The New Portfolios

by Jun 7, 2020

If you visit my SmugMug site you’ll see it’s been reorganized. Where it used to be a single set of galleries, I’ve broken it down into three sections: Portfolios, Bodies of Work, and the Best of the Year collections.

This was the end of a project I started over two months ago, with two realizations: that my current lightroom ranking standards no longer worked for me, and that the images I had flagged as portfolio images in many cases no longer really reflected what I thought was my best work.

If you look at those two issues and shudder a little, you’re correct. The first problem implied that I was going to have to review and re-rank many (most? all?) images into whatever new set of ranking standards I came up with. The latter involved going through and coming up with new sets of images for whatever topics I decided I should do. Neither one was something I wanted to dive into, so I spent a good amount of time avoiding starting. Eventually, however, I realized I was more annoyed at there being an identified problem I hadn’t fixed than I was with the time it would take to fix it, so I finally (reluctantly) dove in.

Two months of on-and-off time later, I surfaced with a re-organized catalog of images, hundreds of re-processed images, a new definition for what a portfolio meant to me, updated rankings of everything and five new portfolios that I’m rather happy with.

The five portfolios are: Wildlife, Landscapes, Black and White, Birds, and Birds in their Environment. Anyone remotely familiar with my work is probably unsurprised, although Birds in their Environment might warrant some explanation. There is some contextual overlap between it and Birds, but Birds is generally a close up shot of the bird being the focus, without much context, where Birds in their Environment is about putting them in the context of the area in which they live, or showing that environment in a way that ties to the birds. There’s definite cross-over between the two categories, where half a dozen images could live in either, just as there’s similar cross-over between it and Landscapes. There’s no idea of one category being “better” than the other, I made selections more on what felt right, and looking at them with fresh eyes a couple of weeks later, I might move some around a bit, but it’d be the same images, so I think I got the selection right.

There are two Portfolio categories I didn’t publish: Intimate Landscapes and Macro, both because I frankly don’t have enough images to fill them out yet. They’re both recent additions to my mental thinking of the kind of images I want to produce, but still formative. My original goal was for each Portfolio to contain 20-30 images, requiring each to both have enough images to warrant being called a Portfolio, and requiring me to make edits to limit it to my very best.

There are 97 images in the new Portfolio set. The “best” years in terms of what was selected are 2014 (15), 2019 (13) and 2012 (12). The oldest image is from 2007 but only 2 are from 2009 or before. Not surprising, in that I’m a much different photographer today than I was even 3-4 years ago, and a much more competent one. I was a little surprised any images from 2010 or before made the cut.

Are these my “best” images? Or are these my “favorite” ones? I’m going to stick with best, but that might make a fun discusion over a few beers some day, and I’m not entirely sure how to define the difference. These are, however, all images I’m proud of and all images I feel properly represent me as a photographer in that specific topic today.

If I had to choose the weakest topic, I think it’d be Landscapes. I made a couple of specific choices leaning more towards non-epic type images, but I feel like my vision has moved to new things in Landscapes but my image collection hasn’t really joined it yet. It’s tough given the limited time I find to do this kind of photography and (even pre-Covid19) my limited travel opportunities, but I know how I want to pivot here and it’s more about time and opportunity to implement these new directions.

I’ve also created a Black and White portfolio, and many of those images are new conversions of images that have been in the “get around to it” pile for a long time. I used this as an opportunity to spend a non-trivial chunk of time converting images and removing the rust from my conversion skills, and now that I have a portfolio, it’ll be easier for me to guilt myself into carving out time to do conversions on a regular basis. One thing I did not expect was coming away from that feeling like much of my Landscape work looks better to me in black and white than it does in color. In retrospect this shouldn’t have been a huge surprise given my lack of — interest? motivation? — to play the “golden hour or don’t bother” game in my photography, and the stronger contrast in mid-day photography lends itself well to strong black and white conversions.

This was a long-overdue re-think of how I present myself online, and I think it’s an end to a process of reinventing myself as a photographer I started a while back that led to me going to that Art Wolfe photo retreat last fall, and now having had the time to really integrate what I learned into my brain and decide how I want to focus the next few years of my imaging.

I strongly believe if you aren’t always trying to improve and innovate and explore in new directions, you’ve started stagnating and that will kill your craft. Much of the time, that growth is small and incremental and you just tweak things here and there to integrated it into your thinking. There are times, however, where the needed change is a fundamental one on the foundations of what you’re doing, and when that happens, it’s best grab the opportunity to throw a bomb into the mix and rebuild from the foundations up once the shrapnel settles in. If you don’t, there will always be that little thought in the back of your head that what you’re doing is broken, and that will affect how you do your work until you finally track it down and make it go away by fixing the thing that’s bothering you.

I find creating good, new stuff is a lot easier when I’m happy with what I already have, and if there are aspects of that bothering me, I end up second guessing my choices on new photography, or worse, just deferring things to later and finding excuse to avoid it all. With a fresh clean slate, it’s a lot easier to move and grow forward.