Blurb Australia: Brisbane Begins…

I thought it would be interesting to show a tiny glimpse into this little Blurb Safari we are experiencing at the moment. I’ve been getting a lot of emails, messages, etc. in regard to this trip, mostly from folks who think I’m on vacation because for us Americans Australia is such an exotic place there is skepticism that this could possibly be a work trip.

I get a lot of “Are you going shark diving?” “When are you driving the Great Ocean Road?” “Make sure when you are in Sydney you see these eleven things and in this order….” The only problem with these wonderful suggestions is that we actually ARE on a work trip. which looks a lot like the second and fourth images here. I also get a lot of emails from people who think I’m here working on a photography project, which is also far from the reality no matter how much I wish it was true. At some point, near the end of this little voyage, I’m hoping to get a few days to spread my photography wings, but until that time I’m making myself less photographically miserable by snapping these odd little moments, frames one an three, that are simply about color. It’s all I’ve got people and I’m clinging to it like a life preserver in rough seas.

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We spend much of our time doing what we are doing in the second image which is logistics, planning, sign making (Garry is a MASTER) email and then getting to and from the events, which entail about five different programs in each city over a three or four day period. Today I’m off up north to do a masterclass at a local art school, and tomorrow we do a designer event in the morning and book workshop in the afternoon. The following day begins a two-day staffing and lecture at a local photo festival. Our entertainment comes from comparing hotels, the speed of elevators, what odd times we woke up due to jetlag and how Jason and I nearly die when Garry tricks us into eating food so spicy we sweat through our shoes.(He does this in every city.)
Life on the road is an interesting one filled with many new faces, new places and the unknown just around the bend.

Ten to One

Completely unrelated image, but for anyone taking offense to this post….have a beer. Relax.

I recently had dinner with a friend who is a “creative.” My friend makes things for people, creative things that blend several disciplines. As usual, we got to talking about work, about jobs and the industry. Probably not a good idea….He gave me the lowdown on a recent project, a complex, multi-layered piece, which is the backbone of what my friend creates. He has a long track record, a good education and much work to prove these things. The kicker…..the total fee was $2500. This got us talking even more and my friend went to his office and retrieved a similar product only THIS product was from a job he did in 2001. Same multifaceted, layered piece only better. The design was better, the materials were better, the images were better and the overall piece was just better. The kicker….the total fee was $20.000. Now you might be having convulsions after seeing that fee but people that is how it USED to be. Not always but often. Was this fee inflated? Perhaps, but what if afforded, ultimately, was better work. And what it afforded was for the creative group to be, well, creative. I find a fair number of people today who never knew this kind of arrangement, or fee for that matter. Today, we have a different story. In today’s creative world, budget is often times the number one concern, and speaking only from the photographic angle, the actual work has become far less important. Far less important typically means far less good. But, many clients are not looking for great work, they are looking for inexpensive, temporary images. I’ve heard clients refer to online images as being “mature” after two-weeks of life. So the mentality is, “Why spend money and make something great when we are going to replace it in two weeks?” Consequently, photographers, designers, etc are finding themselves having to do, literally, ten times the number of jobs for the same amount of money. This method of work typically doesn’t lend itself to making great work. And, the artist is so busy searching for the next job, or balancing several jobs at once, they don’t have the time that allows for critical thought needed for creating lasting work that matters. Because this has been the reality for a while now, what I’m finding is an entire generation of young creators who not only don’t know the possibilities of real budgets and times, they are simply thrilled to be getting work at all. Wait! For those of you thinking I’m bagging on the whipper snappers, save the hate mail. I’m only 42 and I might be the same way if I was 25. This is a very difficult position for anyone. Is it right to tell a 25-year-old “Don’t take that job” when you see them taking a commercial photography job for $2500 that requires to them sign over their copyright, spend three days in post, something that ten years ago might have fetched them a $15,000 or $20,000 fee? I don’t know anymore. A few years ago I would have said, “Yes” to saying “No.” But again, today, I see so many people who are seeing a $2500 fee and saying “Wow, that’s great.” People who have never been paid a “real” rate in their entire career. Oh, this is probably a good time to mention video, motion, hybrid, fusion, or whatever else you want to call it. Ouch. But what is churning in the background, what is truly important here…..the quality of the ideas and work. People tend to get touchy when I talk about this. I don’t see current work being better than it was ten years ago.

