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Educate, Engage & Encourage: Interviewing Jennifer Murray, Executive Director of Filter Photo

photo-eye Gallery Educate, Engage & Encourage:
Interviewing Jennifer Murray
Executive Director of Filter Photo
This year photo-eye is honored to be sponsoring the Filter Photo Festival, a multi-day celebration of photography taking place September 27th through the 30th. For additional context on the festival and background about the organization, Lucas Shaffer recently talked to Filter's Executive Director, Jennifer Murray.

This year photo-eye is honored to be sponsoring the Filter Photo Festival, a multi-day celebration of photography taking place every fall in Chicago, Illinois. Running September 27th through the 30th, Filter Photo Festival offers an immersive slate of programming for both emerging professionals and enthusiasts alike, including portfolio reviews and workshops for registrants as well as lectures and artist talks that are free to the public. The illustrious Mona Kuhn is headlining this year's festival with a keynote lecture on Thursday evening at 7 pm. 

Thrilled to attend the Filter Photo Festival for the first time, photo-eye's Founder and Director, Rixon Reed, and Special Projects & Client Relations Coordinator, Lucas Shaffer, will be present all four days of the festival to meet with attendees and showcase a number of selected photobooks and gallery prints. Our presence is punctuated by a free discussion on Demystifying Photobook Publishing Sunday, September 30th where we welcome photo-eye Gallery artist Tom Chambers and Unicorn Publishing's North American Director Don Lin to discuss the photobook industry using Tom's upcoming monograph Hearts and Bones as a case study.

For extra context on the festival and background about the organization, Lucas Shaffer recently talked to Filter's Executive Director, Jennifer Murray. Murray is a passionate and engaging professional photographer, educator, and administrator with dedicated support for the photographic community – locally, regionally, and nationally. Under her direction, Filter is an inclusive and educational institution connecting people interested in photography and offering tools and opportunities for those looking to further their relationship with the medium.

Jennifer Murray, Executive Director, Filter Photo, Chicago
Lucas Shaffer:    Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you became Filter's Executive Director?

Jennifer Murray:    Absolutely. I have a bachelor's degree in photography and sociology from Loyola University Chicago, which is, interestingly, where I teach now. I pursued a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography from Columbia College Chicago, and about halfway through my MFA, I started working at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. The MoCP was a really amazing place to work because it's a small museum and I had a lot of opportunities to learn and do a lot of things that supplemented my education.

When I was graduating, I was offered a position working in a small gallery as it transitioned ownership from the MoCP to the Art and Design Department at Columbia. I was hired by the chair of the Art and Design department, Jay Wolke, who's one of my mentors now, and after getting the first couple of shows off the ground, I became an interim director, then director, and worked there for about 11 years.

Sarah Hadley founded Filter in 2008, and she quickly began working with James Pepper Kelly. The two of them together really built this organization with Erin Hoyt. They started with a small handful of portfolio reviews in a half a day, and since then, Filter has grown and grown. It was initially just the Festival that happened usually in the fall, and in 2015 they added a permanent location and gallery space. I came on board in 2016 when Filter was searching for an Executive Director.  I was a good fit because I have a lot of photographic experience, not only producing my own work but teaching in the classroom for years, and I have experience running a gallery.

Filter Space, Installation View
For me, working with Filter was an opportunity to bridge the gap between my time at A+D Gallery,
my experience as an educator, and photographic career. It's really exciting to be able to activate a small gallery like Filter Space. I really enjoy being able to bridge those two worlds and help pull photography out from this separate space it’s carved out for itself – to push photography to go beyond the flat print on the wall so it can contribute more to the contemporary art scene.

LS:    What has been the most challenging part, then, about taking on the role of Executive Director at Filter? 

JM:    I'm a long-term planner, not a short-term planner, which has its pros and cons, of course. We are planting the seeds now that we might not reap for awhile, like growing a donor base, while also growing a community slowly, over time. For me, that aspect is challenging, because you want to see more results now. The biggest challenge is that Filter is a young nonprofit and so we don't have the benefit of established nonprofit practices and policies – we’re building them now.

