PREPARING A PORTFOLIO - ARE YOU READY ? Mike Johnston


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Okay, here we go.

First thing to keep in mind is that, although I'm an "expert" on the subject, there is no such thing as an expert on the subject. I'll base this advice on general principles and six years' experience as chief editor of a photo magazine, seven as a working pro and published critic, and three as a teacher; but there are no rules, and you should feel free to take, leave, or modify anything that follows to suit yourself.

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First off, remember that, if you're reading this, you're not dead. That is, you're not constructing a posthumous retrospective on yourself, meant to lovingly present everything you ever touched and every idea your brain ever entertained. Put yet another way, please feel encouraged to leave things out. If you mainly shoot Kodachrome slides but experimented with photograms for six months in 1983, don't feel you have to make a portfolio based on 17 Kodachromes and one photogram. They don't go together. A portfolio needs to be composed of things that do go together. Keep it appropriate; keep it cohesive. If it means you need to leave out that one great photogram, do so.

<<<<<<<<----- An eye soothing view of a Malaysian Beauty on the stage from a newsman covering the event (48k Jpeg) Copyright © 2000. CY Leow ® Photo Editor of The Star Newspaper.

The first step is to gather your work together insofar as that's possible, and sift through it, aiming to answer one question--what kind of photographer are you? You might be able to do this by yourself. It helps if you try to imagine yourself looking at your own work through someone else's eyes. Imagine you're a future historian coming across all these pictures, someone who's asking the question, who was this person? What was he or she up to? See where you end up. Or, you might enlist someone else to help.

The problem there is, the person you get to help you might not be any more objective than you are. For example, if you mainly shoot buildings, and you ask a people photographer to help you analyze your work, he or she might pick out the few people pictures you've done. I've found that, rather than ask people to help you choose actual pictures, it works better if you ask them to help you analyze what *you* seem best at...in their judgment

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Don't think this is an admission of weakness. I know a professional with 30 years' experience who recently adopted a new specialty after a friend convinced her it was what she had really been best at all along.

<<<<<<<<----- A...Errr.. Sexy Cat on the Walk (33k Jpeg) Copyright © 2000. Philip Chong ®. An OM2n for Fashion Show ? Why not ? In fact, it was taken by a freelance photojournalist friend of mine who is also an EOS1n owner but had a hand on with his first experience with an OM2n together with a fast Zuiko 100mm f2.0 lens.

Limits are useful. If you can identify a main stream or thread in your work, you're lucky. This can be anything you want it to be--pictures taken with your Leica and a certain film; pictures taken of your family in all sorts of techniques; pictures that have a certain feeling; a certain approach to color. Don't feel constricted by "subject matter" exclusively when trying to come up with an analysis of your artistic concerns and directions.

(A converse of this is that subject matter alone is not enough to make two pictures go together. I can easily come up with examples of pairs of pictures of the exact same subject matter that don't have the same feel at all.)

If you're doing this for the first time, you're likely to run into one major problem, which is that, in whatever thread or theme you've identified as being your main concern, you haven't got enough really strong work that hangs together. This may mean that you aren't ready to do a portfolio; more likely, it means you should try to put together a more modest portfolio that's more limited in scope and ambition.

But let's assume you've been a photographer for a while and you've got lots of work. How do you proceed? There are two main strategies that work for me and for the people I've advised. One you might call the "Build around the hits" method, the other the "Culling" method.

In the Culling method, you'd first put together a working set of all the pictures you've ever made that you like or that you think are good--slides or black-and-white prints or whatever. Throw in everything you think is a good solid maybe. This grouping should be several hundred at least and possibly more. Once this group exists (again, you have to put it in real form, not just ideas, memories, and selections in your head), the process is basically a slow culling-out of the weaker work. Take a few weeks to get it down to a hundred, then take your time picking the absolutely best 40, and then wait a couple of months and select 24 from the 40 to print as a portfolio.

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<<<<<<<<----- A photojournalist's requirement may be very much different from any other photographers. Most of the time, truthfulness and reality of events are top priority rather than visual satisfaction. Well, it also takes a good photographer to merge these qualities into translation into images. © 2000. Vincent Thian, AP (Associated Press) News Photographer.
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In the culling method, you can get other peoples' input. You don't need to let them actually eliminate pictures; just ask them to pull out the pictures they like less well. Take their input as suggestions.

