PORTFOLIOS AND REVIEWS
What is the purpose of portfolio reviews? Could they benefit you? How? What would enable you to get the most out of a portfolio review? For that matter, how do you put together a portfolio? Read on...
For years, on and off, Frances and I have done portfolio reviews at the Rencontres at Arles, the biggest gathering of fine art photographers in the world. Such reviews can be extremely useful, or a complete waste of time. This is as true for us as for the people whose portfolios we review. On our side, we can learn a lot about cutting edge photography and about what people want from their own photography. On the other side of the table. those whose portfolios are reviewed can learn a lot about what editors and gallery owners expect.
Here are ten tips. Follow them and you should avoid wasting either your own time by asking the wrong people for a review of the wrong collection of pictures, or the reviewer's time in trying to give advice either on a subject about which they know nothing, or upon pictures that are not really suitable for anything, whether publication or exhibition. You'll also learn a lot about presenting your work to galleries and publishers.
Portfolios being read, courtyard of Archbishop's Palace, Rencontres, Arles. Portfolio reviews are not always formal occasions, and you can often learn a lot just by looking at other photographers' portfolios and showing them your own.
Only three of the tips given here, numbers 7, 8 and 9, refer directly to the portfolio itself. When you've read numbers 1 to 6 you should however be much better prepared to put your portfolio together. You may also decide that a portfolio review would be a hindrance to your photographic development (as it were). That's fine too. They won't benefit everyone, and at the worst, an incompetent review by the wrong reviewer may do more harm than good, destroying your self confidence and derailing you from what you really want to do (and should do).
1 Decide what you want to do with your pictures
Do you want a show in a gallery? Or to publish a book? Or to illustrate magazine articles? We have done all three, and the requirements for portfolioi reviews for each are different. For that matter, there are sub-divisions within each category: a major gallery will have different requirements from a small, local gallery. A book about photography will have different requirements from a book about Tibetan refugees or a cook-book. And a glossy magazine devoted to travel will have different requirements from a magazine devoted to environmental causes.
Ghost Truck from Frances's series Vehicles as Ruins. She carried a mini-portfolio of these images to Arles in 2016 and sold a version of this to someone who asked to see the portfolio. Hand-coloured print on Ilford Art 300 paper.
Unless you have a clear idea of what you want to do, it will be extremely difficult or even impossible for the person reviewing your portfolio to give you any concrete advice on how to achieve your ambitions. It will be be even more difficult when you start presenting your work to real galleries and publishers.
2 Go to the right reviewers
Only rarely can you choose a specific reviewer, but if you can't, you can often ascertain quite quickly their areas of expertise and the kind of advice they are likely to be able to give. A publisher will give you different advice from a gallery owner or a newspaper editor. Thy are also likely to be looking for different things. Use your imagination and your experience to help you understand what they are likely to bring to the table, and how well it fits with what you need.
If you can't get precisely the kind of reviewer you want, then modify your expectations. Ask different questions; or, in extreme cases, politely make an excuse and cut the review short.
We Thought About Our Future (Long Range Desert Group), from the series War in the Time of Flowers: one of Roger's pictures, hand coloured by Frances. Like the previous picture, a candidate for an exhibition or a book. Hand-coloured print on Ilford Art 300 paper.
Remember, different people have different tastes. Some will like your pictures more than others. It is tempting (and in many ways useful) to pay attention only to those who praise your work and to disregard the rest; but equally, those whose reactions are less than wholly positive can also teach you a lot.
This is especially true in the non-aesthetic realms: not just technique, but also presentation and how to approach people.Portfolio reviews are at least as important for this as for aesthetic criticism.
3 Prepare your questions
This is closely linked to the first two points. The person conducting the portfolio review has to understand what you want to do with your pictures. Just slapping them on the table and asking what the reviewer thinks is unlikely to prove productive for either of you. Explain what you want to do, and ask how to go about doing it.
This also involves knowing about your subject. If you are photographing (say) Hindu temples, you'd better know the names and attributes of the principal gods. On the one hand you may need to explain things to the reviewers. If on the other hand they know more about the subject than you do, it is quite easy to look foolish.
4 Leave equipment out of it
Unless a particular kind of equipment is central to your photography, i.e. you couldn't easily get the results any other way, keep quiet about it. Let the reviewers bring up the question of equipment if they want.This is a portfolio review, not an equipment fest.