LS:    What is the most fun project you’ve worked on, and what is your biggest success since joining Filter?

JM:    Well, they are in many ways one and the same, but the annual Festival, coming up later this month, is very, very fun. It's a lot of work leading up to it, but it's also very satisfying. In January we send out invitations to Photography VIPs, who are curators, directors, and publishers. We invite them to come to Chicago for four days to support the community here. There's a feeling of excitement about putting a list of people together and imagining all those people working together.

We get a lot of support from the community as well, people writing to us saying, "This was such an amazing event!" There's a lot of affirmation that comes after the Festival. The patrons, the attendees that we're really here to serve, get a lot out of it, and that's the point, to bring this group of people together to celebrate photography and to provide exposure and opportunity for everyone.

The portfolio review room at Filter Photo Festival in the Millenium Knickerbocker Hotel.
LS:    The Filter Photo Festival seems like it has a different setup than some of the other organizations that run a national portfolio review. Can you tell me a little bit about Filter Photo's reviews and why someone would choose to come to Filter?

JM:    We try to visit other festivals and review events because we want to see what other festivals are doing and how they operate. We're very open and have great conversations with other festivals, their staff, and administrators because we understand we're really all part of the same community. It's always fun to attend another festival, and you're right, we all do things similarly but at the same time a little bit differently at Filter.

One of the things that makes Filter different is that it's not just a portfolio review event. We're concurrently running workshops during the four days of the Festival. While workshops and portfolio reviews are paid events, we also have an equal number of free events that are open to the public.

Additionally, each day during the Festival, there are artist talks during a two-hour lunch break when reviews aren't taking place. We also have a lot of evening programming including exhibition receptions and a keynote speaker. Mona Kuhn is our keynote speaker this year. We also have a
The Portfolio Walk, Filter Photo Festival
gallery walk that is self-guided and walking distance from the hotel, and then, of course, the portfolio walk.

Our portfolio walk offers an opportunity for everyone, all the VIPs and all of the attendees and people that are coming in from the Chicago community to see a lot of photography. For me, it's the best night because I haven't actually seen anybody's work for several days! I see what's happening in the review room, and I see what's happening in workshops, but I don't actually get to see anyone’s work until the night of the portfolio walk. I'm always so impressed with the diversity of work that is being presented, and the quality of work is really high.

LM:    When I was looking at the way that Filter runs reviews, it seems like it was very inclusive, meaning that you can buy a package of reviews and you're not competing to be reviewed.

JM:    Exactly, there's no vetting process. Anyone can sign up to do reviews. We’ve discussed changing that, but an open admission process is something we are very committed to. We want Filter Photo Festival to be open to everyone.

LS:    What is the case then for changing the application process? What is the case for considering a vetting process?

JM:    Photography is a really big word and it means a lot of things to a lot of different people. Filter specifically focuses on contemporary photography, meaning fine art and documentary photography, but we're not a commercial festival. Often the line between commercial and fine art is a little bit blurry.

We also have a lot of folks that are coming to photography from other careers, and so they don't necessarily have formal training, which isn’t a problem but can present questions like, “am I ready to do reviews?” “Does this constitute a body of work?” “What are reviewers looking for?” I think there's definitely a lot of people in this category that are ready for reviews, but still need information on how to prepare. So, our challenge is to remain open while presenting the best quality of work to the professionals we’ve invited to review without vetting the attendees via an application process.

This is where our year-round workshops and programming comes in, to fill in those gaps and to serve as an educational opportunity for people interested in pursuing photography. Filter Space gallery is an excellent resource for people to see what we mean by “contemporary photography”, “What is a cohesive body of work?”, “What do we mean by fine art?” The gallery is a great place to answer those questions, and if you are unable to come to the gallery, researching our exhibitions online gives you some sense of the kind of photography that Filter is talking about.

The opening of we like small things at Filter Space.
LS:    That's excellent. Filter Space then is a useful tool for the community – it’s educational.    

