This is quite a vast subject in it’s own right, many areas of which are beyond the scope of a relatively simple piece about portfolios, touching as it does upon many facets of creativity and commerce. For the purposes of this piece I’m simply concerned with the images that will end up in the final portfolio, rather than your photographic oeuvre as a whole. I just used the word oeuvre, how poncy is that?
I’m not perhaps the best person to talk about a “body” of work, as one of things I kicked against most whilst at college was the notion of producing a series of images which all seemed very similar, and given that my current work takes in such diverse elements as naked girls in the studio, golf tournaments, portraits, and extreme canoeists, I don’t think I’ve made much progress in that area. However, conventional wisdom has it that your portfolio should be instantly recognisable as your work, should have a coherent thread to it, even if not a consistent subject matter
Needless to say, much of this wisdom is not only true, but basic common sense if you’re trying to get commercial work. Imagine you’re trying to make it as a car advertising photographer, but you also like to take environmental portraits. When you take your portfolio to see the agency that represents Ford, you don’t include the portrait work, just your dramatic, beautifully lit car shots. Essentially this is how I approach the problem of a coherent body of work – I relish the fact that my job allows me to shoot a wide variety of subjects, but I don’t include the sexy naked lady pics when I go and see Pregnancy and Birth magazine, for reasons that should be all too obvious. I deal with this by having enough stuff printed at finished portfolio quality, plus interchangeable pages in my portfolio itself so that I can swap out whole sections depending on the audience.
Returning to the conventional approach as opposed to my slightly scatter gun method, the ease and advantage of this method is that a commissioner of work should be able to recognise a shot as yours almost straight away. The main reason that this has evolved is simply due to the sheer number of different photographers out there seeking work. A commissioner of photography in a major centre like London or New York is potentially capable of finding a photographer who specialises in almost anything – so why would they want a jack-of-all-trades when they can get the perfect tool for the job?
To this end, your book should have a very strong thread running through it, usually covering both subject matter and treatment. Certain sectors of the industry (let’s pick fashion, for example) are extremely crowded, and having some generic fashion shots alongside a body of work that’s largely commercial or portrait, will be unlikely to raise any interest from an experienced fashion editor. When up against lots of competition it’s obvious that you need to stand out and demonstrate why your work is better than the next photographers, and this is often best achieved by knowing your subject well, and exploring it in sufficient depth. You want to leave the viewer with a very clear memory and impression of you work – this is not often achieved by throwing tonnes of different stuff at them and hoping some of it sticks, but by developing common threads, looks and approaches within your work.
Now, you’ll quickly see from glancing round this blog, and from several mentions I’ve made, that this is not the way I work, in fact I revel in the variety my work offers me. There are 2 main reasons why I don’t present my portfolio in this conventional way. The first is that my work (and hopefully everybody else’s) continually evolves. With a presentation such as mine it’s relatively easy to insert new shots as they develop. If, on the other hand, your book is very harmonious, then a new image may stick out like a sore thumb and make the whole book look a little unbalanced. Often the only way to solve this is to shoot a whole new book in the new style, and this is a costly and lengthy process.
The second reason is that, as stated quite often, I enjoy a variety of work, and have always been surprised at where my work comes from. I never take all 5 of the sections of my book to see one client (portrait, feature/reportage, glamour/beauty, fashion, and lifestyle/stock/commercial), but I always take the 2 or 3 most appropriate. I’m continually surprised by the amount of times that, after selecting the most appropriate work to take to see a client, the one image that they comment on, and perhaps even offer me work from, will be one that doesn’t fit the standard template of their stuff.
Horses for Courses, and other Cliches.
On balance, and taking photographers as a whole, it’s simply a question of what suits the market best. In a crowded field like fashion or advertising your best bet is to have a very focused and distinct book that is clearly and uniquely yours – any images that detract from the central theme will cause a commissioner to be distracted. If, on the other hand you are based outside a major photographic centre and need to take in work from a broader range of clients, then having more scope to your book is often the only way to go. In fact in these situations a book that shows just one type of work is almost commercial suicide. The wide availability of cheap stock library images, the prevalence of high-quality digital cameras and shrinking budgets mean that trying to make a living outside of London (read New York, LA, Paris etc) by focusing on just, say, fashion will be almost impossible, and you’ll need to broaden the base of your work. However, talking about the business like this crosses over into areas way beyond portfolios and would have to include a lengthy (me, lengthy?) discussion about the different working models of professional photography, so for now we’ll stop.