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Mary Virginia Swanson: Getting Your Work Out (1)


Mary Virginia Swanson

Mary Virginia Swanson

Feeling frustrated in your efforts to get the work out there? Mary Virginia Swanson, a leading voice in marketing fine-art photography, offers some basic advice on how to put your portfolio in front of the curators and editors who can move your career forward. Get a foot in the door with juried shows.

TP: What’s the first thing you tell a fine-art photographer who is just starting out?

MVS: I am a real strong believer that juried shows are a terrific way to begin to get your work out and to begin to build relationships with people who could help to move your career further. It’s a little overwhelming to know which shows make sense, but there are a couple of bits of advice that I share with artists all the time when trying to figure out what makes sense for them.

The first thing is: Who’s the juror? If it’s someone who you wish to be in his or her gallery someday, or if it’s a museum that you’d like to be in the collection of, or a photo editor that you respect, it’s a terrific way to begin to get your work in front of them.

Another thing that might help photographers decide whether or not to invest in a juried show is whether they are going to publish a catalog or not.

And to that same end, the third thing is to consider awards. In addition to cash awards, are there purchase awards? Because if you don’t have any collections yet on your résumé, juried shows that offer a purchase award—in other words, they are going to buy in the prints to the collection—are a great way for emerging artists to build their collections list as well.

Get one-stop shopping at portfolio review events

TP: What else do you recommend?

MVS: In addition to juried shows, the next thing I recommend to all photographers are the portfolio review events, whether you are a seasoned photographer with a brand new body of work or you are just starting out with your first body of work to show colleagues in the field. FotoFest is the oldest in the country. They’re sort of the granddaddy of them all.

TP: Have you been a juror at FotoFest?

MVS: Yes. I am a frequent portfolio reviewer.

TP: What goes into a good portfolio?

MVS: The general formula for portfolio review events is that you have 20 minutes to share your work with someone that you hope will help move your career forward. You’ve got 20 minutes, so 30 prints that are 40 x 60″: not a good idea. Bringing 200 slides: not a good idea. Bringing a slideshow presentation on your laptop with 200 pictures: not a good idea.

I think a good portfolio is 15 to 25 pieces that are presented consistently, in the sense that they all are the same size, same borders, same everything. Give the impression that this is a serious body of work.

TP: Is it helpful to you to have an artist statement to read while looking at the work?

MVS: I think it’s great to have an artist’s statement, because it’s a tremendous exercise for a photographer to go through. But as a reviewer, my personal opinion is that I’d rather read it later than take time to read it when you’re in front of me. I’d rather take those 2 or 3 minutes—because artist statements are way too long—and talk to you, and hear from you, when I have that rare opportunity.

TP: Do you mind if the artist asks you specific questions during the interview?

MVS: Not a bit. Generally, as a reviewer, I start by asking the person where they are from, so that I immediately know if there are things in their area that I can refer them to, nonprofit organizations or magazines or curators. And then I ask them, “How would you best like to use these 20 minutes? Is there something in particular that you want to go over with me?”

TP: In that scenario, if someone has two bodies of work that are both fairly well developed, do you recommend picking one?

MVS: Frankly, I always like to know that there is a second body of work. I like to know if they’re both completed or if they’re both on-going. Because it’s a different marketing effort, really.

Let’s say you sit down and you’ve got a body of work that you feel is completed. That’s a discussion we might have about publishers or about museums that may be interested in that content or that subject matter. If you have a body of work that’s in progress, we might have a completely different kind of discussion. I see too many photographers having four, five, six bodies of on-going work—and, frankly, without that marketing mindset, none of them get done.

TP: What are other major portfolio review events?

MVS: Review Santa Fe is the first of the juried portfolio review events. And it’s something that really should be a goal for photographers—to get in Review Santa Fe some year, because the slate of reviewers is a much higher caliber across the board.

You talk to the people who really should be able to move your career forward. In 2003, there were seven or eight publishers and book packagers. They invited the head art director who selects the cover art for Knopf Books in New York, a great art director from Sony Music, the photo editor from The New Yorker, who handles the illustration for fiction.

Let me also jump back and mention the Society for Photographic Education national events, March 2004 being Newport, RI, and March 2005 being Portland, OR. There is a portfolio review component at the SPE conferences as well, and it’s a terrific way for students to begin to get comfortable.

The next big one that’s coming up on the calendar in the US after Review Santa Fe of 2004 would be March of 2005, which is every other odd-numbered year, is something called Photo Americas. And Photo Americas ’05 is going to be held in conjunction with SPE ’05 in Portland. It’s going to be a very exciting 10-day event.

Leave something behind and follow up

TP: What happens after you attend these events?

MVS: Be sure to have something to give to the reviewer to remind them of your body of work. I’m always stunned when somebody gives me what we call a “leave-behind” that doesn’t have an image that I just saw. And I feel like it’s so easy now to do your own printing on a digital printer, there’s really no excuse not to have a relevant and current leave-behind. Don’t cross out the e-mail address right in front of me because you didn’t have time to make a new business card.

The other thing is, don’t assume a reviewer wants to keep everything that you want to give them. You might ask them if they’d like a packet or not. Another courtesy I appreciate as a reviewer is if I am interested in the work and they say, “Would you like me to mail it to you later when you get back to your office?”

TP: What makes a successful leave-behind?

MVS: The bottom line is that a successful leave-behind—be it a business card with a photograph on it, or a promo card that you make, or a little booklet that you make—should bring me right back to that experience of looking at your work. And many, many do for me. But many more don’t.

I also appreciate it when photographers make business cards with several different images on it that I just saw or a promo card with several images, so I can pick the one I will remember most, the one that I responded to the most. And that’s really what you want. You want me to be able to immediately recall that experience.

Part 1 | Part 2

Finding Exhibition Opportunities

Swanson says the right juried show is a great way to get exposure with people who can move your career forward. She recommends checking Web sites that regularly post “Call for Entry” listings, including:

Access Arts’ ArtDeadline.com (subscription required)

The Photo Review Annual Competition

Photo District News Online

Nueva Luz Photographic Journal (subscription required)

Art Calendar Magazine (subscription required)

Mary Virginia Swanson

Mary Virginia Swanson

Mary Virginia Swanson received her MFA in photography from Arizona State University in 1979. In the years following, she served as workshop coordinator for The Friends of Photography, was the founding director of the American Photography Institute at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and headed Special Projects for Magnum Photos.

In 1991, Swanson founded SWANSTOCK, an alternative agency managing license rights for fine-art photographers. She now works as a consultant to photographers and agencies, and is known as a leader in the fields of licensing and marketing fine-art photography. She frequently lectures, teaches workshops and college courses, and is a contributor to “Ask the Experts”on Photo District News’s new magazine for students.

Swanson serves on the Board of Directors of the Santa Fe Center for Visual Arts, the Board of Fellows of the Center for Creative Photography, the Boards of Advisors of the Center for Photographic Arts and the Texas Photographic Society, and the National Advisory Board of Photo Americas.

Mary Virginia Swanson’s website: www.mvswanson.com

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