“So you don’t have an iPad?”, joked the picture editor of a well known magazine as I pulled my portfolio from it’s case….
The iPad is a great tool for quickly displaying images. But for me it is not a replacement for a traditional portfolio. It doesn’t matter how good the screen is, there is something fundamental about an actual object that takes up space in the universe that represents you and your photographic vision. For me photographs are best when they are physical, either on a page, on a wall or even from a dusty old box from the bottom of the wardrobe.
I don’t think this is nostalgia. I don’t bemoan eclipsing of the physical original that was captured on film. I would quite happily throw all my negatives away if i believed I had digital versions (and back-ups) of them all.
If I were to have to choose between a website and a portfolio then I would definitely say website. But that leaves me a little hollow. It is the sheer reach of the website that is so incredible. However, it doesn’t matter how well designed it is, it isn’t as intimate as a physical portfolio. You don’t get to control where the viewer goes and how they navigate around your site.
If you are anything like me you spend too much time staring at screens. The process of clicking links or even swiping the iPad is passive compared to handling a book. Based exclusively on my experience I would say that people probably spend twice as long looking at an image on a page compared to one on a screen before moving on.
A portfolio is about presenting your work at its very best. More than ever before it is important that you show something that is memorable. Creating a distinction between you and any other photographer is harder when you shoot on the same camera, with the same lens, use the same retouching lab and present your work on the same device.
My portfolios have evolved through my career. Back to it’s earliest incarnation, I probably started with a classic portfolio case and plastic sleeves containing the pictures. It was the absolute standard way to show work…. but it was pretty early on that I developed a life long loathing of plastic sleeves.
The super reflective protective sleeves maybe the industry norm, but I find them distracting and too reflective. The glossiness detracts from the image behind it and they feel sterile to touch. Without doubt they do protect the images and pages from grubby mitts and the stickiness of an artbuyer’s post-it note is easily removed. My problem with plastic sleeves is above all they look cheap. I know for a fact they aren’t cheap, in fact plastic sleeves are surprisingly expensive, but can’t get over that they tend to cheapen what they present.
The second major incarnation of my portfolio was the last pre-digital version- Trannie Boards. Probably a better cross dressing surf shop than a practical portfolio solution. The portfolio consisted of a metal flight case housing a couple of dozen A3 (297mmx420mm) 5mm opaque black boards with windows cut out with transparencies of the images as window panes.
In order to make them I first had to make prints of each image then shoot the print on 5×4 E6 (slide film) using a copy-stand and 5×4 camera. After processing each sheet, it was sandwiched between two boards with a defused plastic behind to even the transit of light through the slide. Each board was then trimmed to the correct size.
The portfolio consisted of only black and white work. I don’t recall any technical reason it didn’t include colour work, it was probably because at that time I was shooting almost exclusively black and white.
Anyone who remembers shooting (or still does) slide will recall one of the beauties of the medium is that light emits from the surface of the image rather than is reflected. It is a very pleasing effect and really enhances the experience of viewing an image. There is something magical and romantic about raising a slide to the light and the image appearing.
This portfolio had several limitations. The images looked great in optimum conditions, either on a light-box or next to a window, but suffered greatly when neither were available. Do picture desks even have light boxes now? Also only about 15% of the entire board was actually image, so you end up lugging around a lot more card than image. It was also a complete faff to add new work. In fact I don’t think that I ever up dated it. I used it for slightly longer than I should have with older work and then ditched it.
The inkjet printer has completely changed the way I make my portfolios. It was probably early 2001 when I made my first inkjet folio for the Joop Swart World Press Photo masterclass.
The aim was to create a journalistic portfolio that contained reportage stories, a few single images and cuttings of my published work. Even though I was not shooting digitally then I had begun to scan work and was getting used to the idea of working with images on the screen.
The images were printed double sided on an Epson A3 printer and the pages were trimmed to be slightly squarer (300x350mm). The layout afforded plenty of white space with captions beneath the images.
Layout of first self printed inkjet portfolio
There were a couple of hundred words introduction for each story and then maybe 12-14 pages of images printed double sided, mostly one image per page but some printed across the gutter. I am not sure anyone actually read the text. When showing it in person, you always end up talking about the images anyway. Captions can be useful but a more expanded text is probably not necessary.
Over wordy text introduction
The pages were mounted into an off the shelf portfolio book, the kind that uses tightening screws that allows you to take the pages in and out. These are great solutions for the need to up date and rejig a portfolio for different needs.
