I like to think of photography as an expressive medium, in the sense that images can be a means of communicating notions, facts, thoughts and feelings. In this context, I can draw parallels to other media such as spoken or written language. Where single images may express succinct statements or the significance of singular events, portfolios can encompass richer and more complex stories, unfolding over time and geography and the evolution of the artist’s own skills and sensibilities. Herein lies the true value of portfolios: they impose a very different mind-set and mode of work than the pursuit of single images. The focused exploration of a given subject, place, or theme enriches the understanding of both the viewer and the artist alike.
Working on portfolios also decreases the reliance on unique conditions and technical qualities of images. Like any story, some images play lead roles and others offer context, sub-plots and supporting characters. The resulting work goes far beyond superficial impressions of places and subjects made on a random visit. Instead, the artist may express an intimate relationship with the work, evolving through closer and more frequent interactions. As expressed by photographer Minor White: “The meaning appears in the space between the images”.
Some photographers think of such efforts in terms of projects, which may be true in some cases. However, projects start with a defined end-goal in mind and a set of arbitrary constraints (time, cost, features, etc.). My own portfolios are very different from projects, in that I do not have an end-goal in mind other than evolving a better understanding of my subject, however long it takes. I work on them not for the sake of accomplishing an end-product, but because they are interesting and rewarding to me and because I care about them. My goal is to share with my audience my own impressions and revelations in the hope that I can make them care about the subject in the same way that I do. This is a very different approach than working on a project.
Having realised the personal and expressive advantages of working on portfolios rather than single images, this had been my primary mode of work in the last few years. Being a writer, I can also draw a parallel between portfolios and books. Often, books begin with a general concept. In the writing process, the book takes on a life of its own, new themes and ideas present themselves as the work evolves; gaps become more obvious; and the story becomes richer and more compelling. The same works with portfolios. At any given time, I have a few themes on my mind, portfolios at varying levels of maturity, making me more attuned to new concepts and possibilities that may fit into one or another, enhancing both the work and the story as I go along. With a few images identified as the seed for a portfolio, new ones seem to emerge on their own and often without deliberate effort, resulting not so much in working on the portfolio as evolving it.
For those who wish to venture beyond “hit singles”, portfolios offer a wonderful way to turn photography into a more personal and significant pursuit. Pick a theme, place or subject that you care about and to which you have on-going access, and tell its story over time and from different perspectives. Visit it often and seek new interpretations and views you had not explored before. I am confident you will find the experience very rewarding.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 29 of Landscape Photography Magazine.