Topic: portfolios (3 posts)

About This Time of Year

Many of us in December, with one mega holiday just behind us, are busy thinking of gifts we need to get and are consumed with buying the  Xmas tree and setting it up, there are office parties and so on. It is a busy time of year. 

I have two stories to tell that relate perhaps not so specifially to Christmas but more about giving photographs. I know that my  parents got pretty tired  of being given photographs by me when I was still a student. I had the mistaken belief that since my photographs were worth so very much now (sic) they would love to have them. Not so much.The first story is about Harry Callahan, one of my teachers and a mentor to me. The second about a portfolio I made and gave away. Both stories have not so such to do to do with Xmas time but a lot to do with gifts.

At one point, probably in the late 80's, Stephen Jareckie pulled together a color show of Harry's work at the Worcester (MA) Art Museum. Callahan's color work for the exhibition came from the Hallmark Collection, as the famous card company was actively collecting photography in those years. Stephen was the photography curator at the museum. I went and hauled along some students as I knew Harry was going to be there.  Of course, he was mobbed at the opening. We said our hellos and then moved on to take a look at the work. This was still fairly early days to see color from Callahan as it wasn't widely known that he worked in color until maybe the early 80's. In those days Harry showed principally with Light Gallery in Manhattan and had struck an arrangement to have whatever he chose shipped to Germany to have his color slides made into dye transfer prints, a system so difficult, so laborious and needing such a high degree of skill as to be practically alchemy. At any rate the mostly 11 x 14 inch prints at the show in Worcester were dye transfers and they were superb. I distinctly remember standing in a line of people slowly going down one wall of Harry's photographs, some very famous ones from Morocco and Ireland and Providence. In front of me were Eleanor, Harry's wife, and Eleanor's sister. I remember Harry's sister-in-law saying at one point that Harry had given her many prints over the years. She added that one of the images in front was the same that Harry had sent her for Christmas last year and (I am paraphrasing here) exclaiming that "if he gave her another print as a present this year she was gong to scream!" I wonder how she felt when, after he died, those prints went going for thousands of dollars each. Of course, I would have killed to have a color dye transfer print of Harry's then and now, for that matter.

Gifting your work is always tricky. Is it what they wanted? Or would they rather have that Ninja machine that you saw at Costco with 53 speeds that pulverizes kale so fine you wouldn't even know something so good for you was in that smoothie you  just made.

Second story: In 1995 my very good friend Roberta was getting married to Hunter.  Roberta and Hunter lived in City Island in the Bronx but Robera's real home and passion was her place in very rural Maine. They would go whenever they could and my daughter and I would go too. I got it in my head I wanted to make them a portfolio as a wedding present. I made a special trip up there to photograph the area for the portfolio. I was working in black and white 8 x 10 in those days so they were mostly made with that. This is what it looked like, as I just saw it again for the first time in many years last weekend when visiting with Roberta and her family.

A boxed set of about a dozen 16 x 20 inch prints on 20 x 24 inch mats. (Please excuse the reflection.)


One of Hunter leaning up against a rock in the field next to the house, set up to shoot paper targets with a 22 rifle.

And the last one of my thirteen year old daughter Maru, mowing the grass with a small tractor

I made that one in 35 mm black and white infrared. Photographs can have this wonderful time machine quality, flashing us back back to earlier times. The marriage to Hunter didn't last but later Roberta married Izzy and they have one daughter, Rosie, who is now 14. They go to their place in Maine every chance they get. I am headed up there just after Chhristmas. 

Topics: Black and White,portfolios,Northeast,Vintage

Permalink | Posted December 9, 2016

Portfolios Take 3

My last post on Portfolios (Take 2) ended with the beginnings of advice about what you can learn when you show your portfolio to someone. Please know this: "Portfolios" is a very big topic. I can really only scratch the surface here. It feels like this is worth a full chapter in a book.

Let me start with: study the person as they look at your pictures. What does their body language tell you? Are they tuned into your work or carrying on multiple tasks at the same time? Are they talking? Are they not talking? Are they fielding telephone calls? Are they talking to others while looking at your work? Are they bored? Are they really looking? Are you connecting with them? Where are they looking? At your work or somewhere else? Are they asking you questions? How are you responding? Conversationally? Are you providing context or anecdotes or are you working to set a tone of quiet contemplation? Are you nervous? Are you someone who talks too much when you are nervous or maybe you become too quiet? 

You get my message, I'm sure. Each time you show your work yes, you are baring your soul, but you also have a responsibility to get what you can from the experience. This is the part where you learn whether your efforts are working or not. Do the people you show your work to agree which images are key and the stars in the portfolio? Do they "get" your sequencing? What about when they are finished? Does your time with them end well? Are you expecting them to give you the show, publish your work and give you a  MacArthur Genius Grant right on the spot or are your goals perhaps a little more realistic?

