The Portfolio Review

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Bruce Davidson looks at work, Palm Springs Photo Festival

Get ready to give confession. Get ready to spill your guts. Get ready for intense pleasure and possibly intense internal pain. Get ready for feeling like your on an island. Get ready to be accepted.

Get ready for your portfolio review.

A lot has changed since I began in photography. Although I had made money with photography for several years, I got my first real job in 1993. My very first job in photography I got without having to show a portfolio at all. In fact, the editor who hired me never even looked up from her desk. “Hi, I’m Dan,” I said. “Your hired.” This first job was hellish. Shoot, process, edit, print(darkroom), shoot the halftone, do the post up, etc. I did everything. And for those of you who don’t know what halftone or post up is, look it up under “dinosaur” in the dictionary.

After getting out of school, I sent portfolios out for eight months straight with not a single reply. This was long before email, e-portfolios, websites, etc, these damn things were handmade, 20 slides in a clear sleeve, copy slides that I shot myself. Cover letters typed on typewriter, complete with whiteout spots and no logo or brand of any kind.

At the time, with these first portfolios, I was hunting for a newspaper job, and I had been in papers and watched the brutal reception given to portfolios that arrived while I was sitting there doing my best to look useful. I’d seen editors see a great portfolio case, throw the work in the trash and keep the case for their own. I’d seen editors take portfolios that were coming on disc and throw them in the trash, “Probably a virus,” they’d say. I’d seen editors looking at stacks of portfolios, find a familiar name or face and say, “Okay, got it, we’re done here,” and toss the rest of the stack in the trash without having looked at any of them.

I knew what I was up against.

But at the time, I didn’t have a style, or a vision or really any idea what I was doing, so it’s no wonder it took a year to find a job. And I’m not really sure why I got my first internship. It might have been Spanish ability. It might have been someone making a call. It might have been desperation on the part of the editor. It might not have had anything to do with my photographs.

Over the years I’ve had to show a portfolio many, many times, and I’m sure I’ll continue to have to do it.

But much has changed since the days of the slide page. My portfolio comes in many shapes and forms, from my cell phone, to two visual websites, to my blog and even a range of books and print boxes from 4×6 to 17×22. I’ve got it all.

The portfolios have changed but so has the assortment of folks looking at them. It used to be you showed your portfolio far more in person, or you sent a physical book for clients to look at. This still happens, although not as much, as the web has taken off as the “first look” of choice.

A few years ago, clients, in many cases would use the web to screen portfolios, but would then call in the books they wanted to see after looking at websites. Nowadays, even this is dropping off, with many clients booking shoots directly from the web. Again, we are all, for some reason, in incredible hurries, all the time, for no particular reason. And, the web is cheaper. No need to ship clunky, heavy books across the country or world.

There are still other things that have changed in my portfolio reviews. When I first started showing my book I wouldn’t say I was prepared to defend or explain myself. I remember sitting down at a major newspaper in Texas, with the old, old, old school photo-editor, who was mean as a snake, and the MOMENT I opened my mouth he fumed, “I don’t care about your war stories,” his lip trembling with rage, little balls of spit flying off his lips and landing on my synthetic shirt. He shut me down. That was it. Done. Over. Squashed. I realize the other editors let this guy destroy me, probably because they were bored or wanted to see what would happen.

I made trips to New York to see magazines, publishers, editors, etc, and even went as far as France to show my work, carrying books, prints, etc, and honing my skills at getting people’s attention and also standing up for myself.

Then came the turning point.

I was at a newspaper, showing my work, attempting to land a full time staff job. While I was waiting to see the photo-editor, I waited in the lab area where all the other photographers were processing film, making prints, etc. One of the photographers said, “Hey, let me see your portfolio.” I placed my book on the table in the center of room and was treated to a near implosion of the entire photo-department. The first person to look at the book said, “Dude, you gotta take all your black and white and put it in a separate sleeve, then put all your color in another.” Another photographer standing by said, “No, don’t do that, you gotta blend it all together.” Before long there were other photographers involved and what followed was a near-blows, shouting match involving about a half a dozen photographers. It got ugly. I never said a word. Photographers took shots at me, my work, each other, their work, etc. If the publisher had been there, they would have taken a cheap shot at him or her too.

But in the middle of this mayhem I had a very clear realization.

“These people don’t have any idea what they are talking about.”

It was so clear to me. It wasn’t that they didn’t have experience, or didn’t have years under their belt looking at images, but what they couldn’t really do was tell me anything concrete about my images.

Why? There is no right and wrong. Regardless of what anyone tries to tell you, there is no right and wrong, only what you prove. You want to mix your color and black and white? Do it. You want to edit your portfolio to five images. Do it. You want to show product shots to a news editor, then do it. If you can justify your decision and you place a book of stunning images down, anything can happen.

There are plenty of sheep in this business, and like I said before, in some ways it is far easier to find work these days if you are a sheep and produce the simple, safe garbage. But me, I’d rather attempt to be a lion, and being a lion starts with your portfolio.

Make it what you want. Show what you want, and when someone confronts you about an image or a body of work, stand up for yourself, defend the images.

And when I say defend, I don’t mean be defensive. This is really common when looking at someone’s work, when you make an observation or suggestion and someone will respond, “I meant it that way,” or won’t let you get a word in edge wise. After all, you are showing your book, so you have to expect feedback, both negative and positive. Sit, listen, think, let the person speak and formulate your response. Take notes if that helps.

But at the end of the day, it is your work, your style, your vision.

If you ever attend a large portfolio review, you will realize immediately you have to be your own decision maker. If you show your book to ten different editors you will get ten different reactions, and if you chase each one, you’ll go crazy. I had one “important” editor look at my book, turned to the second image, which depicted something she personally didn’t like and she made a face and began acting like a child. It was unprofessional, sad, but frankly not that surprising. This had happened before. So, should I have taken that image out? No frickin way. It was a good image, regardless of the reaction.

Shoot it, edit it, print it, live with it and most importantly, enjoy it. .

Good editors appreciate someone willing to fight for their work.

4 Responses to “The Portfolio Review”

  1. Toni says:

    By far one of the best blog posts I’ve read in awhile. And well written. Your last sentence … perfect!

    • smogranch says:

      Thank you for saying that. Glad you liked it. Reviewing now and in the past are such different experiences for me I just had to write something about it.

  2. Steve says:

    Great article. I can deal with my work being criticized and questioned, but I’ve always been able to defend my work in a “kill them with kindness” kind of way. (Unless it’s a douchebag that says something like “this is crap…” and then it’s a little different; respect has to be given to be received.)

    The only way to grow as a photographer or creative is to be open to criticism, and know when someone’s suggestion can indeed make your work better. Because everyone’s work can be better in one way or another, right?

    • smogranch says:

      I totally agree. I had someone review my work a few months ago, and she saw something, a theme, I had never seen before. It was great and really made me think about my work in a different way. Then again, I had someone else review it and discard it like a spent cigarette. But, I love them both for some reason.

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