There are a lot more people doing it.
There is less grain.
There is more sharpness.
There is a lot more talk about it.
There is a lot more promotion going on.
There is a lot of new things that are supposed to be making it better.
There is more technology.
There are more viewing options.

But the concepts, the thought, the ultimate image…well, I’m not sure. Everyone wants to believe we are better today, just like we want to believe we are better informed and best of all, more efficient. But, I’m writing this on a plane with a pen and paper, YES A PEN AND PAPER, because when I write this way it slows me down and makes me think.

Do I write as much? No.
Do I write faster? No.
Can I send it out immediately? No.

But maybe that is the point. You’ve heard the expression, “speed kills.”
A few days ago a young photographer said to me, “I love the darkroom but it just takes too long to make a print.” I said, “Well, why do you think collectors value them so much?” You could see the light bulb going off. I’ve brought this idea up before, in mixed company, and there is always the person who gets ultra defensive, the premature aging lines around their eyes drawing down as they blast me for being a lazy, slacker who doesn’t want to work and wants everything to be like it was “back in the day.” No, sorry. I’m just old enough to have known something better. That’s all. At some point, certain things will return to a likeness of what they were, at least for CERTAIN people who have the sack to actually force these things to happen. And, I know how much more creative many of the younger creators will be when they get a taste of how good they can be given the time and access. This will take some doing. Clients. Clients aren’t stupid. If they can get ten things for the price of one, they will.

How great would it be to have some type of financed foundation that sought out great creators, gave them the time and access they needed to actually work in a way that produces a lasting impact? I imagine a space, New Mexico of course, out in the sticks, off the grid, except for water, where the artist could go for six months to a year and create, finish, dream, etc.

So, my flight is angling down toward the ground, so I must go. We have everything at our fingertips today, but what we do with it, well, that is what counts.

The beer shown at the beginning of this post is no longer available.

Questions from a Reader: About Process

A reader wrote me a note and asked me to write about my projects. I was thrilled to get this request because doing projects is what I enjoy the most. Most of the time, these days, I get questions regarding primarily three things, three things which might surprise you.

I get questions about legal issues. I get questions about technology. And I get questions about business. But questions about actual photography, or process-hang on to this word-really don’t come around all that often. This might surprise you because it surely surprises me.

I find it very strange to speak to a class of college photo students and not get one question regarding process or the actual photography, but get bombarded with legal questions regarding model releases, property releases, usage and how to avoid legal matters when it comes to their imagery. I find it odd that young photographers are so enamored with technology, and in many cases feel like their education, or basic knowledge of photography, is in fact tied to this technology. I also find it rather odd that it APPEARS that young photographers are spending more time marketing and advertising their work then they are actually creating it.

At some point I want to discuss these things further, and the idea that once you make a decision to make your living with photography, in this day and age, everything changes.

But let me get back to that “P” word. Process.

In the past few days I’ve had no less than eight meetings with photographers, gallery folks, magazine folks, book folks and educator folks. I’m exploring, as usual, snooping around, gathering creative intel and trying to keep the learning process going. The idea of “process” has popped up several times, and each time it gave me a buzz.

