Saturday, February 6, 2016

Portfolios: Unity, Variety, and Balance

I'm going to ramble on at some length looking at a handful of bodies of work through my favorite lens, and then having warmed up, move on to look at a little of my own. Naturally, I suppose I will end up judging my own the best, but we haven't got there yet, so who knows?

This is just me ruminating. You may follow along if you like and perhaps you will be entertained, or might find some little nugget along the way of value to you.

Let us start out with some definitions. I was, after all, trained as a mathematician.

Unity is, for our purposes, the extent to which a portfolio hangs together as a unit rather than as a bunch of disparate pictures. A shared subject, a shared point of view, a shared treatment, shared graphical elements, these all bind pictures together. In what I think of as the Walker Evans style, each picture might share a graphical element with the previous one, creating a linear chain of connection. The last photo may have nothing in common with the first, but the chain between connects and unifies them. Gestalt Psychology probably has something to say here, but I'll be hanged if I know what.

Variety is the opposite. It is the tendency within a portfolio for the pictures to differ, to stand out one from the other.

Balance is broader than either. A balanced portfolio is one which seems to have about the right amount of anything which you happen to notice.

None of these are particularly virtues, they are merely properties. A balanced portfolio is no more superior than is a tall man. Still, we often are striving for one thing or another. If we're trying to build a tall man out of parts, let us measure him on the slab when we've finished our sewing. And let us be aware of what we are striving for.

Further. They are all relative. My crushing monotonous unity might be your gently lilting variety. Where I see repetition with trivial variants, you might see fascinating subtlety. Where I see balance you might see a chaotic mess of this thing mixed indiscriminately with that. Still, I think we'll differ mostly on degree. I might say a man is tall, and you might say that he's not so tall as that, but neither of us are likely to call him short.

Be that as it may, we shall likely differ somewhat, as it should be.

First let's look at Mr. Tuck's favorite portraits. Unity aplenty, after all they are all portraits and one feels, I think, the same hand on the tiller throughout. While the artist does not particularly thrust himself forward, it is certainly credible that all these were shot by the same sure hand. This much unity tends to be balanced as well. When nothing strays to far from the center, the load tends to remain upright with little help.

Variety is gently present, I feel. Each subject turns up as an individual, each picture different from all the others because the subject feels distinct.

In contrast we could once have looked at Eric Kim's street portraits. Unfortunately, he seems to have taken this gallery down. A cursory search for "street portrait" turned up a lot of individual photos of the same sort of thing but nothing as useful as the set I remember. I will describe it, roughly, as well as memory permits. It was a series of Interesting Characters, shot in bright color, each person standing squarely in the center of the frame. This had the same unity as Tuck's portraits, even more, being all portraits. The hand of the artist was, as far as I recall more vigorously present. Again we had the balance of essential sameness.

Variety was largely absent. These people were all simply plopped in front of the camera with their "camera face" on. They were essentially interchangeable ciphers. Very well, this one is a shopkeeper and that one a banker, but if they exchanged clothing it would be all the same. Eric was counting on the inherent Interestingness of these Characters to carry the day, and never got past the "camera face."

We can return Ming Thein's recent idea of man pictures. I will take the liberty of blending the color and black and white together on the grounds that the whole fares rather better that way, and anyways I think they're all parts of a whole.

Again a great deal of unity here. The themes of anonymity, solitude, isolation, are consistent. The visual trick of sticking a lone figure, usually dark, framed by something or other, and on a contrasting background, appears constantly.

By treating the b&w together with the color I can feel a range of mood which I did not taking then separately. The b&w struck me as nihilistic, while the color are merely sort of dusty and sad. One might also perceive them in contrast to one another (about which more anon) but I do not. It reads to me as a continuum of mood.

Ultimately I find even the combined collection to be monotonous, the variety in mood does not balance the repetition of motif sufficiently to relieve the sameness. I cannot but glare in frustration when I see the dark figure framed by the bright doorway over and over.

But perhaps that's the point. There is no law that says art needs must make me happy.

And, of course, the best for the last. That brilliant body of work, my Vancouver portfolio. Need I say anything?

Of course I must. I like the balance and variety of it. I think I did well. People, architecture, forest, light and dark, all the elements of My Vancouver, all there is nicely selected degrees. Where it falls down, to my eye, is in the blending of the b&w pictures with the color.

The wet forest elements rendered in my imitation Adams b&w, strike me as a sharp contrast to the urban pictures. Which could work just fine, and perhaps it does, save for one little problem. Those two facets of Vancouver do not in my mind contrast. To me the city is simultaneously both of those things, with no sharp divide.

I have created variety where there should be unity.

See what a useful lens this is?


  1. For a better integrated, book-length portrait of Vancouver, see Fred Herzog's "Vancouver Photographs". His orange-red color palette carries through remarkably throughout the book. Your color photos have a similar tint, but they seem to me (as they do to you) to come from a different aesthetic world than the black & white. Two portfolios in a single "book"?

    1. I have considered simply embracing the contrast, and running with it. It would be a reasonable way to treat Vancouver, but the conceit of the project is that it is My Vancouver, so I would like to find a different way.

  2. I've never been to Vancouver, but most cities are surrounded by edgelands, where the city blends into the surrounding rural areas. If you know about such places around Vancouver, maybe you could add some pictures of them to provide the link between the forest and the city. And, I'd try to take them on wet and gloomy days to make them go well with the other pictures ("unity", if I got you right).

    1. That is an interesting idea. Some sort of a bridge. I did shoot some "condo tower seen through foliage" with that idea in mind, but none of them worked. They were just a jumble of nonsense.

      I am toying with the idea of actually blending the pictures themselves. Perhaps using the forest photographs large and translucent as backgrounds for the urban photos, and vice versa, to force the duality, the simultaneity, onto the viewer.

      It would be a way to experiment with the ways book structure can come in to play in ways that are different from a tradition "here is a sequence of pictures" monograph.

      Thank you for the suggestion!