Probably the supreme example of the culling method I know of was done by Christopher Bailey, a NYC photographer who has never gotten any recognition but is an outstanding artist. Chris would make tiny "matchbox" portfolios of images no more than 2x3 inches in size, in small, handmade boxes about the size of a deck of cards. Then, as he made the rounds in the art world and at parties and bars and so forth, whenever he got into a discussion about photography with somebody and they concluded by saying, "I'd love to see your portfolio sometime," he'd answer, "I've got it right here-- want to see?"

The upshot is that Chris got literally hundreds of people to look through his work. And he'd simply watch their faces as they looked at each picture. Gradually, he got a sense for the pictures that people responded to most consistently. Sometimes the consensus surprised him--he found that people passed right by some of his own favorites, and did respond to certain pictures he hadn't really noticed. But let me tell you, when he had finally put together one portfolio of all the pictures that people most consistently reacted to, it was really a stunner. It would make a great monograph book.

In the Build-around method, you start from the other end--with the "hits", the special, spectacular shots that you just really love and that you know are among the best things you've done--the shots you just can't bear to think of leaving
out of a portfolio of your best work. That might be only three, seven, or however many shots. Then, you study that group and take your cues from those pictures, sorting through the rest of your work to find pictures that look good with those core pictures.

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A portfolio doesn't all have to be equally strong; it can modulate, have a pace to it, like a movie or a book--it's okay to do things like start with active, dynamic pictures, put some quieter ones in the middle, and then end with a bang. If your goal is simply to show off and set out those "hits," you can usually build a whole portfolio around them that looks good and communicates effectively.

<<<<<<------- Black Swans(42k Jpeg). A rare scene at a lake in Pakistan. Copyright © 2000 Photo courtesy of Mr. MCLau ®


One thing you might learn from this process so far is that you simply don't have enough to work with. Maybe you just haven't had a clear enough idea what you're after when you're out shooting. Maybe you just don't shoot enough. Lots of people don't. Probably the most common weakness of all--a student epidemic disease--is putting together a portfolio from too small and weak a base of raw material.

The other major pitfall is having too literal an idea of what it means for two pictures to work together. A major flaw and failing of many serious portfolios--especially in the art world--is thinking you have to have a dozen or two dozen pictures that are essentially different versions of the same thing in order for them to be presented together. If you're doing portraits, you don't need to have the same backdrop and the same lighting for every damn picture in order for the portfolio to work--the opposite is more likely the case. If two pictures are too similar, your responsibility is to choose between them rather than include them both. Many "art photography" portfolios are just multiple versions of the same picture. This is as much a failure of editing as it is a triumph of it!

Here's where I'd like to introduce the idea of consistent dissonance. It's basically this: things can be as disparate as you want, as long as everything has more or less the same degree of separation from everything else. Let me make the case using a simple, mechanical example. Let's say you're going to crop your prints. And, in every single case, you crop to a different rectangle. That works, because the proportion of the pictures are all different. But then let's say that out of 17 pictures, you present 16 that have the same 35mm aspect ratio of 2 to 3, and one that's square. Well, the square picture sticks out, doesn't it? It doesn't fit the group. In the group where everything is different, the square would fit right in. In the latter case, you establish a base, an expectation, and then go against it: inconsistent dissonance.

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It's the same way with very different pictures in a portfolio. If you decide that your work is all over the map, you can actually work with that--as long as you keep the dissonance between all the pictures more or less equivalent. I've seen strong portfolios built up from pictures that are all different genres, even that are all different techniques--and that can actually work.
<<<<<<<------- Duck Pond, Kampar leofoo ® (23k Jpeg) 2000 Copyright ©-free images collection

But if your portfolio has one gum print, one platinum print, one lith print, and so forth on through all the alternative processes, you can't get away with including three similar cyanotypes of flowers. You can get away with using one of them, because that's consistent with the differences you're establishing. But not three.

The academic portfolio idea--the conceit of the "body of work" (which almost never is, but that's another story)--is that there can be no dissonance at all from picture to picture--all the pictures have to be uniformly consistent with each other. That's nonsense. It just has to be proportional, consistent, aptly judged--well modulated.

Well then....., I haven't even talked about methods of presentation and the psychological pitfalls of getting the final work done (there are some, as people who have actually gotten that far will probably agree).

Looks like the disquisition will have to go to a Part 3. More to follow in a while.....


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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