As a young photographer, attending college, I would head to the stacks at the school and dig through every photo-related publication I could. This was pre everything electronic, so doing this required a bike ride or hike, of several miles, in 100-degree temps. I would arrive at the tidy office, soaked in sweat, then have to sit in the hallway until I stopped dripping. Upon further inspection the woman behind the desk would say, “Okay, you can go in now.” This was my escape, digging through these magazines. At the time, “News Photographer” was my favorite. It was very different than it is now, and I couldn’t get enough. The school I attended had years of this pub, each in it’s own plastic holder, sorted by year. I memorized those pages. If you asked about the feature regarding the Miami Herald photographer who did the project on street gangs, I could tell you which issue it was in. If you asked about the photographers getting shot at in El Salvador I could tell you that too. The school also had all the European magazines, which in my mind, were far superior to our editions. They did not have limits on what they could run, and the Euro’s knew how to design and lay out a real spread. French Photo was grand, really grand, at that time.

What drove me to these publications was the idea of learning how someone else went about their business(work). Where did the idea come from? How did you pull it off? What was your mindset? And most importantly, what was the experience like in the field?

My questions were about process, not about legal, technical or business aspects of the work. But, at that time, the business of photography was very different, and the industry today perhaps requires a different form of passion and direction. Photographers, working photographers, from around the world, would come to the school, speak and show their work. I remember asking one of these people, “What was the ultimate reason you felt you had to get into Haiti at that time?” And, “What was the feeling on the plane on the way in?” I remember my fellow students asking things like, “What was your typical day like in Haiti?” and “Was your skin color ever an issue?” The photographer spoke about her relationship with the Haitian people, and she showed images of specific people and how they had become close. She spoke about how long it took to make the images, sometimes years, and when things went so wrong during the fighting how she managed to get out, make her pictures and then get back again. She spoke about editing, about searching for those missing pictures that would help explain to the world what was really happening in this tiny, island nation.

I was hooked. I was enamored. I couldn’t sleep at night, thinking about what I was going to try to do. I wondered how I could make such an impact, impression or difference. I had yet to figure out my own process. That would not come until years down the line, long after I realized that process is a fluid situation, changing its colors, shedding its skin. Let me repeat this for all those young eyes out there. My process, really figuring out what I wanted and how I needed to do it didn’t come until YEARS down the road, long after I had begun making my living with photography. Sometimes today I see that photo-cart miles ahead of the photo-horse, and this folks will only get you so far.

So, a few weeks ago someone wrote with specific questions regarding process and I thought I would give it go in terms of explaining myself. These questions are copied straight out of an email. I’ll try to explain and show examples. But before I go any further, I need to preface this list, and this endeavor. This is MY process. It might be of interest to you, or not. It might work for you, or not. It might be a good process, or a crumby one. I don’t know. When I look at modern photography I always have more questions than answers.

– Once you come up with your subject matter do you just take time to go out and shoot with that in mind
or is it a more organized and planned effort?

Yes. All the above. Coming up with the subject matter is an art in itself. I keep a list, both in physical form and in my head, in regards to what I’m working on now and what I want to do in the future. I could work every day for the rest of my life and not get to all the ideas on the list. The list is growing on a daily basis. I try to keep multiple stories going at the same time, both close to home and those further away. I can’t go for long periods and not work on a project. I get depressed, unhappy, lost, etc, just doing “commercial” work. And when I say “commercial” I mean what makes me money. Commercial work is fine, but often times it is a compromise and it just doesn’t feed my inner fire. I wish I had more of a passion for money and for things, but my drug is experience.
Once I’ve settled on a project it typically becomes about time and money, or resources. How much time can I afford to spend on this story? This is why I keep several things going at once. I currently have a story done entirely at my house in California. I don’t have to go anywhere. I can literally shoot from where I’m sitting right now. This is simply about producing work, new work, which is CRITICAL for me. In today’s world it is easy to do a body of work, then spend years trying to find it a home. I used to think this way, or operate this way, but stopped doing this about five years ago. I think modern photography is very fickle, and in many cases, a waste of time trying to engage. So I take the time, energy and money required to sell work, and put it back into doing new projects. People can sort it out when I’m dead.
When I undertake a major project there is a lot of planning involved. When I go into the field, the research is basically giving me the best chance to produce. With limited time and resources you don’t want to waste time. However, from time to time, I’ll just go, with no research at all, just to see what happens. Did this last week. 2000 miles in the car, shot 2.5 rolls total. But, explored an area I had never been, and learned a lot. Later in the year I will work on this particular project again, and I’m researching specific events and locations where I KNOW I can make pictures. This is a very broad, wide ranging story based on a simple idea. So, when I’m there shooting one thing, I meet people, or see things that lead me in new directions and I just have to go with it.

