Photography / Features

B&H Event Space Celebrates Portfolio Development

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Photography tends to be a solitary practice, which can often make it hard to maintain a sense of direction, and dedication to a given project amid the hustle and bustle of daily life. One noteworthy resource helping photographers to negotiate such hurdles is the eight-month Portfolio Development program, organized by the B&H Event Space.

Above photograph © Danielle Goldstein

Goldstein self-published her photographic exploration of people viewing, ignoring, or interacting with art in museums for the book, On Display.

“Portfolio Development arose out of me seeing a need our customers had,” says B&H Event Space producer Deborah Gilbert. “Many had taken our classes to master their camera’s technical aspects. They were at that ‘what next?’ phase with their work, and weren’t sure what to do. They needed direction, goals, and deadlines to work towards to push to the next level.”

After hatching a basic idea for a guided independent study program that would give participants the needed framework, Gilbert contacted lower Manhattan’s Soho Photo Gallery with an invitation to participate. “Once they were on board, we had this prestigious gallery, and an exciting concrete goal for the participants to work towards, so I knew we had something,” she says.

B&H Portfolio Development: It Begins

Now in its fifth season, this innovative program is offered free of charge to a growing number of enthusiastic attendees. The eight-month curriculum is an outgrowth of regular Event Space programming that has been a popular facet of the B&H SuperStore since its inception, in November 2007.

“I’ve attended many lectures and workshops, through B&H and other sources,” says Gene Nemeth, program participant and registered architect. “The Portfolio Development course allowed me to grow and self-chart my growth all in one place. But, more importantly, it forced me to ‘work’ at getting better. It’s very easy to say I will go out and shoot today, but then get lazy and do it tomorrow. If you did that in this program, it would show in your work.”

Select images from Nemeth’s black-and-white photo book "Grand Central Terminal: A City Within a City" Gene Nemeth

To be considered for Portfolio Development, prospective students must attend one of several initial critique sessions, listed in the Event Space schedule under the title Portfolio Development: It Begins. Introductory critiques are scheduled from August to October, with upcoming critiques taking place from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. on Monday, September 25; and Monday, October 16. “We generally have three or four in all, but you only have to participate in one,” says Gilbert.

Advance registration is required, and all candidates must also bring a completed application form, along with five images to show the group, which includes Gilbert and Soho Photo gallery representatives Sandra Carrion and Lois Youmans. Gilbert says, “It’s a public critique, and your work is projected, because everyone learns from hearing about everyone else’s work.”

While the thought of presenting favorite images in an open forum may seem daunting, B&H critique sessions are all about constructive criticism rather than any kind of negative experience. “What we’re looking for are not necessarily the best photographers, but rather people who are enthusiastic and really want to participate. It’s about a willingness to learn new things,” she adds.

Creative Incubator

The program itself is largely self-directed, which allows the number of participants to be kept open-ended. “Assignments are not assignments per se, they are self-assignments,” says Gilbert. “It’s up to each individual what they work on.”

When deciding on a theme, Gilbert warns against agonizing too much over the perfect idea, which can lead to procrastination. “Just start working to get past the block, and the ideas will come out of the work,” she says.

“Flowers used to be my favorite subject matter,” says photo enthusiast and retired financial analyst Mary Catherine Messner. “I’ve participated in the B&H Portfolio Development program over the past two years. Some of the things I’ve learned include the amount of discipline good photography takes, and how great it is to be a part of a community of photographers that inspire you and urge you on. The most surprising thing I learned was that I can do it!”

Messner purposefully traveled smaller and lighter during recent visits to India, with a goal of becoming immersed in everyday life. Her images from these trips are compiled in the self-published book, "Walking the Lanes." Mary Catherine Messner

In addition to regularly making new photographs over the program’s eight-month duration, each participant is required to attend six “Classes that Count,” and at least two more monthly critiques. Classes are shortlisted from the roster of regular Event Space offerings that Gilbert finds relevant to portfolio development. “Some are technical, but a lot are aesthetic,” she says. They’re often about ways of thinking, and visualizing, and creating bodies of work.”

While the critique sessions served as the primary means for tracking progress during the first two seasons, in 2015 Gilbert decided to expand to social media by using Instagram as a sharing platform, requiring each participant to post one image per week. “In just two seasons, more than 15,000 posts have been put up,” she says. “That’s how we see that participants are doing the work.”

She points out, “Everyone is coming for classes and critiques at different times, and working on their own projects, but they’re also kind of meeting on Instagram. They go searching the #bhportdev hashtag to see what everyone else is posting, and they’re commenting on each other’s stuff. They’re really into looking at what everybody else is doing and searching in that way.”

Select images from Batchelor’s series, "Vertigo New York City," featuring a unique vision of the city’s urban architecture Roger Batchelor Jr.

In 2016, the program’s curriculum was further expanded by an assignment to produce a self-published book using Blurb’s publishing platform. Gilbert says, “This gives the participants something else to aim for; they really have to buckle down to think in terms of the number of images needed for a book.”

The extra work had surprising and impressive results. “This season, we had the largest number of people who completed the requirements to date,” says Gilbert. “And by allowing us to push them outside their comfort zones, we’ve seen a dramatic improvement in participants’ work, and a renewed passion for photography, and the telling of important stories.”

This storytelling element can have a ripple effect that extends far beyond the program itself, as illustrated in a 2015 photo essay produced by self-taught professional photographer Marco Catini. He says, “My personal projects used to be all over the place, with little consistency or purpose. But the photo story I did during the Portfolio Development program forced me to stick with a theme and dig beyond one beautiful picture.”

