Continuing our conversation about portfolio feedback, I wanted to tell again the story of my art-school friend Christopher Bailey. (Note that if you Google the name, you'll get the wrong guy. Several of them.) Chris is a painter, a free spirit who for several years was a "squatter" (it's a long story, but that's more or less what it amounted to) on the top floor of a Brooklyn warehouse, and who, when last heard from, was living in the Carolinas in a barn with one wall missing.
Chris is an all-around multitalented guy who probably has too many abilities for his own good—he tended to be mercurial, skipping from one activity to the next (furniture building, organic gardening). And he definitely "thinks different"—it took me a long time, for instance, to realize that he sometimes associated the sounds of words rather than their meaning, which could make conversations veer wildly from their conventional tracks! For a time, at least, he turned his attention to photography.
To deal with editing and review he'd make tiny proof prints, about 2x3" or even smaller, on fiber paper, usually with torn rather than cut edges—and he'd make them by the hundreds, if not the thousands. So then he got the idea of making little matchbox mini portfolio boxes for the tiny proof prints. Each box was custom-made, and many were little works of art in themselves, covered with exotic or found materials. Some if not most of them were open on two sides so the stack of little prints could be removed just by pushing them in on one side and grabbing them from the other side, like a matchbox.
So here's the point of this story: because the portfolios were so tiny, Chris could carry them with him all the time. So he would show them to people constantly—other artists, people in the industry, movers and shakers of various kinds at parties, bars, openings, wherever. I remember one time he met a female art director in a bar and after talking for a while, she said, "Bring your portfolio around some time—I'd love to see it." Chris reached into his coat and five seconds later she was looking through his portfolio, right there at the bar.
And he was keenly attuned to peoples' reactions as they looked at the work. He'd remove the pictures people tended to not like, and keep the ones they responded positively to. Sometimes the consensus choices were real surprises to him. So, over time, he gradually built up a portfolio that was based on real-world feedback from real people, one that was reality-tested again and again.
It's been long enough now so that I no longer remember all the pictures in his "best loved" portfolio, or the exact sequence of the pictures, but I do remember that it was an absolutely stunning set of pictures. The pictures were unconventional, subversive, elliptical. It has nagged at my memory all these years, as a set of work that really should be documented, commemorated, honored, and put into final form as a book. It's probably too late now—Chris might still have some of those negatives, but somehow I doubt it. He's an artist; no doubt he's moved on.
Christopher Bailey had many of those little mini-portfolios, but the one that contained all the "most popular" pictures—based on all that feedback—I remember as one of the best bodies of photographic work I've seen in my life, published or unpublished, known or unknown.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by SHJ: "Hi Mike, I still remember the time in my apartment in Manhattan when Chris pulled out his miniature portfolio. The pictures were amazing and his technique for maximizing appeal was something I recounted to photographers for years. Of course the other thing that stuck in my mind was the reaction the guy got from women on the street. He could charm anybody. A quirky and compelling character! Glad you are feeling better...."
Featured [partial] Comment by robert e: "I remember you mentioning your friend's mini-portfolio a long time ago, almost in passing, in a thread about editing. At around the same time, I noticed that one or two days a week, the local Ritz Camera offered 3x5 prints from files for seven cents apiece.
"Getting those prints to come out right turned out to be kind of a pain, but that's another story. I eventually ended up with a 'deck' of 52 that I packed in an index card case, and my friends and I had a lot of fun spreading them out on a table top at a local bar and shuffling through them to find the 20 or so that were good enough for a 'real' portfolio.
"The benefit, of course, was instant, intimate and interactive feedback; but I found another important benefit, too—editing is quite enjoyable as a social activity. And seeing as how the goal was to make and show prints, it made a lot of sense to be looking at prints, however small, rather than projected or backlit images.
"So it is now a tradition, and almost part of the process: when I need some feedback in a hurry, I'll have some small prints made, and I and one or more trusted pairs of eyes will spread out the prints and shuffle them around and discuss them over a round of drinks or a meal. More often than not, we'll attract some welcome attention and the feedback pool will grow.
"Thank you again, Mike, for the great advice. It's nice to know the name of the artist who came up with this, too. I'm going to try even smaller prints next time."