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Sunday, 06 June 2021


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About ten years ago I found the need to redo my portfolio, and I built both online and a printed book versions, almost identical. (I was at a point where let's say I might suddenly need to be looking for work again. This was during the last big downturn in the economy.) I enjoyed the process for the most part, and I was quite happy with the results. But now it's ten years out of date, and I have been meaning to update for at least five of those years. It's such a daunting task when one doesn't *need* to do it.

I know this post was about portfolios, but:

Too many people think they have to go to some grand vision of "art" to be a real photographer. To the woman who feels uninspired, and believes she doesn't have time to do serious photography, I'd say (from the perspective of 77 years and two kids and three grandchildren) DO THE KIDS. No matter whatever else you do in photography, or how great it turns out to be, when you finally get old, that's what you'll come back to, time after time.

The thing about photographers and terrorists is so absurd that it gives me an ice cream headache. It is a persistent (and usually racist) movie theme that actually seems to appeal to segments of the law enforcement and political communities, but anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see after thinking about it for one second that terrorists really don't need photographs. Almost anything worth bombing you can walk up to and look at. Or ride in. To your heart's content. You don't need to lurk across the street shooting a 400mm lens through a car window. What are you going to get a photo of? A door? For really complicated targets, terrorists need to know about *processes,* not buildings.

Excellent post, Mike. I think in these world wide web days portfolios have gone the way of the dodo. Haven't even thought about using one for well over ten years. Sold a lovely Billingham leather and canvas portfolio a few years ago as it was just hanging around taking up space. There was a slight pang when it went, but that was just because it was a beautiful artefact in its own right. Nowadays my website is my portfolio.

Making a portfolio (in any form) is an excellent way to understand what your photography is actually about.
Which can be an unsettling revelation- and may help you toward making better, more meaningful pictures as well.
I recently pulled out a big black binder that I hadn't opened in a long time. Inside was a portfolio of architecture work that dated from the late 1990s, made to convince architects to hire me (a side gig then). 11x14" color prints inside plastic sleeves, they still looked good and showed my capabilities well enough to get jobs. I'd also included some personal architecture-themed work.
My point being that assembling that portfolio made me think about what I was doing and how well it held together... and that helped my photography a lot.

I was going to say no I don’t have, a portfolio but then I struck me I actually do albe it a virtual one. On my 500px page. 500px.com/terryletton I have a gallery which I call Twenty, it is 20 of my own images from the ones I have posted on 500px over the last several years. As I have never tried to make a living out of photography for fear of ruining a perfectly good hobby I have not paid any attention to who if anyone views it. But anyway it’s there for most anyone in the world to view if they happen to find it and building it did kill some pandemic boredom.

I have forgotten the name of the writer (ken? mike?) but I bought a small handbook about photography quite a while ago. The advice was to start a project or call it a theme but in essence photography of particular target.

From that target your photography will advance because you will end up taking the photos and it will be your way. Basically the project gives you a reason to use your camera.

how good the project ends up is NOT the point.

Mike, I found your comments helpful and insightful. However, what about the portfolio shared at portfolio reviews, often for the critique of work, thoughts about how to advance the work, looking for input, and in some cases looking for publishers and gallery representation, or exhibits? Do you have a perspective on the use of the portfolio in this context?

This: http://wlewisiii.500px.photography is as close to a portfolio as I have and it is one of the ways I use it. This i how I show people - potential customers some rare times but friends and family as well - what it is I do and that I think I've finally gotten good at doing it the way I like to do it.

Mike, really enjoyed your post today. These posts are why we follow you. I am doing some at home rehabbing now and can’t be out shooting so I am trying to curate 20+ years of images mostly digital. A difficult task but I have found some real gems within the images. I have a spark of an idea of a project utilizing these old images. Not a portfolio exactly but I will be posting to albums in Flickr. Thanks for the post. Eric

Bob Rosinsky commented (in part) ... It's like trying to pull teeth to get a curator to view actual prints.

Which says a lot about the curator. High quality prints viewed in good light are always (in my experience) better than pictures on a screen. Unbound prints allow the viewer to place several prints together on a table giving a better perspective on the work.

