Ballarat International Foto Biennale 2015 :: Portfolio Review

Guest blog post: CCP lecturer Sam Oster travelled to Ballarat for the International Foto Biennale. She signed up for a portfolio review and, while an accomplished photographer in her own right, took away a lot, learning about her art and herself.

Read more, and follow Sam's journey, on her blog at samoster.com

I have just done my third portfolio review in my "creative career". I am 43 and starting to question when the 'career' part of that term will start to get some traction. I decided to book 'another' portfolio review to get some guidance about where my career might be headed and what sort of opportunities there might be for my work. At this difficult time in Australia as an independent artist, I'm sure I'm not the only one questioning how I'm going to survive, and whether I should just put a cap on my creative inclinations and get on with some kind of real job. 

My first review was back in 2002 in Birmingham, UK. As a younger artist this experience was pivotal in shifting my approach to my work, and provided a massive reality check. I am grateful for the critical feedback that made me realise that my figurative work would never be taken seriously in the art world - it was seen as "fashion / commercial photography" and was too technical, too aesthetic. I did not have a commercial background at the time - I went to art school and was never "technically" trained, although I was working as a photographer in the arts & entertainment industries. I decided that despite wanting to work with the human subject, I would work with objects and landscapes to explore my ideas. I have continued with this approach until now. 13 years later I realised I still had ideas that needed the human subject, and I wanted to see if I could tackle it more intelligently to create work that could sit comfortably as Art and NOT Commercial, Fashion or Portrait Photography. 

So I prepared a small portfolio of new work and lugged it along to the recent portfolio reviews in Ballarat to see how this new figurative work would be received. I also prepared recent landscape work and my previous BIFB 2009 exhibition work to provide some context for reviewers not familiar with my work. 

My friend Malcolm seemed an ideal subject - having looked at how other artists used the 'everyman', he reminded me of the figures in Jeffrey Smart paintings, and the figure in much of the work of local artist Christopher Orchard. The bowler hat of course also references Magritte's famous surreal work. This seemed 'safe' ground for my figure - clearly positioned in the world of the arts and NOT in fashion. Surely with Malcolm as my subject my work would bypass the fashion aesthetic and allow itself to be read conceptually? I had also just shot 2 new images the weekend before using my partner Matthew as my weatherman subject so I was interested to see how each of the characters would be seen. 

The night before the review I sat down and wrote what I wanted from the review:

AIMS:

  • To share new work and get feedback on the work conceptually – how is it read by the viewer?

  • To gauge the reception to my work – is it interesting / relevant?

  • To get feedback on any opportunities to extend the work

  • Any thoughts on opportunities to show the work?

  • Specific feedback on technical approach to lighting, composition, staging, palette, tone etc

Questions:

  • Do the images work well together as a body of work – especially the 2 different characters within the 1 series

  • Are the characters too stylized, or possibly not stylized enough?

  • Square Format?

  • I am hoping to exhibit the 2 characters on opposite walls in a gallery. Would this make an interesting show?

[Detailed reviewers' comments have not been included here, but you can read them on Sam's blog. We'd really love you to visit and follow her journal!]

IN SUMMARY

I found the review experience very useful, as always. What it didn't do was offer a magic answer to how I can survive as an artist. It didn't mean that I went away with all the answers. But it did offer me a very good idea about how to develop the new work to strengthen it (more variety in style and content within the same framework) and I am more confident now to tackle these suggestions:

1) Keep shooting both new series with the above feedback in mind (All reviewers);

2) Edit and tweak my existing work (Brownbill) and reduce some parts of the series while extending others (Crispin, Brownbill);

2) Apply for arts residencies (Crispin);

3) Apply to newer galleries in Asia and places like 'Magnet' in Melbourne (Crispin);

4) Attend overseas festivals and show my work there (Foster);

5) Don't be so afraid to be myself as an artist - be braver and less worried about critcism and stop trying to hide my technical ability and commercial aesthetic.