Reflections on Review, Santa Fe
Photographs and Text by Andrew K. Thompson
In May of 2016, I was invited to participate in the 16th annual Review Santa Fe 2016, billed as the premier portfolio review conference. This event was hosted by CENTER Santa Fe, a non-profit organization dedicated to photographers. CENTER chose one hundred photographers out of the countless who had applied to attend this conference. The prestige of being invited is a big deal but prestige has a price. The tuition for this event was just shy of eight hundred dollars plus travel, food, and accommodations. For an emerging photographer and new professor such as myself, that cost was a concern. There was a scholarship, which I applied for, but did not receive. I was tempted to say no because of the price alone but after speaking to a trusted colleague and mentor, I was convinced that this was a great opportunity and that I needed to make this investment in myself. So I made monthly payments and slowly saved money for my travel.
The event took place November 3rd through the 6th and I had spent the majority of October preparing. I had stepped onto the airplane with a dozen of my best photos, a handful of leave behind booklets, and a stack of business cards. I had been mentally preparing as well. I was going to be clear about what I was working on and open to my reviewer’s ideas and suggestions, while at the same time having confidence in my art when I encountered a reviewer who wasn’t sold on my work.
I arrived in Santa Fe with a few hours to wander around the Plaza area of downtown. It was a quaint touristy area with shops unique to the region. Unfortunately, as a loaner and a tourist, it was difficult to find good food and I wound up eating some generic food bar.
Check-in was from 4 to 6 PM followed by a welcome reception. It was at the reception that I bumped into a friend and fellow photographer Kristin Bedford who had also been invited to participate. Kristin had also introduced me to Nicola Dracoulis who she had met earlier that day. The reception was a well-organized affair. The food was good and the drinks were free. I spoke with a number of photographers besides Kristin and Nicola and one of the primary topics of conversation was the cost of tuition. While everyone agreed the cost was steep we had all believed that it was a worthy investment in ourselves and our careers, especially if we got a lucky break from one of the reviewers. Hopes were high and everyone was friendly. The reception eventually died down as everyone went to his or her hotel rooms to get rest and prepare for the first day of reviewing.
The next morning I had my first portfolio reviews. Each was positive but shy of glowing; one reviewer wasn’t convinced that my cutting photos into shapes were working for her but reacted positively to my more conventionally shaped images. The other reviewer reacted warmly to my work and suggested that I contact him once the project is complete. I felt that I was off to a good start.
I killed an hour wandering around the Railyard district and took in a show at SITE Santa Fe. I was pleasantly surprised to see former San Bernardino local and CSUSB friend Lewis deSoto included in SITE’s exhibition SITElines.2016 much wider than a line. The exhibitions’ international scope was impressive considering the local flair.
My third and final review of the day was positive again. The curator reacted to my artwork strongly and had encouraged me to keep her up-to-date with the progress of my project.
Immediately after my final review for the day, I rushed off to see a local art installation called Meow Wolf. Friends in a touring band had told me that if I was ever in Santa Fe I had seen this place. They tried for hours to explain to me what it was but were never able to fully describe it. Intrigued, curious, and with a slim window of time, I rushed fifteen minutes south of Santa Fe and entered the House of Eternal Return.
I will not be able to properly explain how cool this immersive art experience is because it is just too much. Meow Wolf simply must be experienced for oneself.
Meow Wolf is beyond any funhouse/art installation/interactive story you’ll ever witness. I had to rush through the entire place within an hour and a half but I could have easily spent three-plus hours taking in the whole thing.
If you ever find yourself in or near Santa Fe, do yourself the favor and go experience Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return. You will not be disappointed.
It was raining by the time I had emerged from the House of Eternal Return and I had to get back in time to set up for the big portfolio walk through that evening. All of the invited photographers were given tables to display their artwork. The reviewers along with esteemed guests and the public were invited to walk around and speak with each artist. Because of my last name, I wound up in the far back corner of the space. There were no chairs provided for the photographers so I felt every minute of the three-hour event compressing my lower back.
I had a number of interested viewers stop by and had some good conversations but I felt like I was on a remote island in the far corner. I saw a big crowd in the front but somehow they didn’t all wind upcoming in my direction. There is supporting evidence on the CENTER Facebook page that only shows pictures from the front of the room and little if none from the back corner area that I was in. Regardless, I was still able to meet with curators that were impressed by my artwork. One of which I was meeting the following day.
As a way to save money, I checked out of my hotel room on Saturday and moved all my gear to my rental car. This worked out nicely because I turned the lobby into my hang out spot and met a lot more people that way. As a result, I had an impromptu portfolio review with an art adviser on vacation from New York and was interviewed for the local college by a Brony. I also had the most productive review day. The second reviewer I met with offered me a solo exhibit for next April. The reviewer after that was interested in including me in a group show about photographers who sewed their pictures. This was the moment when all of the financial investment paid off and I was on cloud nine.
The second to last review was pretty awkward. The reviewer suggested I should quit sewing my pictures and go back to shooting food photography. Later she suggested I sew buttons onto my pictures. I politely smiled and thanked her for her time and filed that one away into the “what the hell is she thinking?” circular bin. I assured myself that I only got stuck with her because of the lottery system CENTER employs for assigning photographers to reviewers and that the other eight-strong reviews I had outweighed hers.
With all of my reviews over I caught up with the photographer friends I made and we compared notes; namely, who received good reviews and whose reviews were meandered between weird and terrible. These lobby conversations blended into the closing reception where the CENTER staff made their closing remarks and raffled off prizes.
Following the closing, the reception was a dinner honoring the pioneering documentary photographer Susan Meiselas. The party continued into the evening but I had to get some sleep because my flight was departing at 6 AM out of Albuquerque and I was going to need all the rest I could get for my travel back to California.
I was thirty thousand feet above the ground somewhere between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles when I noticed the ashtray in the plane’s water closet. I couldn’t help but wonder how old the plane was. Smoking in airplane restrooms has been illegal since I was a child and I’m not a spring chicken these days. Regardless, I landed safely at LAX and drove home where I napped for the rest of the day. Post jet lag, it’s now time to consider the reviewer’s responses to my photos, follow up with leads and make more artwork. Despite the cost Review Santa Fe was worth it and the staff at CENTER put together a top-notch event that was executed flawlessly.