Cuttings in Plastic sleeves
At the back of the portfolio I had cuttings in plastic sleeves. The very last time I used them. Revisiting this portfolio now, I think that it represents that stage of my career very strongly. I was mainly shooting narrative based reportage and this was probably the last few halcyon years of magazine reportage features. I was getting assignments in places like Colombia, Brazil, Haiti, Afghanistan and Mongolia, from magazines that dedicated 12 or more pages to black and white picture led features. This was without doubt the most niche my portfolio has ever been. I knew what I wanted to be shooting. I was maturing as a photographer and the portfolio was strong.
But suddenly and now I think it was more sudden than I appreciated at the time, the market completely changed. Over the course of two or three years in the mid 2000s pretty much all my usual clients retrenched and either stopped or curtailed assigning the kind of work I was doing.
By the time I made my next portfolio my work covered a much wider range of subjects. In late 2001 I was assigned by GQ magazine to shoot a story about Mario Testino, “the world’s most glamourous photographer”, in the run up to his major portrait exhibition in London. So amongst the images from the war on drugs and the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan were behind the scenes reportage of fashion shoots in Rio, Cannes and New York.
Small Black Portfolio
Layout of Small Black Portfolio
Rather than the usual image per page that most portfolios have, the idea was to layout the portfolio as if it were a book or magazine. In order to execute this it is necessary to print on both sides of the paper and print across spreads. Once you are printing both sides, you drastically reduce the way in which you can reorganise the pages and add or subtract images. Accepting this limitation I decided to make a hand stitched book that was completely bespoke but impossible to change.
The most important thing I learnt about going down this route is to get the book binder involved as early as possible. The binder will be able to guide you on how best to create sections, the bleed, the paper weight, the grain of the paper etc.
Of course now there are options like Blurb, who produce decent quality books at a relatively reasonable price. However my experience is that while they offer a good service you do surrender control. By printing yourself, you can keep reprinting until you are 100% happy with every page. You can have a much wider choice of paper finish and cover. It obviously works out much more expensive to print yourself and have an artisan binder finish the book. But if you are not prepared to compromise on quality you have to be able to oversee every aspect of the process. The quest to get this right can verge on the compulsive.
Without doubt, presentation wise this is my favourite way of creating a portfolio. It feels elegant, bespoke, considered and professional. It is however super expensive and completely set in stone, with no scope for change once made. It takes planning, time, patience, conviction and attention to detail. Wouldn’t those be great traits for a client to pick up on when looking through your work.
As well as making my portfolios this way, I have also made a super limited edition (edition of 2) book for Mario Testino. Having spent several years working on and off with Mario, shooting behind the scenes with him for commercial and editorial clients and for ourselves, I edited a book of the best images and presented it to him as a present. I also made one for myself.
Mario Testino Book
MT Book layout
MT Book Layout
Getting out there and showing people your portfolio is good for your soul and even better for your career. The entire process of making a portfolio helps you improve as a photographer. I don’t get the same sense of self-appraisal from creating an on screen edit. Making a portfolio forces you to look closely at the kind of images you make and want to make, why some shoots or images work better than others and stokes those once white hot embers inside you.
Of course remember, it doesn’t matter how good your portfolio is, if it is sitting in a bag under your desk it isn’t working for you.
I currently have two portfolios. I have the stitched book, which represents the sweep of my career. It is pretty photo-journalistic and editorial, containing work from around the world on subjects such as the war on drugs, voodoo in Haiti and poverty in America.
At the back I have a montage of cuttings from publications around the world.
The second portfolio is the most recent. It is self-printed, but not stitched in a book but bound by the screw-post system. This book is more commercial and represents my work for clients such as Dolce and Gabbana, Estée Lauder, Nestlé and The Body Shop as well as personal projects.
The pages are huge (540mm x 360mm). The layout is simple, just one image a page and the paper is glossier (Hanhemuhle Photo Rag Baryta paper) to reflect the more polished nature of the work. It is great to have a portfolio that I can regularly update with personal work.
It is huge....
This portfolio was custom made my the same binders I used for my stitched books, Book Works in Shoreditch, (www.bookworks.org.uk).
Hand finished by Book Works
The important thing about this portfolio is that it can be changed. While 75% probably remains the same, I add and subtract pages depending on the client I am showing.
But I do take an iPad too.
You can’t show moving image on a printed page.