Notice how I'm not referencing who you are showing your work to here. Why? Because I don't think it matters.  If the person is the head of the National Gallery or someone you've just met, a friend or a partner, someone who knows everything about photography or nothing at all I think it is always the same. They will tell you, perhaps not always in words, something from looking at your work. Your job is simply to be sensitive and responsive to their message. 

Okay, so there are differences. If you are showing your work in a portfolio review session with 20 minutes for each review and you're showing six or eight times a day this is vastly different than sitting at your dining room table over a beer or a glass of wine showing new work to a trusted friend and fellow photographer. One is likely not supportive and the other probably is very. 

Finally, what is the take away here? I can't tell you specifically but can share with you that frequently what I think is a new but just finished series or body of work gets revised, some prints get reprinted, I will resequence the work and perhaps even change its title or rework it conceptually after I have shown it to several people.

Finally, finally. Don't expect unreasonable things from showing your work to someone. You might think the earth should stop turning when you show your work. It did for you when you made it, right? Well, not bloody likely. People can only give you what they perceive and they didn't make the pictures, you did. So no one is as close to the work as you are. Also, again from a career's worth of personal experience, no gallery director, publisher or curator is going to do much with your work the first time they see it. They need to know you are in for the long haul. They certainly are. 

Thus endeth the lesson. Whew! I hope this has been helpful. Let me know if it has, and even if it hasn't. I am new to this blogging thing and feeling my way as I go along. I know I would have loved reading some of this material when I was newer to the profession of being an artist. My intention is to share some of my experience with you to aid you in the process.

Update: Keep an eye out on this blog for notice of upcoming workshops in portfolio preparation I will be teaching through Digital Silver Imaging in Belmont, MA.  These will be day long sessions. You also will be able to find dates and course descriptions on their site (Digital Silver Imaging) about the first of the year, 2013. 

Once again, feel free to email me with questions, comments and suggestions: Neal's email

Topics: portfolios,Take 3,Commentary

Permalink | Posted December 12, 2012

Portfolios Take 2

In this second installment on portfolios I will write about different kinds of portfolios and different forms of presentation.

But first a story. Back in August I met with Katherine French and Jessica Roscio, the head of the Danforth Museum and its curator, respectively. I had just returned from photographing wheat fields in Washington and we were meeting to flush out the show coming up in April, 2013, which, you guessed it, is Wheat. I had thrown in about 150 files from the recent trip to the Palouse of wheat on my iPad in case they wanted to see them. I had also made a couple of prints to show them. We looked at the prints and then Katherine asked if I had anything else to show. I pulled out the iPad, set it in front of them and let them start sweeping through a great many pictures. After looking at a few, Katherine turned to Jessica and said, "Don't you just love the iPad?"

To someone like me whose whole career has been print based, I heard her say this with some dread. But look at it from the museum director's point of view. What better way to get through a large quantity of images to choose a show? 

So, things change. When I review portfolios either one on one or at NEPR (New England Portfolio Reviews, held every spring in Boston, is a collaborative effort of the Photographic Resource Center [PRC] and the Griffin Museum of Photography) I will only look at prints. Why? Because prints are still the ultimate determiner of quality. Make a good print and you show that you know what you're doing. 

However, there are clearly circumstances where an iPad,  a website, an on-demand book, a screen-based slideshow are excellent ways to show your work.

My point is here that it is most important that you do your homework. Know who you are about to show your work to and research their preferences. Also, know what you want from the person you are showing your work to. Want a show? Want to know if the work moves them? Want to get the work published? Want their advice about what to do with your work? Want to know how to make it better?

So, I've written about different forms of presentation and, somewhat peripherally, about different kinds of portfolios but I probably should try to be a little more specific here. Foremost is usually the question about what to include, one body of work or representative examples of several groups. Again, this can only be answered by considering your intention and who you are showing the work to. As a general rule, think of a time frame of 20 minutes or so in which to show someone your work.This means that 30 or 40 prints is way too many. Think in terms of 20 or so. Play it through as a kind of rehearsal: introduce yourself, open case, explain the work, give him/her some time and space to look at the pictures, perhaps with asking you some questions along the way, some time for a conclusion, a conversation about what could be next, a thank you and a good bye. That's a lot to fit into a short time.

I am going to end this installment here but want to add one more thing and this is perhaps the hardest pill to swallow. Photographers suck at knowing what their best images are. We are too close, too involved, have some silly anecdote about how hard it was to get this picture or what we had to do to get that one. So what we need to do is to show our work to anyone that will look at it and learn from that experience. Their reaction to your work is key. This will give me a good place to start off in Portfolios Take 3.

Topics: portfolios take 2,portfolios,Commentary

Permalink | Posted December 9, 2012