For an example of when equipment is relevant, you might decide to mention that you shoot Hollywood-style portraits on 8x10 inch film with uncoated
lenses in order to get as close as possible to the original Hollywood
look. Normally, though, the pictures must speak for themselves. No-one is likely to care in the slightest which DSLR you used, or whether you used zoom or prime lenses.
Holly Lewis. An example of where equipment is important: an 8x10 inch contact print, shot with an uncoated 19 inch (483mm) Ross lens -- the sort of lens they actually used in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s.
The same goes for materials. If the reviewer asks you how you got a particular effect, tell them. Otherwise, they won't care what sort of paper you printed on, etc.
5 Don't make excuses
These often relate to equipment: "If I had a..." You don't. Tough. The reviewer doesn't care. Most people who are serious about their photography have had the experience of economizing elsewhere in order to fund their photographic habit. They have their own stories, and don't need yours. They may also know from their own experience that very often, the lack of a particular piece of kit is completely irrelevant. They'll have tried it, and found that the equipment wasn't the reason for whatever shortcomings they had hoped to address.
By the same token, no-one really cares that you can't get to Lhasa or Ougadougu. Plenty of people do manage it, and it doesn't really matter why you can't, be it shortage of funds or being on a political hit-list or anything else. By all means ask how they would get to wherever you want to go, or how other photographers did it, but don't phrase it as a complaint or excuse. Your pictures must speak for themselves.
6 Don't bore the reviewer, and try not to argue
It is much better to show 20 or even 10 first-rate pictures than to try to enlist the reviewers' help in selecting them from a much larger number. After all, if you can't decide, how can you expect them to do so?
The only exception to this is if you ask specifically for help on selection: "I have been working on this these for the last six months [five years, whatever] and I want to make a book. Can you give me advice on what sort of picture to use, and how?" At that, get it down to 20 or 30, and ask the reviewer which ones are the real standouts and which are the failures. And why.
Secretly she wore colourful underwear, from The Secret Life of Chairs. This exhibition comprised 36 pictures (3 rows of 12) and could easily have run to 48, but I had to make the choices myself. Leica M digital.
If you disagree with their opinions, by all means say, "Oh dear. I particularly liked that one. What's wrong with it?". Do not say, on the other hand, "No, I don't agree: I really like that one." The former response invites a helpful explanation. The latter invites "Then why the hell are you asking me my opinion? What do you actually want from a portfolio review?"
7 Choose your theme and stick to it
At last we are getting down to actually putting pictures together for a portfolio review. A portfolio is not a collection of your best pictures. All of us have made lucky shots often enough in our lifetimes, and could easily put together ten or twenty good but unrelated pictures. An essential part of a portfolio is however a sense of direction, and the more pictures the reviewer can see on your chosen theme (up to the boredom threshold, above), the better they can judge what you are doing and how well you are doing it.
It is probably just about possible to divide a set of 20 pictures for a portfolio review into two themes of 10 pictures each, but if you do, you are making the reviewer's life more difficult by dividing their concentration. Better, if at all possible, to seek two separate reviews, preferably with two separate reviewers.
One person asked us for a portfolio review of over 60 pictures on at least half a dozen different themes. Many were good pictures, but all we could really say was, "You're doing better with this series than with that one, because...." There just wasn't time, or indeed incentive, to say much else.
8 Put your pictures in order
You want a strong opening picture, and a strong closing picture. In between, you generally want visual transitions to be a gentle as possible: you rarely want a very dark picture immediately next to a really light one, or a very soft one next to a very sharp one, or one that is very crowded next to one with very few picture elements. Similar observations apply to colour balance, contrast, saturation, overall image tone...
They prized their time as the spa each year, from The Secret Life of Chairs again. When the pictures are numerous, small and jokey, like the ones in this series, you can afford more differences between one and the next. Leica M digital.
When you show your pictures to someone for a portfolio review, it is quite easy to get them out of order. Take the time after a review to put them back in order.
9 Present your portfolio attractively
The worst portfolio we ever saw consisted of six or eight sheets of A4 paper with six or eight laser-printed images cheaply printed on each. The photographer had made no attempt to put the pictures in order, or to adjust the colour balance, or indeed, by the look of it, to sort out the good pictures from the bad. We couldn't even see if the pictures were sharp.
She wanted to submit these to a publisher with a view to making a book. When we pointed out that no publisher would even bother to look at such a mess (we were slightly more tactful than that) she waved her hand airily and said, "They can correct all that sort of thing at the printing stage." When we suggested that if they couldn't tell from the portfolio whether the pictures were any good, they would probably not bother to have good prints made at their expense, she got quite annoyed.
