Sunday, October 4, 2015

When to Portfolio

Examine these two portfolios, this one and then this one. The attentive reader should pick out several similar pictures and at least one that is simply a very very slightly different angle removed a few seconds in time, and then converted to monochrome.

Ming is a smart guy who understands that portfolios are a good end goal. I am fairly confident that he would assert that he shot these pictures with the final portfolio in mind, and I am fairly confident that is not true.

Whatever the true state of Ming's mind, the reality is that virtually all amateurs roam around just shooting stuff, hoping to make some sense of it later. The notion of moving parts of the process from before the shutter press to after is a long standing one both in photography and on this blog. Mostly it doesn't matter or is a good thing.

Ming often pushes the creation of portfolios and the distillation of ideas to after the shutter press, in my judgement. This is one of those places where I opine that the movement to post is an unalloyed bad thing. You are, in essence, shooting stock photographs for yourself. These aren't pictures with purpose, they're just the sort of thing you tend to shoot. You'll hunt around for, and impose, meaning afterwards.

This is also the problem with Vivian Maier. By simply picking out the good ones, her curators have made some pleasing and fairly coherent works of genuinely good pictures. These things only work because the photographic cognoscenti still believe that the individual frame is the main thing, so a pile of them in a row is good enough for a book. There is something missing, that perfect fit, that sharp edge. How can you hit anything when you don't know what you're aiming at?

Compare Maier's books to Frank's Americans. The latter is a fucking violent blow to the head. The former is a nice coffee table book.

I don't know what you want to do, but I'm shooting for more violent blows to the head and fewer coffee table books. If my books aren't violent blows to the head, they should at least be tasteless jokes. Anything but a nice coffee table book.


  1. I am not convinced by your example: Frank took 28000 photographs for "The Americans". I would think that this process can also be described as "hunt around and impose meaning afterwards". It is just that the meaning that Frank imposed in its final selection was a blow to the head, while the meaning that was sought for by the Vivian Maier curators was "lets us put together a quaint coffee table book". I am pretty convinced that other meanings could be found in Vivian Maier's rejects...

    1. There is always a process of discovering and refining meaning, or whatever you like to call it, right up until the moment the book goes to the presses.

      But it is well documented that Frank had a pretty clear idea when he started out. To discover and document the Americans or something like that. He had a clear template from Evans in American Photographs and he wrote a grant proposal which bears this out.

      I am in fact making a quite bold claim here, one which might contradict other claims I've made in the past!

      I think that if Frank had just gone out shooting without direction, he could have shot twice as many frames and not made half the book. I believe that you could curate something pretty good out of a random mass of stuff, but I believe that it's never going to have that edge, no matter how much you shoot.

      But of course, you may not agree. And with a little digging you can almost certainly find essays on this very blog which you could use to back that position up ;)

  2. I kind of agree with Anonymous on this one. And I'm not sure you've picked a solid counter example: Maier's books are hardly "Maier's", and it's pretty much impossible to know if she had any clear idea or not. People just project whatever romantic idea they want on her.

    As for MT, the pomposity and amazing pretension of the title "The Idea of Man" - switches my interest even before I get to the photos. Which, frankly, seem totally devoid of anything.

  3. David Hurn discusses this business of intentionality pretty thoroughly in his book "On Being a Photographer" (with Bill Jay).

    1. Thanks for the tip! I'll try to lay hands on a copy. It's a subject I'm interested in!

  4. It's readily available (and cheap) at

    If I were putting together a list of essential books for photographers, this one would be at the top. Other books I would include are:

    Art & Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland
    Light: The Photojournalism of Don Rutledge, Don Rutledge
    The Private Experience: Elliott Erwitt (Masters of Contemporary Photography Series) (Out of print, but available)
    Witness in Our Time, Ken Light