I think there's an analog to this for a certain kind of mid-century amateur and that was "the slide show". In the milieu I grew up there were at least two threads to this photo culture. One was the travel slide-show; something I inherited from my Dad. The second was the lunch-time slide show which my university mountaineering club held and which featured, each week, a 1/2-hour slide show from a member.

It's possible that the university club show has been replaced by a digital show with an LCD projector (that's what photoclubs do for their monthly critiques, I believe) but I think replacement for the amateur travel slide show is a tougher nut to crack. I remember as I grew up in the 1970's, when someone returned from a big trip and mounted a slide show, it could be a bit of an event. It wasn't just family who attended but also friends and neighbours.

I recently tried something to replace that. I printed a booklet (AKA a 'zine) of a trip I had taken a couple years ago to southern Saskatchewan, particularly with the intention of photographing certain parts of that country (I'm from British Columbia). Then I mailed copies of the zine to family and friends of the sort who may have attended a slide show forty years ago. It certainly doesn't have the power of a shared viewing but most of my recipients certainly seemed to appreciate the gesture.

A Kansas City photography group that I belong to has annual portfolio walks. Fifteen - twenty photographers in a gallery, or other exhibition space, with their portfolios (matted prints in clam shell boxes) spread out on tables. People come through, look at the prints, chat with the photographers. It's very well attended, sales are made, relationships formed.
A printed portfolio is an excellent tool to see how YOU really feel about YOUR work. Images on line vs images on paper is sorta like the difference between casualy saying "I bet it will rain tomorrow." and putting a $100 bill on the table "I bet it will rain tomorrow." That image looked good on the screen, but now that I'm faced with spending time and money on it...
I read somewhere about a guy who had his portfolio printed up as playing cards. He'd hand out packs at parties and ask people to shuffle through them and pick out their favorites.

One way, especially for an amateur like me, is to go for a recognised photographic qualification that requires you to present a coherent panel of images together with a statement of intent. I am thinking here of the Royal Photographic Society's LRPS, ARPS and FRPS. You can work through these, none of which is easy, until you obtain a Fellowship, which is one of the hardest won accolades there is.

Don't forget the venerable old RPS Distinctions.

Putting together a distinction panel is making a small portfolio (online or physical prints).

The RPS require the panel of pictures to work together as a set (as in, the panel as a whole has to possess a kind of meta-composition) and this adds a second level to portfolio building.


My local photo club runs an annual portfolio process for all members who wish to participate. At your own level, you put together a coherent set of photos on one subject. Continuous support and feedback is available from specified volunteers in the club, and also in several structured meetings during the year from the membership as a whole. It culminates in a show at the end of the year. I've found it to be a really worthwhile process that stretches my abilities and challenges how I think about my photography. It's been great to think about how images fit together, and not just whether I've got one good (lucky?) shot.

Early in my career as an advertising photographer, the portfolio methodology for people like me was the matted original 4X5 or 8X10 transparency. We shot extra film of work we thought would be our better assignments, just to be matted for the portfolio. Nothing more stunning than waltzing into an ad agency with black "window-matted" original
8 X 10 transparencies and putting them on a light box!

During the same period of time, I knew a few "multi-photographer" studios that had a wider focus of work, that used to have actual salesmen on staff who would make appointments and show 20X24 prints in a "pizza case" (what we all called those black, zipped portfolio cases that were so ubiquitous until about the 90's).

The whole point behind the agency portfolio showing, was to meet and greet the art director or designer and see if you were compatible and liked the person. I went on a few where I ended up despising the people and I'm sure they felt the same; better to find out before they show up at your studio!

By the end of the 80's, agencies in Chicago and Milwaukee were having a "portfolio drop off day", where you just dropped it off in the morning and picked it up in the afternoon. A lot of times, you didn't see anyone but the receptionist, and never heard anything; AND, about 30% of the time, your portfolio came back damaged. This defeated the whole purpose of the old portfolio showing, and it started to feel like people were buying photography "by the pound".

The 80's were also an era where the Creative Black Book started to have an influence in getting jobs, a local photographer paying enough for a page in the Black Book was sort of a nod to agency users that is person was probably established, and after looking at the work in the book, they could call for an old fashioned "meet and greet".