JM:    Totally, absolutely. And for me, that really comes from having run a college art gallery for a dozen years. When I ran A+D Gallery at Columbia College, oftentimes we’d have students that would come in, very hesitantly, “Am I welcome here?” “What do I do here?” I saw our job, as administrators, was to welcome those students. These are future arts patrons. These are ambassadors for the visual arts. I quickly became aware of the power that a gallery has to be an example for many professional aspects of the visual arts. So, I think of Filter Space in the same way, even though we're not a student space or affiliated with an educational institution, we are still an educational space because of the value we place on professionalism, the quality of the work that we show, and how that contributes to Chicago’s cultural landscape. In addition to our exhibition program, we also have year-round workshops, which are professional development opportunities. They range from portfolio and project development to in-depth critiques with practicing artists.

We try to provide professional development opportunities for people before they go to portfolio
reviews so that they can feel confident and know what to expect.  We discuss practical matters like print size and business cards but can also look at people’s work and make suggestions on what to show and how to make it more cohesive.  We want to create a space where people can articulate their ideas and put together a project they feel passionate about.

LS:    It's very easy to tell that you're a teacher! I remember these types of conversations from my college days.

JM:    For me, it's great to be able to offer that aspect of my training to our Filter community because I’m passionate about photography and I want people to have positive experiences with Filter. I'm interested in how we grow this organization and how we contribute to the larger photography community.

LS:    I think that's great. “Here's how you get into photography and this is what we can do to help you out.”

JM:    Exactly, and this is what we can do to help you stay.

Jennifer Murray, discussing work with photographers at Filter Photo Festival

LS:    Returning to the Festival, what can an attendee expect from a review? What recommendations would you make to prepare for the event? 

JM:    You can expect that the person that you're meeting with is going to be engaged and want to have a conversation. Instead of talking at you, they're going to want to talk with you. They may have questions for you, and when they ask questions, it doesn't mean they're questioning you so much as they are trying to dig a little deeper and find out what's really going on in the series and where you're coming from.

I would bring one to two cohesive bodies of work. And the best way to determine if something is cohesive is to show it to another visual artist, not your family and friends because they're not going to give the kind of objective feedback you need. If you don't have anybody else to show it to, that's ok, then begin looking at other artists' websites and looking at their bodies of work. That will give you a good sense of what a cohesive body of work looks like.

I would also look at the artist statements of those artists whom you admire. How are they talking about their work? What are they writing about their work? You don't need to have a written artist statement for a portfolio review, but it's very helpful for you to write one beforehand. Only because then you have your talking points and a place to start.

It's good to have an introduction prepared in terms of who you are and what this work is about. Work should be on nice photographic paper. I would say anything larger than 8x10 inches and nothing larger than 20x24. Everything should be loose, not in a book or a binder but a nice portfolio box. Add some business cards and you’ll look super professional.

LS:    Because you only have 20 minutes to make a connection with your reviewer.

JM:    Exactly. You have 20 minutes and you need to be forward about your needs because for me, as an administrator/educator, I’ll know which hat to wear. If you tell me that it's a project in development, I’ll be in teacher mode and we're going to talk about how to move this project forward. If it's a finished body of work, great, let's talk about places that you can submit for an exhibition. It's fine and totally acceptable to be upfront about what you're hoping to get out of the review.

LS:    I think that's absolutely right, and it would help the attendee not feel like their time is wasted when they got in there. 

JM:    Exactly.

Book Display, Filter Photo Festival

LS:    Say somebody is registering for the first time, do you still have slots available, and what are your recommendations for attendees in selecting the reviewers?

JM:    We do have reviews available still, but they're no longer sold in packs. Individual reviews are being sold now.  Not everyone is still available for each day of the Festival though. Reading the reviewer’s bio and a bit about the institution that they're representing is a great way to prepare. Or if they are an independent curator, reading about the types of exhibitions they have curated.

Be clear on what you’d like to get out of reviews.  Are you looking for feedback or opportunity? Knowing what you want in advance makes it easier to choose reviewers.

LS:    That's great advice, Jennifer. Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JM:    Come to Filter Photo Festival!  It really is a celebration of photography where you can make life-long friends and forge new professional connections.


If you're in the Chicago area or have means to travel for the weekend of September 27th we would love to see you at the Filter Photo Festival.