Image from the series shot at my house. This book is almost near completion, titled “Homework” and will be an edition of 25 books total, each with a print included.

– Do you brainstorm by making specific shot lists [with the idea of remaining open to serendipity] or do you
shoot more once you get there and are reacting to your subject matter?

Well, I plan as much as I can, in SOME ways. Checking on a specific event, contacting specific people, but I never try to plan the images. I learned at the newspaper that visualizing imagery before you actually saw it was certain death. Nothing was as I thought it would be. And really, that is what is so great. I don’t know what I’m looking for exactly, I’m just reacting. The idea is to put yourself in the right place, at the right time, in the right LIGHT and react. Serendipity is everything. But here is a HUGELY important point. I’m shooting REAL moments. I’m not posing, staging, or doing a portrait series, most of the time. Images like this are so frickin rare I can’t tell you. Great images I mean. Think about it. Right place, right time, right light and good enough to capture something that is happening once, in a split second, and then is gone forever. It is the ultimate challenge and you have to be mentally prepared to NOT get it, and then have the drive to go back again and try again.

Working New York City and just stumbling upon this guy in a tunnel while walking to another shoot. Serendipity. Random image. By the way, I asked him to shoot this image. When I see a guy with a gun and wad of cash, I’m feeling him out before engaging. He just nodded.

– Before you shoot have you decided on the lenses you are going to use or wait for the subject matter to
dictate this? [I do realize since your direction is usually documentary in style that you do tend to shoot with
your 35mm & 50mm when shooting with your Leica.].

I decide on the look I want before I do the project. The content dictates what I will use. I have 6×6 projects and 35mm projects, and occasionally a 6×9 project. I also choose color or black and white. With the 6×6 I own two lenses, but I choose one for each project. With 35mm I own two lenses total, and with 6×9 I only own one lens. So, not many choices to make. Recently I taught a workshop in Peru and I broke my rule of working. I used both the 6×6 and 35mm, and I shot both color and black and black and white. I won’t do this again. Too many options. Too many choices. Not enough depth with either. For me, I need simplicity. To get the depth I need, I can’t use more than one style. Now the book I produce from Peru will look good, it really will, and it will be different from anything I have ever done. And, most importantly, I learned what NOT to do the next time around. In a nutshell, if you are thinking about your gear, you are failing. Period, end of story. I see so many young photographers completely at the mercy of their hyper-complex dslr. And then subsequently, at the mercy of their hyper-complex software. I actually feel kinda sorry. And now we are adding sound and motion. This is why most of what I see from the new media looks like one person doing three things at once. That is such an unfair burden to have to work under. I’ve used the same cameras for so long I don’t have to think about anything but what is front of me. This is a very liberating feeling.
Also, different gear provokes different reactions. You walk into a small town with a dslr and 70-200 and everyone in town knows “the photographer” has arrived. I can’t stand this happening. I walk in with my Leica and nobody pays me any attention. This is critical to making real photos and also being able to keep people at ease. Last week I walked into a small cafe, in a very small town, in an area of the country that is experiencing some difficulties. There were three men in the cafe, all local cowboys, all Latino, and all speaking Spanish. I sat five feet away and made pictures without ever saying a word. Everything was established with eye contact, head nods and a mutual understanding(and I speak Spanish well enough to work). I shot with the Leica and 50mm. Had I walked in with my Hasselblad, or a 5d Mark II, it would have been different.


