More than a year has passed since I graduated from TheDarkroom Firenze. A lot has happened since then. Yet, I keep thinking about my last month as a student, when my final task was creating my very first portfolio. The main reason why I have been looking back on that experience is because I feel I am not making any progress as a photographer and I need to get my creative flow going again. Also, thinking back on it now, it still puzzles me how putting together my portfolio turned out to be such a daunting experience.
I confess that, of all the tasks I had to carry out throughout the year, portfolio making was the one I dreaded the most. For those wondering, I am not scientific-minded (I still count on my fingers) nor technologically savvy for that matter; I am inept in everyday, practical tasks (I’d better stay away from any kind of electrical device); in spite of this, I did a good job at mastering all the technical aspects of photography and I even managed to survive in studio shooting with no casualties and my dignity intact. For someone as clumsy and poorly-skilled as myself, it has been a huge accomplishment. On the contrary, I am better at abstract concepts and all things philosophical, hence assembling a portfolio should have been more my cup of tea. Yet, I had such a hard time going through the whole process.
What is a portfolio? A portfolio is a collection of your best works to showcase to prospective clients. When it comes to assessing the quality of my work, I am without doubt my toughest critic and worst enemy. I am also very reluctant to share my work with other people, for a very simple reason: I fear judgement. Sharing your art makes you vulnerable, and nobody likes to expose themselves to possible scorn and rejection. Honestly, I find it hard to get rid of the assumption that when people are assessing my pictures what they are actually doing is judging me as a person.
So, right from the start, I didn’t want to share my work, I was not satisfied with my photographs and, to make things worse, I shot most of my pictures on film, which is not a bad thing per se; the problem is, I didn’t scan them right away, because I was going to do it “later”. Unfortunately, I’m a very unrepentant procrastinator, so I put the task off until the last moment, meaning I had to choose among my meagre collection of digital images.
THE HARROWING PROCESS
First things first, edit your pictures. This is not specific to portfolio making, it’s simply something that needs to be done. I personally have a love-hate relationship with editing. I actually enjoy tweaking my pictures, playing with the myriad of sliders and effects available, but I also get easily depressed when I spend hours staring at my computer screen, going through hundreds of raw files in my image archive. To me, looking at my unedited pictures is like staring at my reflection in the mirror first thing in the morning after a rough night: let’s just say it doesn’t improve my confidence and self-esteem. I suppose this explains why I prefer shooting film; with analogue photography you think twice about wasting your film and are less likely to overshoot. This means that, while editing, you spend considerably less time getting rid of unfocused, blurry or badly composed pictures.
In Understanding a Photograph John Berger affirms that “a photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen.” Photography is based on choice: what we either omit or include in our frame. This is what I do whenever I press the shutter button. Hence, the fact that I cringe at the mere thought of selecting doesn’t make any sense at all; anything that is close in meaning to choice and, by extension, accountability makes me feel rather uncomfortable, as in palm-sweating kind of uncomfortable. Yet, I had to choose.
You should end up with twenty to a maximum of thirty pictures for your final selection; if you add more your audience will likely lose interest. To make your life easier, your starting point should be roughly a hundred images. My starting point was my entire Aperture library, which is far from your ideal starting point. Eventually I had to narrow it down by browsing every single folder in my library. As I mentioned before, I am too biased and not dispassioned enough to objectively judge my pictures; based on my experience, my advice to you is to seek the help of an experienced professional, who can assess your work with impartial eyes and provide constructive feedback. As I am an unrepentant quitter, I would have easily given up if it weren’t for the guidance of professor Susan Hacker Stang, who guided me through every stage of the process and whom I could not thank enough for her patience and encouragement.
Now that you have selected your very best pictures, it is time to give shape to your book in a linear, fluid narrative. Structure it as you would order the paragraphs of a story: pick a cover image representative of the portfolio as a whole, followed by complementary shots, and finally a closing picture. As with every narrative, make sure it is consistent in subject matter and style. You could also enrich your portfolio by providing your audience with additional info that can range from your bio, context description, time frame, geographical location and/or medium details, to more detailed content, such as giving some insight into the project, explaining the thinking behind each picture, or making an artist statement.
Pick a layout, get your portfolio printed and you are almost done.
Completing my portfolio, has been like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I was too focused on finding the right fit for every single picture that I failed to see what was right in front of my nose: a clear picture of my vision. It was flicking through its pages and the deeper connection with my images’ tangible, physical form that made me realise that there were discernible patterns, common threads to what I thought were simply a bunch of random, purposeless snapshots.
My photography is very simple, repetitive and unoriginal: I photograph anything that makes me smile. I like open, endless spaces: the expanse of the sea, the land, the sky. I like the mix of exhilaration, fear and the sense of connectedness, of being in sync with nature that I experience standing before them. I like tracking the world changing, capturing fleeting fragments of it that will never be the same: a cold winter sunset, a rainbow after a spring storm, colour-drenched fields in the midst of summer. I like eye-popping colours, white puffy clouds against a clear blue sky. My camera is my magic marker and the world my colouring book. I like that, whenever I look at my pictures, once I peel away the outer, literal layers, I see glimpses of myself in them.
What I have learned from creating my first portfolio is that, in order to see your vision with stark clarity you need to distance yourself from your work and, most importantly, to be changed as both a photographer and a person: you need to acquire technical skills as well as wisdom. My advice to you is quite simple, just like my photography: don’t be afraid to share your art, trust in your potential and revel in your creativity.