When going to see an agency, you also modified your portfolio to reflect work that they were actually doing. No sense walking in with a fashion portfolio when all they did was product. Since I was mostly product, I always came in with mostly product transparencies, and a few examples of annual reports I shot, so they knew I could cover their clients ancillary work if needed.

No doubt about the idea that whatever is happening today on line, it is cheaper to accomplish, and also "works for you" night and day, especially if you use the right key words for a search. It's probably easier to get the "right" clients that are looking for what you do, rather than spend hours and thousands of dollars talking to "looky-loos" that don't really control a budget or have the clients!

There's so few commercial photo jobs that pay now, most people just have the junior ad department person take it on their cell phone and apply filters. As a professional, that works with professionals, my philosophy in the past was unless you control the money, or have the budget and the ability to close the deal; I haven't got the time. There was a lot of "high-hatting" by ad agencies in my town, when the reality was the work was disappearing to the coast from post-Arab-oil-embargo business consolidation. Lots of lunches paid for and portfolios shown to people that didn't have the work any more!

Mike, I have bucked the trend apparently, putting together two books over the course of the quarantine. One is a history of the early Linhof cameras, the other a photo essay of "subjects" revealed from the Mesa Verde wildfires in 2000. I had been working on both for several years and decided it was time to wrap it up.
If interested, send me an email and I can send a copy of the latter. The book, while pretty good, does not have the imagery of inkjet prints that were converted from digital color to B&W. It was self-published, on a budget, but does not quite compare to the portfolio prints. Another consequence of the digital age?

After about 40 years in the advertising/multi media business, portfolios were always being constructed with new stuff. Professionally, one was/is only as good as their last great work. This habit carried on to my later years, no longer in the “running of the bulls”, with my photographic endeavors. Each exploration or technique that takes me down an interesting path gets a book. Varying between analogue and digital, the ones I like the most sometimes get the negative or flash chip with the file stored with the print.

One of my earliest jobs in Photography was as a second assistant, and one of my tasks was as a beast of burden for the Studio's Book.
I'd get the heavy portfolio in one of those black vulcanized fiberboard shipping cases to protect the actual portfolio.
I'd drag it uptown on the NYC Subway system. and , when it was time I'd go back and retrieve it.
But as you mentioned, it was hardly ever our 'best' work. It would be reformulated and re-sequenced depending on what clients the Agency had, and what work we hoped to get.
It was a sales tool, a collection designed to appeal to others, much more than it was a collection of my then Boss's 'Best Work:
We were a Commercial studio in NYC doing everything from People, to products, set building, to the ever difficult 'Pour Shots' on 8x10 Ektachrome. My boss was known as a problem solver, and we did everything in camera. But he was also a really good photographer. I remember him being excited about buying the then new Leica M4 and a single lens -35mm Sumicron. Every Monday morning my first job was to develop the rolls of tri-x he had exposed over the weekend.
I never asked him what his 'Real' portfolio would have looked like.
I really wish I had.
Because Portfolios are almost always for 'other people', they are almost always different from that group of pictures of which we are most proud. I have made portfolios in the past, but no longer do.

But I do something I really enjoy. I invested in two multi Drawer metal flat files. Each drawer is about 3' x4 ' -Six drawers in each 3 1" deep and 3, 2 1/2" deep.
I print my best work and keep it in drawers. For sequences I use clam shell boxes which fit in the larger drawers. I have good light and each time I go look, I play a little Game of which do I want in the Top Drawer of each of the two cabinets. Over time, I have been able to figure out what I believe is my best work.
I feel good seeing them, and I am proud of having made them, but always ask myself the question, What have you done lately that might find its way to the Top Drawer?
Even though the honest answer for this past year is 'Not Much' I find it more energizing than depressing, after all , it SHOULD be hard to get in the Top Drawer...........

I never thought much about a portfolio until I signed up with Flickr -- they have a showcase area for your profile where they encourage you to pick 25 of your best shots. How do I know which are best? I don't, so I've based the choices (9 so far) mostly on their popularity rating. My own thoughts about which are my best photos is not reliable, at least according to my wife.

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