From the series Glasses without Faces (Verres sans Visages). On its own, not necessarily all that interesting. In the context of the rest of the series, quite relevant. Leica M digital.
Laptops are often very nearly as bad for reviewing as cheap laser prints. There may possibly be an exception to this if the intended use of the pictures is on screen, but if you're looking for an exhibition in a gallery or hoping that your pictures will be decently printed in a book or magazine, the reviewer will probably be unable to see if your pictures are likely to be technically adequate for either. Scrolling too and fro removes the possibilities of comparing images directly with one another, side by side; and unless viewing conditions are ideal, the screen may in any case be hard to see. We have done portfolio reviews in Arles in a sunny courtyard, and even with a parasol over the table, it was very difficult indeed to see much of the portfolios that a couple of photographers presented on lap-tops.
As an aside here, remember that the standard for photomechanical reproduction is 300 dpi (dots per inch) and that although there are theoretical objections, you can pretty much equate pixels and dots. Thus an 8x10 inch/ 20x25cm image needs to be 2400x3000 pixels or 7.2 megapixels (300 x 8 = 2400, 10 x 300=3000, 2400 x 3000 = 7.2 million). There are ways around this but a picture that looks perfectly adequate on a screen may well be woefully inadequate in a book or when blown up as an exhibition print.
Pork loin and ham. This is from a book we were contemplating on air-dried hams, but haven't had any luck selling yet. The criteria for illustrations are different from the criteria for Fine Art, but adequate technical quality is even more important. This would be perfectly adequate for a half-page illustration, but not for a double page spread. The recipe is on this site. Nikon Df.
It may seem that we are over-emphasizing the importance of good prints, but remember that sooner or later you will have to try to impress a gallery owner or publisher, and you might as well start by trying to impress, well, anyone who is looking at your portfolio. At the very least, this means making good prints, ideally of a uniform size or at least in uniform-sized mounts. You may or may not decide to put them in mounts or to protect them with crystal-clear vinyl sleeves (we use Krystal Seal) or both. We usually do both. Then pack them in either a box or a folding portfolio. Remember that your portfolio is something you are going to have to carry.
Do not, on the other hand, expect anyone at a portfolio review to handle your pictures with white cotton gloves. They are unlikely to provide such things themselves, and if you provide them, they soon get grubby and unattractive. Also, putting them on and taking them off is a ridiculous amount of hassle. Accept that occasionally, you may have to re-make prints, always remembering that by its very nature photography permits this.
10 Accept that it's going to cost you money
With any luck, of course, your art will earn you money, or at least a reputation, in the long term. On the other hand, lots of things cost money: photographic paper, printing, mounting, sleeving, framing, even publicity and vernissages (opening nights/private views). For that matter, there's getting to wherever you can persuade someone to review your prints: transport, perhaps a meal and an overnight stay.
Silves, Portugal. This was used in a book on black and white photography, then picked up for a book on mediaeval history (De Intinere Navali by Dana Cushing). Although you might just about be able to get away with presenting such things to a publisher on screen, it's almost certainly better to show them a first-class print so that they know the standard to which they are going to have to work. Quality losses in scanning, JPEG compression and so forth are inevitable, even assuming a good screen (and they aren't always good). Linhof Technika IV, 105/3.5 Schneider Xenar, 6x7cm Ilford film, printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.
In our experience, most reviewers don't charge for reviews. They do it out of the kindness of their hearts and to encourage other photographers as they were once encouraged. Some do charge though, and whether you get a more useful review from a paid portfolio review than from a free one is likely to be a matter of chance.
Yes, you can do a great deal on the cheap, and most photographers (like most artists of all kinds) save money wherever they can: cutting their own mounts, for example, instead of having them cut at a framer's. On the other hand, there comes a point where there's no point in spending any money at all, if you are spending too little to make your work look good.
Garden shed, from a small exhibition we put on at our local tourist office. Even when you are trying to get the tiniest, most local exhibition, it will help if you can show people good samples of your work: a portfolio, in fact. And the more practice you have at showing your portfolio(s), the easier it's going to be to get people to take you seriously. Leica M digital.
If there's one phrase that could sum up the basis of everything we have written above, though, it is this: leave the reviewer wanting to see more, not less. The advice I have given here will not benefit everyone, but even if you vehemently disagree with almost every word of it, at least I have got you thinking. This is unlikely to be a bad thing, unless you are really bad at thinking.
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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2017