iPad as Portfolio: The Barracuda Complex

After just reading yet another story about a photographer utilizing the new iPad as their portfolio, and selling this off as something revolutionary, I felt the need to address this lunacy before it goes any further.

The iPad is not inherently evil, not by any stretch. The iPad is just a new, shiny toy that was developed for entertainment purposes, purposes that have now become a major part of our lives. Movies, games, online streaming You Tube videos of women in bikinis shooting assault rifles, etc, you know the really important shit that we can’t live without.

But like all things tech, this nonessential piece of equipment is the latest fad to sucker in hordes of snappers who think they are now going to take over the world.

Look, there is absolutely no reason to use the iPad as a portfolio, other than you just thinking it might be cool. Hey, that’s fine. But don’t think having your portfolio on an iPad will make you a better photographer. Don’t think it will make you a more viable photographer. Don’t think it will make you a more “high tech” photographer.

You want to be a better photographer, get more jobs? Then take the time, money and energy you are putting out converting your photo-life to the iPad and go shoot some personal work.

Geeks get the majority of air time in the modern photography world, mostly because the tech companies are footing the bills, paying for advertising, etc, so it is no surprise, at least to me, that the iPad has become the flavor of the month.

Again, it is an interesting device, but if you have an iPhone, and a laptop, then why exactly do you need to have your portfolio on this thing? In short, you don’t. You just want it.

Do you really think a person in a position of power is going to say, “Well, this work is okay, but wow, the fact this person is mailing me an iPad over a print book is so cool we should give them the job?” My opinion, anyone thinking this, or doing this, really isn’t in position of all that much power.

On the rare occasions I show to work to power players I typically have two options, laptop or print. I’ve yet to have a SINGLE person choose laptop over print.

I know, I know, I can hear the masses screaming at me in the background, “But Danno, people don’t have time for print books, and the computer is just so much faster.” Or, “Danno, Danno, the iPad is so much smaller than my print book, it will be far easier to view and ship.” What? Are you sending 30×40’s? Get over yourself and modern feeling of bigger is better. The best portfolio I’ve ever seen was 8×10 vertical. And guess what, the images were really frickin good.
Ever wonder why the industry is in such sad shape? Ever wonder why the quality bar has dropped so low? Ever wonder why the value of imagery has fallen to current levels? Faster. Overworked. Stressed. Yep, it’s all connected. Personally, I think if you are meeting with someone who can’t take the time to look at a real book of prints, images, and feels SO rushed they have to punch a button on a keyboard as opposed to flipped a page…why are you working with this person in the first place? Is this a comfortable work environment? Do you want that same frantic relationship come shoot time?

Again, in the past few years, on those rare occasions when I met with a gaggle of editors, etc, I’ve always found the most beneficial meetings have been with folks who are in control. They didn’t have their Blackberry in their hand. They weren’t sitting next to a ringing phone. And they surely were not concerned about me having my portfolio in electronic form. The meetings were set up SLOWLY, over time, by proving to them I could provide UNIQUE CONTENT, not a power sucking portfolio.

And while I’m on this soapbox, and my voice seems singular in a forest of millions, if you are under the impression that the iPad is the future of photography I think you are in for a long and harsh future. I keep hearing this, that online content is the future, and that photographers, by the thousand, are all going to be creating stills and motion and their own content, and then selling this to the masses. You have to be kidding me. Again, if I’m doing it, and your doing it, and every single one of our friends are doing it, then where is the value? How on Earth will there be enough money to go around to support even ten percent of the photographer population? Can someone please tell me? What I see is a world that continues the trend of work for hire, work for free and photographers giving away every single position of power they ever had.

Also, if someone can find a single human being under the age of 30 who will willingly pay for online ANYTHING I would love to meet them, and then sell them to a museum for future study.

If I’m not mistaken, the internet, globally, is associated with free. FREE, FREE, FREE, FREE. For crap sake, porn is free. If there is ONE thing in the WORLD I would guess people would pay top dollar for it is adult content, and now THAT is free.

So now I’m going to support myself on charging for my online imagery. Man, I really wish this was doable, but I just can’t see that working. Ask the New York Times how easy that is.

Recently, I’ve been informally surveying small groups of people in regards to their online habits, mostly workshop students and college photography students. So far, I have a grand total of ONE person who said they would be willing to pay for content. And every single person under 25 has just looked at me like my hair was on fire.

People when is the Coolaid going to wear off? I’m going to call this the “Barracuda Complex.” I’m not talking about the Heart song by the way. The barracuda is a fish that loves shiny objects, so when you are snorkeling you might want to take off that wrist watch. Photographers are like barracuda, we love that next piece of gear.

But folks, the ONLY thing that will save you as a photographer is your work, your imagery. And within that statement, the only thing that is going to really save you is making your PERSONAL WORK your COMMERCIAL WORK. If you can produce unique content, RETAIN THE COPYRIGHT, RETAIN THE RIGHTS TO THE WORK, AND THEN LICENSE THAT WORK AT A SUSTAINABLE and LEGITIMATE RATE, you MIGHT have a future in photography, a future that in my opinion will have little to do with an iPad.

My last thought on this mess. If you put your best image on a t-shirt, then attended Photo Plus in NYC, and then walked around that magaziny area of the city, you would probably be showing your work to a lot more people. Have fun, good luck.

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.