PREPARING A PORTFOLIO - ARE YOU READY ? Mike Johnston

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The form a personal portfolio would take would vary with the person, but its function probably wouldn't. The idea is simply this--you're a photographer.

<<<<<<<<----- A street scene in Lucerne, Switzerland Copyright © 2000. CY Leow ® Photo Editor of The Star Newspaper.

Can you show a representative sampling of your best work, in fully realized form? Whatever that is? And make it so that it actually exists?

This latter point is important. Many photographers have a vague idea in their heads of some given subset of their pictures, some of which might already exist in viewable form. This is their idea of "their work." But that, I would argue, doth not a portfolio make. The idea is to do the work to have on hand something that shows off what you do, without apologies. The question I used to ask students is, if a museum curator knocked on your door tomorrow morning and asked to "see your work," are you READY?


PREPARING A PORTFOLIO - ARE YOU READY ?
>> MIR has a special sponsored section which we always encourage local photographic talents to port their creative work on the Net. It needs a lot of courage to ask but it is even more difficult to refuse a request. Mainly because most of the time we find 'sample' images presented to us are still a little too fragile for creating a purposeful portfolio. Mike Johnston's article may provide a lead how to prepare a proper portfolio and we strongly suggest a good read which we hope it will inspire a stronger content building at the portfolio in the Photography in Malaysia website <<

Do you have something finished, right now, to show? It's not enough to lead them to a huge pile of work prints, or lead them around the house and show them the seventeen pictures you liked enough to have framed over the past decade, or to open the slide cabinet to reveal 5,000 slides in cascading piles and say pleadingly, "can you give me a while?" or (shudder) to open your contact book and start flipping through it, every now and then jabbing your finger at the page.

The "work" I'm talking about is what my friend Allen (A. D.) Coleman calls "reification"--making it real. The idea is that other people cannot see your visualizations about your finished work in its absence, or from incompletely realized clues. What the work consists of is going to depend upon what you visualize, but generally speaking it can be divided into three main tasks: editing the pictures, crafting prints (or whatever), and selecting and assembling and method of presentation.

Re editing: most photographers are mediocre to execrable editors of their own work. The problem is that they lack a.) objectivity and b.) the requisite ruthlessness.

What I mean by the first point is that they consider all sort of thoughts, feelings, and factors extraneous to the picture in the selection process--who they were with or what kind of day they were having, how much the subject matter means to them, how hard they worked to get/make the pictures (this happens frequently with amateurs--if they worked hard to get it they somehow think it has to be good), some meaningless technical feature (a very saturated blue, or you like the sharpness), or (heaven forfend) their fetishistic slavering over whatever nifty piece of gear they happened to make it with (that would never be pertinent to this list).

Strategies to overcome these impediments to effective editing are numerous, but I'll mention three: work at it; take your time; and, get help. I've said many times and many places that the best editing tool is a large bulletin board where you put your pictures up to look at (assuming you make prints). Another good idea is to gather other peoples' opinions and watch for other peoples' reactions as they look at your pictures. Another problem of editing is a false or obsequious objectivity, wherein we pick things we think other people will like rather than the things _we_ like (I've been guilty of this my own self.)

Then, of course, there is the problem of indulgence, wherein photographers who are sentimental over their own efforts, or egocentric, admit a lot of filler into the final selection because they don't have the heart to leave the almost-good-enough stuff out (or they simply don't have enough work to come up with the number of truly strong pictures they think they ought to have).

Finally there's the problem of coherence--coming up with a group of pictures that makes some sort of sense together. Variety isn't necessarily bad, but it's got to hang together somehow.

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<<<<<<<<----- There is nothing relative to how expensive or how cheap your equipment is. Most of the time, many people won't bother, if one does, that is indeed very unfortunate. Personally, I would rather put more emphasize on the creative aspect rather than how expensive the image was being made...

<<<<<----- Credit: Photo of Leica R8 courtesy of MCLau

So, most amateurs never make it through the editing process. If you have enough gumption and verve to actually come up with a group of pictures that make sense together, things can get fun. Because there's nothing like having a clear goal in mind to give energy to the work of crafting prints. And, really, the crafting of the presentation method can be almost as much fun as making the pictures.

If you've never done this sort of thing before, I think you'll find:

-- That it's surprisingly difficult;
-- That it's even more satisfying than you imagine it will be when you're done;
-- That you never need return to that work again, because you have already done your level best by it;
-- And one more very fortunate and happy result, which is that it helps direct your future work. It helps you decide what kind of photography you really like, and what you're best at; it helps you (even if only half-consciously) focus your efforts on work that will more easily and directly lend itself to reification later. All good.

So as to what form your portfolio should take, I don't really know. Depends what you do and how you want it to look. Traditional box and mounted b&w prints? Laminated color prints? Transparencies in mounts? A slide show? I personally like print books. It doesn't greatly matter. What matters is whether it's PERFECT, perfectly realized, a true representation of the best you've done. No apologies or explanations necessary.

And, unfortunately, most photographers never do all this. Even most of those who may read this very message and become temporarily enthused about the idea of reifying a master portfolio of their work will never follow through. Don't ask me why that is, but I know photographers, and I know it to be the case. Sad but true.

P.S. If you want some practical tips as to how to actually go about doing all this, ask me tomorrow and I'll type another disquisition, presuming there is not too vociferous a chorus of complaints about my longwindedness tonight.

Mike Johnston

Mike Johnston is a 1985 graduate of the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. and has held many jobs in the photographic field, most recently Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine (USA). He is currently at work on a book on the practice of 35mm photography.

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