Catini took on the challenge of documenting a young friend’s journey with brain cancer. Initially unsure if his pictures would be adequate to show what she was going through, he notes, “After a few months, I comprehended that her story had to be told, and I started posting images on my social media accounts.”

Catini’s young friend was diagnosed with brain cancer a few months before her 13th birthday, in September 2015. He has been documenting her journey as a self-assignment for the B&H Portfolio Development program since the summer of 2016. Marco Catini

“The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” he says. “But I could have never have imagined the significance of my work, until I heard from parents that my photos had bolstered their children’s self-esteem, giving a voice to individuals and challenges we usually don’t hear about or see. To make a long story short,” adds Catini, “What I love to do and what may seem trivial to me can make a difference in somebody else’s life.”

Work on the Walls

Another major goal of goal of the program is to encourage participants to exhibit their photographs publicly, through its association with Soho Photo Gallery. Gilbert says, “For a lot of people, pictures only live in the camera and on their phone. We like to encourage people to print, because a photo deserves to be out in the world where people can see it.”

Toward the end of each season, participants deliver a three-print mini portfolio for Youmans and Carrion to review. “We don’t say anything, we just present the portfolios and the gallery decides who gets into the juried show,” says Gilbert.

“This teaches participants how to work with a gallery and follow submission requirements, as well as how to work with a printer,” she adds. The required prints are a special size with particular-sized borders, so they have to work with a lab like any other photographer would.”

This past July, 21 photos were selected for a month-long display in Soho Photo’s front gallery. For the last two days of this exhibit, B&H took over the entire gallery, and everyone who printed a final portfolio got to display three prints. “In addition to the works hanging on the walls, this year we also had the books on display in the gallery,” Gilbert says.

The covers of some of more than 60 books that were self-published this year by attendees of the B&H Portfolio Development programDeborah Gilbert

Looking ahead, Gilbert expects the program to keep the same format in future seasons, with a potential expansion into Livestreaming. “Since we’re Livestreaming so much, we’re trying to figure out a way to let people participate remotely,” she explains. “We currently have one participant who has traveled from Virginia for the past two seasons, but most other attendees have been from the New York area.”

With no cap on repeat attendance, Gilbert estimates that up to half the program attendees return for multiple seasons. There are also no minimum technical requirements for acceptance, “We meet them where they are,” Gilbert notes. “You don’t have to have a professional camera, and if someone wanted to go through with just an iPhone they could.”

The only firm condition is that everyone starts at the beginning, by attending an Introductory critique. These sessions are now in progress, and are expected to run through the month of October. For further details about B&H Portfolio Development and to RSVP for an opening critique session, click here.

To view more work from the photographers who contributed to this article, click on the names below:

Danielle Goldstein

Gene Nemeth

Mary Catherine Messner

Roger Batchelor Jr

Marco Catini

Have you participated in photography critiques or portfolio development? If so, please share your experiences in the Comments section, below.

11 Comments

The classes and critiques have given me a lot of confidence for my long-term photography work. And more than that: positive and constructive exchanges with instructors and fellow photographers have helped me find my own voice in telling stories.

I can highly recommend this program to any photographer looking to build a body of work, hone their craft, learn from others and have fun while doing so!

Thank you very much B&H, Soho Photo Gallery, the countless instructors and guest speakers, my fellow participants, and last, but not least: the protagonists of my essays for having made this a great learning experience!

You are very welcome Marco, and thank YOU!

You are doing amazing work, including with the story of your friend with cancer. I look forward to seeing it published somewhere!

~Deborah

Event Space Producer

I participated in this program and this article is a great summery.

I loved that the prograpm forced me to stay engaged, and to feel less isolated as a photographer. When I felt "stuck" and uninspired, 

the program and classes inspired me. It also pushed me into trying things that were out of my normal "comfort zone".

Finally, the list of well known professionals that B&H provides as instructors for specific presentations is amazing.

The best part is that the whole thing is FREE!

I liked it so much that I am doing it again!

Thanks so much for your comment Becky. Here's wishing you continued success with your work!

Thank you Becky!

Pushing out of your comfort zone was tough, but it was so worth it, wasn't it!

~Deborah

I am so proud and happy to be associated with this great group of people. Thank you B&H and the Soho Photo Gallery for sponsoring this Program and helping me achieve the best I can.

Thank you, Mary Catherine, for your help with this story, and for letting us share excerpts from your beautiful book from your travels in India. Keep up the good work!

You're very welcome Mary Catherine, and thank YOU!

During the POrtfolio Development process I think we could actually see the light bulb go on over your head! It has been fantastic watching the way your work has grown so much in the last couple of seasons.

~Deborah

Event Space Producer

As a Celebration of Life Funeral Photographer, my niche of photography very unique and unpopular. I don't get my work highlighted much and there's not even a category in most contests. 

My goal is to bring attention to this "lost art form" and to let grieving families know that photographers like myself are there to help tjem thru their healing process. 

My fellow classmates have supported and encouraged me.  They make me feel welcomed and my work viable. Trailblazing is a lonely road. They have truly chopped a few trees down for me. Thank you Portfolio Development.

Hi Duane, thanks very much for adding your voice to the discussion, and for giving us some background about your specialized photography niche. It's great to hear that this program has supported your creative efforts. Thanks again for providing this window into your world, and for reading the Explora blog!

You're welcome, Duane! And thank YOU!

Seeing how much the our Portfolio Development helps people is what makes the work worth it for me. And it has been great to see your work grow.

~Deborah

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