My double down work from Peru. Don’t get me wrong, there are images I like from each style, but ultimately I’m looking for work that is above my head, beyond what I’ve done before, and to do that, I need to simplify and establish an understanding and a bond that goes far beyond the temporary and superficial.

– Do you shoot till you’ve exhausted your ideas or do you have in mind a rough estimate of the amount of
images it will take to cover your subject they way you want?

I never predict image count. My “Homework” book has twenty five images total and I’m done with the project. My ongoing, larger project will force me to shoot thousands of images over the next two years or so. I will edit down to say fifty images with the intention of doing a book. Remember, Robert Frank shot something like 27,000 images while he was making “The Americans” and edited 53 images total for the book. This is how it works.

An image from a six picture package from San Diego.

– After each shoot [I’m sure you look at what you have, edit etc..] do you then regroup and figure out what
holes exist in the work, with the intention of going back to get shots that fill in the holes.

Yes, exactly. I shoot, edit, make prints, add them to the overall take. Then, periodically I look at the entire project and try to find that theme, see what is missing. I work on an island, and don’t really show anyone my work. Recently, I made my first magazine, an 88-page issue with a certain theme. The issue has seven chapters, the last of which is my latest project, in it’s infancy. I’ve shown this magazine to about ten people, and each time that new project has prompted many questions and suggestions. It has been interesting for me because I’m normally not getting any feedback at all in regards to my documentary work. I’m not sure I’m going to do this in the future, but it has been interesting. I also have to figure out what text I need. How much help does the viewer need in putting this all together? Can I get away with just image titles, or captions or do I need an essay?
Also, it is critical to live with the work before you make major decisions. If you are shooting and looking at your work right away, personally, I think that is a huge mistake. It takes a while to figure out what you have and what it means. I was in Peru months ago, and I’m still editing and looking at those contact sheets. I recently found an image from a shoot I did back in 2000. I missed it all those years, and then suddenly there it was. Today everyone is in a rush. Instant gratification is the rule of the day, and then we wonder why the quality bar has fallen so low. We shouldn’t be so shocked. I had a curator tell me recently, “Art projects need to be produced very quickly these days.” Well, okay, but don’t complain about the quality of projects you are reviewing. There is NO substitute for time and access.

My long lost friend, first made in 2000, but not found until 2010. A lesson to anyone deleting images in the field, or on the computer once back at home base.

– What would you say are your common themes amongst your varied subject matter?
The only thing I can think of is people. The vast majority of my work is about people, which complicates things to a tremendous degree. I see a lot of the urban, abstract landscape style documentary projects that are popular right now, and I’m sometimes envious of the detachment. You just wander and shoot. No talk. No discussion. No working your way in. But that work just doesn’t do it for me. I find it cold, sterile and temporary. But again, I’m in the minority here. That work has dominated modern documentary photography for the past five years. This work is based on the work from the 1970’s and 1980’s, so it is not like this is original, it is just experiencing a second or third life. A lot of people like this work. I’ve seen countless shows over the past five years made in this way, so there must be something about it that hits home with folks. My work seems to be like pulling teeth, so much so I don’t really think about time anymore. I’ll finish when I finish. Not like there is anyone waiting for it!
I recently had a book publisher ask about my latest project and about seeing it. I thought to myself, “Well, okay, let’s talk in two years.”

Douglass Kirkland photographing me photographing him. Even when I’m not working, I’m photographing people.

– Do you work as a fly on the wall or are there times you set things up and direct your subjects: being animal,
vegetable or mineral..

This depends on the project. Most of the time, fly on the wall. But if I need to shoot a portrait, I’ll do it. Working in the classic documentary tradition is the most difficult, thus the most rewarding when I get something good. Like a chess board with pieces moving and you need to be five or ten moves ahead to anticipate what is possible. I’ve done portrait projects, but more as an experiment than anything else. Speaking of animals, I’ve done a bunch of projects regarding our great beasts. They can’t talk back or tell me, “Hey, you can’t shoot here.”

