Society for Photographic Education 51st Annual Conference

All images by Andrew Thompson, 2014
All images by Andrew Thompson, 2014

From March 5th through March 9th 2014, I attended and presented at the fifty-first Society for Photographic Education (SPE) conference in Baltimore, Maryland. The SPE began as an invitational Teaching Conference in 1962 that included many historical heavyweights in the photography field. Photographic luminaries such as Beaumont Newhall, Minor White, Henry Holmes Smith, Jerry Uelsmann and John Szarkowski were in attendance at the inaugural conference. The SPE conference has grown tremendously since 1962, when twenty-eight photography educators converged in Rochester, New York. SPE 51 had over fourteen hundred attendants from all across the country, including some of the most respected photographers, professors and historians in the field.

It had been suggested to me by two of my professors that I should attend SPE conferences and present my work to the attendees. Both of my professors spoke about the great connections they had made attending these conferences over the years, each one stressing the importance of presenting my portfolio to as many people as possible. Unsure of what to expect, I had stepped off the tarmac at Baltimore’s BWI airport with portfolio in hand and a stack of business cards in my pocket.

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The first day I attended some excellent lectures on various different topics from how to run a better photo business, how to create affective portfolios and technical tricks when using certain digital programs. I also meet my hotel roommate on the first day. His name was Vernon Cheek and he was the retired chair of Purdue University’s photography department. We had found each other on the SPE roommate wanted list a few months prior. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we agreed to share a hotel room but I had figured with his experience and familiarity with SPE I would be bound to learn something from him. We had become fast friends and by the end of the weekend he had introduced me to handfuls of people, gave me history lessons about SPE, shared stories about photographers we mutually respected and encouraged me to begin applying for teaching jobs at colleges his friends worked at. Vern, by himself made the trip a valuable experience!


The second day I presented my portfolio to a number of visiting curators, writers and photographers. I received vital feedback on my working projects; some encouraging while others were more critical. With each presentation my confidence grew and I made a new connection. At the end of the second day there was a giant “curator’s walk though”. This, apparently, is a SPE tradition and nearly half of the attendees had secured a table or a spot on the hotel floor to share their portfolio with any and everybody walking by. This was an excellent opportunity to look at a ton of pictures by photographers from all over the country. I made multiple laps and spoke to so many people it is hard to keep track.

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I attended more lectures on the third day and walked around the auxiliary photo convention. The auxiliary photo convention included representatives from major camera supply companies, film companies, and graduate programs. While I was tempted to spend every last penny I had on books and equipment, I resisted and remained fiscally responsible.

I would absolutely recommend other photography students to attend this conference. Everyone who I met was very friendly and wanted to make a connection with other photographers who shared their interests. I received excellent critical feedback to my work and got important advice from respected professionals in our field. It is my hope to be able to attend next year. I am very excited to participate next year!