Welcome to Portfolio Hell, Take it as a Learning Experience

I have a confession. This past November was the first time that I have updated my printed book since I was a senior in college. NOT GOOD.

My website has been up and running and almost constantly updated in the meantime, but a website and a book are slightly different animals. Websites offer a bit more leniency with regards to subject matter and space. Unlimited portfolios and images are by no means free on the internet, but neither do they weigh 50 pounds and require patience and grace while inflicting back pain when running back and forth across town between interviews and go-sees. At the same time there is something about the sheer visual quality of high-end physical prints that the web has yet to replicate.

But a debate on the merit of web-based portfolios vs. physical portfolios is not one that I want to get into here.

What I discovered rather harshly over the past couple of months and am still battling with is the use of the portfolio as an unforgiving but invaluable educational tool. Arguably the main purpose of a portfolio is to showcase, in the best possible light, your best work. This is the collection of images that will help both attract interest, as well as convince potential clients that you are the correct choice for their project. It is as much a presentation of your past successes as it is an instrument for securing future clients and commissions. That’s not exactly news to anyone, and if it is you have some catching up to do.

“I looked at everything I had done since I started working. It was a revelation. For one thing, I had no idea that I had accumulated so many photographs. You lose track of them when you’re working every day. And you see the work in a different way when you look at it from the distance of time. You get a sense of where you are going. You start to see a life. Looking at the body of work gave me the impetus to go on.”

-Annie Leibovitz, At Work

What I am actually talking about is seeing the overall direction of your work. What kind of photographer are you now and what type of photographer are you developing into? How does that differ with the direction that you initially hoped for? Looking at your work as a massive whole allows you to see the various trends, both good and bad, that are emerging and influencing your work. Personally, even though this was a concept that I understood in theory, the reality was a bit of a shocking experience. Yes I am proud of the work I’ve done; however, being the overly critical perfectionist that I am, I also recognize areas of strength and weakness, trends to avoid, ideas to further cultivate, directions where I need to challenge myself to create greater things, etc. These are all things that I would never have noticed or understood before I went through the editing process for the latest version of the portfolio. It doesn’t matter how often you shoot or how amazing the images are, keeping things piecemeal in your head or computer will never offer you the chance at growth that compiling a complete portfolio will do. There is no arguing with the facts, and when all your images are sitting there on your floor, or bed, or computer screen, the only thing to do is to organize them, take them seriously, strip away the weak and try to learn something from what the remaining images say about you. It’s arduous, frustrating, and daunting, but completely worth it.


Serendipitously, while I was working on this article I discovered a series of videos on oneprophoto.com talking about how to build and edit a successful portfolio and what different clients are looking for in online and physical portfolios, among other helpful tidbits about building a successful photo business. Suzanne Sease and Amanda Sosa Stone are former art buyers and reps and offer some fantastic advice.



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