From “Dogs Can’t Read” a project detailing dogs and graffiti in four cities around the world. This was from Tijuana, and I did not set it up. Sparky here was napping in the middle of this frame shop.

– What are you mostly trying to do or say? Make people think, see and/or feel or…all 3.

Good question. I’m selfish. I’m doing this work for me, not for anyone else. I’m doing it for the experience, and I’m not really trying to say anything, other than, “Hey, take a look at this,” or “What do you think about this?” Most people don’t really care about photography. If photography disappeared tomorrow the world would not skip a beat. We need to be aware of this as photographers and if you have an ego, do the public a favor and rid yourself of it. I think another point to make is I’m not making images for other photographers or editors. They are in the minority and are VERY unlike the general public in their view of imagery. I often ask younger photographers, “Who are you shooting for?” If you are shooting for an editor, or to win a contest, it will dictate what you do. There is a huge difference between shooting for the editor of a news magazine, and the person subscribing to the magazine. I’ve seen a huge disconnect on this front in the past ten years, and this disconnect is reflected in the number of publications going out of business. Sometime we get wrapped up in our own heads, our ego, and our goals of fame, fortune and perhaps acknowledgment. Misguided in my mind. Hey, I’ve been guilty of this many times. Trying to learn from it.


Heaven for me. In the midst of the mayhem, alone, one small camera and getting as close as I can without disturbing the scene. Who will see it? Who will publish it? I don’t really care.

– What parameters do you set up for yourself if any?

Learn. Have fun. Treat people with respect. Don’t quit. Don’t take the easy route. Don’t shoot the same images. Don’t settle. Don’t be content. Forget everything I know and just feel and experience what is front of me. Think. React. Predict. Prepare for success. Prepare for failure. Realize what I’m doing is mostly inconsequential. Realize how lucky I am. Don’t set things up. Don’t influence if possible. Lean forward not back. Keep my promises. Send work(don’t be an asshole and promise then not do it.) Write everything down. Don’t rush. Realize that having cheese puffs in the car when traveling is as essential as gasoline.
Realize I have a problem with cheese puffs. Realize there is nothing I can do about this problem. Wipe cheese puff residue off hands before grabbing camera.

Me putting an absolute beat down on my nephew while fishing, which is far more important than anything I’ll ever do with a camera. I have to do this now, while he is little, before he turns the table on me.

So what did we learn? I’m selfish. I love cheese puffs. I’m a loaner. I’ll probably never be a well-known photographer.

What else should you know?

I feel like I haven’t started yet. There is so much to learn, and so many images to make. I’m very, very happy being a STILL photographer and currently have ZERO interest in carrying sound gear or motion gear and joining the masses being told this is my future. I also think I can disappear. I do. I know, it sounds silly. But when you are in harmony with your surroundings, you can make yourself disappear and get those images you could only get if nobody knew you were there. Do this work long enough and you will know what I mean. I also think you can FEEL images coming on. There is an energy, sometimes good, sometimes bad, that hits like a roundhouse punch, alerting you to the fact something beyond your control is on the way. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you get run over.

I am never without my camera. I take flack, which I love, for carrying my “man bag.” I call it a purse. And if wearing a dress would help me get images, I’m a size medium, bring it on.

I wake up in the morning thinking about these projects, and I fall asleep at night with the same thoughts in my head. It is a curse, a real curse that takes over my life.

I could reduce my entire photographic life to ten images, something I try not to ever forget.

I find my inspiration in music and literature, not art and photography.

I can see someday in the near future, when I no longer work as a photographer. I can see this being an insanely liberating relief.

I feel like I’ve completed a major chapter in my life, with nothing but blank pages ahead of me, and the only way to find the words will be to walk out that door, close it behind me and never look back.

Peace.

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.