete and environmental portraits were stronger than the rest. I am happy to do that (and have done it), though with a little regret because there are aspects of beauty and fashion photography that I find very inspiring on a creative level. The reason in both cases is that I like the creative challenge of making something simple, a figure and a background, into something interesting and different. Pablo Picasso is an amazing artist to me, primarily because of how much variety he managed to get out of the simple combination of one model, usually nude, and a relatively plain background. Henri Matisse was almost as prolific with the amount of variety found in his compositions, though in later years he relied on fairly complicated patterns. Both exemplify the challenges of beauty and fashion photography, as well as the satisfying result. In my case, although I like Picasso’s work a great deal, the patterns and textures found in fashion fascinate me much as the patterns in ornate textiles served as Matisse’s inspiration.
Three of the most popular images from the event: Meghan Merlino at Crossfit 845, David Ollivierse at the Floyd Patterson Boxing Club, and Brianna’s Basement founder Rich Engle
During the meetings, I was surprised when some of the reviewers started talking about real assignments they thought I might be appropriate for at their company. Two suggested photo shoots related to some of the images in my portfolio. All of the suggestions were either athlete-related or environmental portraits. We’ll see how it goes but at the time it felt like I may have found a few clients. After the show I’ve heard from four of them but only one was contacting me about a specific project. The rest just asked that I keep in touch.
The main takeaway I got from Fotoworks was that I needed to totally re-edit my portfolio. The portfolio I showed had about 30 in-game basketball shots, 15 athlete portraits, 10 non-athlete portraits, and 10 fashion and beauty shots. The new portfolio would have to be about evenly split between Athlete portraits and environmental portraits. I decided to take out the in-game basketball shots because, although I like them, they don’t represent most of my work. Instead, I added some portraits of basketball players that I did outside of games. It took my almost three weeks to go through all my images, edit them into a new portfolio, and prepare all the images for printing. With that done, I am taking a break to write this. Next, I need to plan some more shoots while summer is still here. It’s easier to set up shoots outside in good weather and I don’t want to waste it!