The edit for a portfolio is one of the hardest things to do. Pictures that you love, suddenly look out of place and that awful realisation arrives, it will have to go. Everything seems so unfair.
As creative people, it is in our nature to make things. As photographers particularly, it is in our nature to make pictures. But editing a portfolio runs contrary to this. Editing is all about defining the most effective selection from the greater body of work. It is about holding back work and not showing it. Perhaps this is why it is so painful because it is hiding work, not putting it on display.
The MA has been very helpful in this respect. Understanding that getting peers to help with editing is a major step forward, certainly for me. There is now no doubt in my mind that sharing the process of editing, does lift some of the psychological burden.
Having established this principle, how should it be put into practice? There are multiple ways of engaging with other people to collect views.
Deference to an editor.
In the context of the MA, tutors and lecturers are the accessible figures. It might be possible to get some time from a professional photographer or perhaps a gallery proprietor to examine your portfolio and advise. In that situation, should the advice be followed explicitly? The concern being, that in some sense, the portfolio becomes the editor’s work.
This needs a moment’s reflection. In fact, editors are at work everywhere. Writers employ editors as do movie makers. Editors are a fundamental part of journalism. Much of what we consume culturally has been through the filter of an editor. So, using an editor seems to be quite normal. We do not lose the authorship of our work any more than if we employ a professional printer, rather than do the job ourselves. It is simply professionally outsourcing a task in an industry recognised way. If we trust the editor, we should trust their advice.
The advice of our peers.
Deferring to an editor or lecturer brings with it the comfort of knowing that this person is more competent in this area than we are. They are likely to do a better job. This assurance is not there when we consult our peers. They are just as competent as we are, that’s why they are our peers. So should we trust our peers with the critical task of editing our work?
We should certainly reflect on their views. They may have noticed something we did not, or understand something in a way we failed to. That is very helpful.
Peers may also notice faults, omissions and possibilities that we fail to see because of our own over-familiarity with our pictures. They, thankfully, do not share our portfolio fatigue.
Peers can also have a useful collective function. If you invite a group of peers to comment on a draft portfolio and all say that number 5 should be removed, that is a strong indicator that there is a problem with number 5. Individually, your peers may not be able to explain what is wrong with number 5, they will just sense that it is not right. Individually, that opinion is open to question. But when a group of people collectively and without consultation, come to the same view, that should be taken seriously.
(The featured image above was in the draft portfolio circulated to my peers. All were of the view that it should be removed.)
Seeking advice from people outside of photography is the most problematic route to getting input on a portfolio. But that doesn’t mean that it should be discounted, so long as the credibility of the source is considered. Your neighbour who doesn’t understand your work is not a useful source. But a journalist who has written about the same field you are photographing is definitely worth consulting.
But, eventually, the portfolio is our own responsibility. It will bear the photographer’s own name. So I believe it is important for us to build a sense of what a good collection of work looks like. Perhaps the best way to do that, is to visit exhibitions by practitioners that we respect. If I have enjoyed a show and a show guide is available, I have got into the habit of buying it. The guide serves not only as a memento, but also as a reminder of what was in that show and why it was so memorable.
Two guides that I treasure are:
Hayward Gallery, 2018, Andreas Gursky, London, Hayward Gallery Publishing
Williams, Val, 2019, Seaside Photographed, London, Thames and Hudson