Fine Art Photography Daily

FotoFest Reviews 2020


©Aline Smithson, Curator Lisa Volpe readies herself at the FotoFest Reviews

It hardly seems possible that in early March over a thousand photographers descended on Houston for two significant events: the Society of Photographic Educators National Conference, followed by Session One of FotoFest’s International Meeting Place Reviews.  This week I will be sharing some of the work seen during the reviews and more in the later months.

The week was a time of seeing old friends and making new ones, lots of hugging and hanging out, and then it all came to an abrupt halt – no more touching and feeling on edge, with the realization it was impossible NOT to be in contact with germs. I reviewed portfolios at both events, putting me in the reviewer’s chair for six days straight.

One of the highlights of my reviewing experience was to be shadowed by a student from Lamar University, Brandi Hamilton. Brandi comes to photography after a 20- year career in the military, the last ten spent as a officer and operating satellites–not a bad person to have sitting next to me. Brandi creates smart work and brought that same level of curiosity and intelligence to the review experience. Brandi shares what she learned below.


©Aline Smithson, The Reviews begin with a full bottle of hand sanitizer.

5 Things I learned Shadowing Aline Smithson at FotoFest2020
By Brandi Hamilton

FotoFest Biennial allows area university photography students to shadow portfolio reviewers for a day. As a B.F.A. student at Lamar University in Beaumont, TX, I jumped at the chance and got paired with Aline Smithson. Moments before the first reviewee time slot, she walked calmly into the meeting place, introduced herself and asked if I was familiar with Lenscratch. I confessed I’d only read a few “Art & Science” column articles by Linda Alterwitz, whom I’d been introduced to the previous year. When Aline asked what experience I was looking for while shadowing her, I replied that I wanted to learn what I could by immersion of the experience. The bell rang as the first wave of reviewees entered, and we said our hellos and introductions. We skipped the normal social custom of handshaking as the threat of Coronavirus loomed and social-distancing began. This one change was awkward at first, but completely understandable and the awkwardness was quickly forgotten. Time sped by and before long the reviews ended, while everyone took a break and prepared for whatever the evening had in store.

The following are the five top things I took away from my day of shadowing Aline at FotoFest portfolio reviews.


©R. J. Kern, Carlos De Santos enjoys acquiring prints and limited edition books during the reviews.

1. Reviewees are there for different reasons. Some are looking for feedback in what direction they should take the work. Others are looking for advice on outlets and venues for work that is ready to be shown. Aline tailored her feedback on what each was seeking. Museum exhibitions and galleries may be the first thought, but many other venues exist. The work might have an audience in anthropological or science museums, corporate buildings or hotels. Several times, Aline suggested adding a write-up to the images and pitching the project to publications that served a similar audience.


©R. J. Kern, Mary Stanley gets the award for the most colorful fun attire!

2. Photography and art genres are nebulous and overlapping media. I saw documentary, horse photography, mixed media (more abstract in content), straightforward head and shoulders portraits (which were more about the personal storytelling and possibly better suited for podcast or video), and interactive art that used the stereoscopic viewer, which to me is more about the fascination of getting to look at images in unusual ways with a specific device.


© R. J. Kern, Audrey Sands from the Center of Creative Photography enjoys smelling a salt print folio varnished with lavender oil and white beeswax.

3. Twenty minutes goes by in a blink. Subtract a few minutes for laying out your work and personal introductions. How much feedback do you want from the reviewer? At this stage in my career, I want as much time as possible to glean the hopefully precious nuggets of wisdom I can get from an experienced and well-connected reviewer. Knowing that, I would try to have my spiel down to five minutes with five additional for more directed questions.


© R. J. Kern, Carey Russell, Susan kae Grant, And Robert Langham III taking a break from reviews and sharing work at The Whitehall hotel in Houston.

4. It thrilled me to sit in on personal interviews with each artist, face to face and vulnerable, as they explained the concept or vision along with the work. The majority of my experience with art has been as art history in lectures and museums. Someone else has told me who the greats are like Michelangelo, Rauschenberg, Adams, and Stieglitz, and what to see in them. In this experience, it’s like getting insight in the middle of the process. The creation is complete or very near, and the artist seeks their audience that may one day only see it as art history and only feel the impossibility of getting first-hand insights from the creator. I got to meet the artists and the work.


© R. J. Kern, DM Whitman gets her first museum acquisition with support of Malcolm Daniel and Anne Tucker, after the reviews.

5. Who you are tells so much about what you’ve made. Aline asked reviewees for a more personal backstory before diving into each artist’s project statement. “First, tell me about yourself, and where you are from.” This was the most important reminder of the day. It’s so much of a given that we’re there with our tribe, that our personal stories can be taken for granted, even by ourselves. It is our individual background that informs our work and speaks to our collective humanity; a poignant reminder as we all face the unusual threat and effects of Coronavirus to our global society.


©R. J. Kern, After hours portfolio sharing, until midnight, a the Whitehall hotel in Houston.

Thank you Brandi!

At every review, on the first night, after a full day of sharing work, the photographers are asked to set up shop and showcase their work so that reviewers, fellow photographers, and photography enthusiasts from the general public can spend time with the work.


©R. J. Kern, R. J. Kern displays work from “The Best of the Best” series.


©George Nobechi, Portfolio Walk


©Rachel Cox

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©Rachel Cox


©Rachel Cox

Of course, net working and socializing is a big part of the experience.


©R. J. Kern, Group dinner, perhaps one of the last before the COVID+ social distancing became commonplace.


©R. J. Kern, After hours portfolio sharing, until midnight, a the Whitehall hotel in Houston.

The trip home was a startling reminder of what was occurring in the rest of the country.  Be safe everyone!


©Nicolo Sertorio, The flight Home

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