Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 2000/10/19

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Subject: [Leica] Portfolio rant part 2b
From: Mike Johnston <>
Date: Thu, 19 Oct 2000 07:42:22 -0500


There are two main strategies that work for me and for the people I've
advised. One you might call the "Build around the hits" method, the other
the "Culling" method.

In the Culling method, you'd first put together a working set of all the
pictures you've ever made that you like or that you think are good--slides
or black-and-white prints or whatever. Throw in everything you think is a
good solid maybe. This grouping should be several hundred at least and
possibly more. Once this group exists (again, you have to put it in real
form, not just ideas, memories, and selections in your head), the process is
basically a slow culling-out of the weaker work. Take a few weeks to get it
down to a hundred, then take your time picking the absolutely best 40, and
then wait a couple of months and select 24 from the 40 to print as a

In the culling method, you can get other peoples' input. You don't need to
let them actually eliminate pictures; just ask them to pull out the pictures
they like less well. Take their input as suggestions.

Probably the supreme example of the culling method I know of was done by
Christopher Bailey, a NYC photographer who has never gotten any recognition
but is an outstanding artist. Chris would make tiny "matchbox" portfolios of
images no more than 2x3 inches in size, in small, handmade boxes about the
size of a deck of cards. Then, as he made the rounds in the art world and at
parties and bars and so forth, whenever he got into a discussion about
photography with somebody and they concluded by saying, "I'd love to see
your portfolio sometime," he'd answer, "I've got it right here--want to

The upshot is that Chris got literally hundreds of people to look through
his work. And he'd simply watch their faces as they looked at each picture.
Gradually, he got a sense for the pictures that people responded to most
consistently. Sometimes the consensus surprised him--he found that people
passed right by some of his own favorites, and _did_ respond to certain
pictures he hadn't really noticed. But let me tell you, when he had finally
put together one portfolio of _all_ the pictures that people most
consistently reacted to, it was really a stunner. It would make a great
monograph book.

In the Build-around method, you start from the other end--with the "hits,"
the special, spectacular shots that you just really love and that you know
are among the best things you've done--the shots you just can't bear to
think of leaving _out_ of a portfolio of your best work. That might be only
three, seven, or however many shots. Then, you study that group and take
your cues from those pictures, sorting through the rest of your work to find
pictures that look good with those core pictures. A portfolio doesn't all
have to be equally strong; it can modulate, have a pace to it, like a movie
or a book--it's okay to do things like start with active, dynamic pictures,
put some quieter ones in the middle, and then end with a bang. If your goal
is simply to show off and set out those "hits," you can usually build a
whole portfolio around them that looks good and communicates effectively.

One thing you might learn from this process so far is that you simply don't
have enough to work with. Maybe you just haven't had a clear enough idea
what you're after when you're out shooting. Maybe you just don't shoot
enough. Lots of people don't. Probably the most common weakness of all--a
student epidemic disease--is putting together a portfolio from too small and
weak a base of raw material.

The other major pitfall is having too literal an idea of what it means for
two pictures to work together. A major flaw and failing of many serious
portfolios--especially in the art world--is thinking you have to have a
dozen or two dozen pictures that are essentially different versions of the
same thing in order for them to be presented together. If you're doing
portraits, you _don't_ need to have the same backdrop and the same lighting
for every damn picture in order for the portfolio to work--the opposite is
more likely the case. If two pictures are too similar, your responsibility
is to _choose between them_ rather than include them both. Many "art
photography" portfolios are just multiple versions of the same picture. This
is as much a failure of editing as it is a triumph of it!