The Photo Organization that Launched a Thousand Careers

Laura Pressley is the executive director of CENTER, a nonprofit organization dedicated to honoring, supporting, and providing opportunities to talented photographers. After receiving her BFA, Laura Pressley was an artist organizer for the Richmond Art Center, where she fell in love with the public sector, and has remained in public service ever since. She became the Executive Director of CENTER in 2009 and since then has significantly expanded the scholarship program, launched an artist residency, and tripled the amount of grant funding. Among CENTER’s best known programs is Review Santa Fe, an international juried portfolio review event. We wanted to know exactly how CENTER is helping photographers advance their careers, so we talked to Laura Pressley about her organization and its programs. This is what she told us.

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In general, how would you describe the challenges facing photographers early in their careers? What are some common pitfalls and frustrations?

There are a lot of photographers out there. It’s hard to get noticed when you’re starting out, as there are so many others who are established and have the marketing muscle and networks to get the jobs.

The most common pitfall I see is that photographers try to put out their projects before they are fully ripe. The work often needs more time to develop. When artists feel ready to bring their work to a wider audience, they may benefit more from getting feedback from professionals. They may benefit from better timing.
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What does it take for a recent MFA graduate to gain recognition and make a living as a photographer?

To gain recognition, it’s necessary to go to portfolio reviews and conferences, and to get into group exhibitions.

To make a living, photographers must hone their craft, assist, learn complementary skills (such as design or audio) to build a creative package along with the photography. But honestly, there is no formula: everybody creates their own path by walking. Some people are great, nurturing educators; if so, teach to supplement your income. If you know web design, then build websites for people and incorporate photography well. If you can do event photography, do it. Piece your income together like many creative people do, from a variety of things.


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Who are the industry professionals instrumental in furthering an emerging photographer’s career?

A really important part of my job is to research who is using photography well and offering photographers opportunities. Then I invite them to Review Santa Fe to maximize the opportunities at the event. So look at the Review Santa Fe reviewer list for the answers to that question. I bet you didn’t know some of those editors or regional curators or new publishers.

How does CENTER help photographers reach a broader audience?

We offer direct financial support to artists via grants and awards. We also offer exposure via exhibitions and online showcases with partners who have a large audience. And we advocate for CENTER constituency whenever relevant.

778_03_ResidentErikaDiettesExhibitI think another way to answer that is that we are dedicated to professional development for artists. We also have a responsibility to our grantors to show results. By inviting reviewers who offer opportunities (not just feedback), and inviting photographers who have work that would be relevant to a wider audience, we create fertile ground for all involved. That means we invite editors, for instance, that pick up several bodies of work from Review Santa Fe to show on their blogs or magazines, thereby taking the audience of the photographer from a couple thousand to hundreds of thousands.

How did Review Santa Fe originate? How has it evolved since its inception?

The organization originated out of the Project Workshops alumni’s shared interest in long-term personal projects and the need for ongoing support. Out of that came the Project Competition providing financial support, exposure and recognition, and then the Project Symposium. The Project Workshop instilled the benefits of the face-to-face interaction and the spirit of sitting around a campfire to tell your story, which lent itself to the initiation of Review Santa Fe 15 years ago.

It started out as non-juried, but then to be even more closely aligned with our mission, we decided to make it juried after the second year. We have more and more foreign participants each year, with upwards of 12 countries represented last year. With the grants we have received in recent years, we have a public engagement responsibility and have been building more opportunities for the public to engage with the artists and the work. That looks like more exhibitions, presentations and collaborations with other festivals, as well as opportunities for donors to interact directly with artists.

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How does Review Santa Fe facilitate relationships between industry professionals and photographers? Can you tell us some success stories?

The CENTER ethos is based on the effectiveness of the face-to-face interaction. In addition to a carefully curated list of reviewers and photographers, we keep the event intimate and focused. There are opportunities for formal and informal meetings through evening events. Then we also have an artist listing on our website so that reviewers can look up the photographers long after the event is over. Most importantly, we look for reviewers who will have a mutual investment in the event and their meetings.

There are dozens and dozens of success stories:

  • I just saw Hank Willis Thomas at Art Basel and he said Review Santa Fe had a major impact on his career as he received a major museum exhibition as a result.
  • Cristina de Middel brought her book to Review Santa Fe and it was seen by a reviewer here who showed it to a major festival curator and photographic figure.
  • Alec Soth is probably the most well known. He said, “The real prize was the review experience. The exposure to prestigious professionals and fantastic fellow photographers gave me access to an invaluable national network. It didn’t take long for this experience to reap huge rewards. Within a year of my experience at Review Santa Fe, I had a solo exhibition in New York, a book contract and was invited to participate in the Whitney Biennial.”
  • Julie Blackmon was unknown before she came to Review Santa Fe, and as a result she had a book published and gallery representation. Now she has several books, photos in prestigious galleries, and her work was included in CBS evening news, and much much more.
  • Besides the above, here are a few other well-known photographers who have attended: Laia Abril, Jesse Burke, Tamas DezsoLaToya Ruby Frazier, Jessamyn Lovell, Ben Lowy, Guy MartinBryan Schutmaat, Camille Seaman, Emily Shur, Aline Smithson, Phil Toledano, Brian Ulrich, Hiroshi Watanabe.

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What are other benefits of participating in Review Santa Fe?

Everyone comes out to meet with the reviewers but they walk away saying the best part of their experience was being around the other photographers. People who have attended Review Santa Fe together often end up staying in touch for years afterwards. As a result, we started having alumni and reviewer Meet-Ups all over the country.

Since 1994, CENTER has been launching photographers from obscurity into the limelight. If you’re an emerging artist with a cohesive body of photographic work, read this year’s list of reviewers to get a sense of whether Review Santa Fe looks like a good fit for you. The call for entries is happening now, and the January 22 deadline is fast approaching. So hop to it!

More Words to the Wise

For further career-advancing advice for emerging photographers, check out the Elements of Grant Seeking here on the ONWARD blog.