Portfolios- Defining Your Personal Style

Jellyfish no.9

Portfolios, for me, fall into two categories. The general portfolio is a collection of all of your work. This is what you have done and what you are doing. Each new piece gets added to the collective and, hopefully, it grows and grows. The second portfolio is the specific portfolio. It consists of a smaller collection of cohesive work that is produced with the intention of being displayed or published as a group. This post will deal with the latter and discuss its importance in the development of personal style, discovery, and growth of the artist.

The specific portfolio (henceforth just portfolio) comes about in two basic ways. The first is through studying your own work and seeing something emerge. It is similar to the way Lee Friedlander looked and his own work and discovered he was photographing monuments, so he continued to do so and completed a book. This kind of portfolio can take a very long time, even years, to complete. I personally have at least two such portfolios in the works. One of these is my work with frozen ice and snow on the river(s) banks. When I first began making these photographs, I had simply seen a river from the roadway and decided to check it out. The first discovery was on the ground glass ( I was shooting 4×5 film) when I began noticing shapes and forms I hadn’t seen with just my eye. I was not sure yet what I wanted this work to be about. The second discovery was in the darkroom when I noticed the abstract nature of some of the work. It became clear that some of the photographs were too literal and a bit boring, while others were exciting and successful. The more abstract work was fun because you could play with the orientation. Which way is up? What is this a photograph of? Is that part of a snow crab? A laughing man? Because the river work is largely film work and it relies heavily on the season of Winter, I expect this portfolio will shape itself slowly. I now know the importance of the abstract nature of the work, and the juxtaposition of frozen water with flowing water, as well as the fact that composition and form are the most important elements. This gives me a good foundation for future work.

The second way a portfolio shapes itself is like a slap in the face. You immediately know you have the beginnings of a portfolio, you just have to chisel it out. This kind of portfolio can take months instead of years. This is what my jellyfish portfolio is all about. While I certainly can photograph jellyfish again to include in this portfolio, one days worth of photography has given me enough to produce a finished portfolio. So, why then months to complete it? After all, I just said one days worth of photography has given me enough. Well, the slap in the face only tells you something is there. The hard work of determining that something is what comes next. Anyone one who has observed jellyfish in an aquarium has seen the undulating masses as they are propelled by the currents. Further this by the unusual lighting, in this case fluorescent green, and it becomes necessary to transform the subject and find a way to connect to it. I found these soft bodied creatures to be very difficult to photograph, they are in constant motion and the light continuously changes, and even more difficult to print.

It took many attempts to get the perfect print from the first jellyfish. At first, I didn’t know what I wanted. So, I just made a work print. An unedited print in color on glossy paper. I was very disappointed in this first print, and I waited several days before I attempted it again. I did not like the green glow, and some of the subtle details just looked unsharp. Of course, some of the details are seen through the soft bodies decreasing their sharpness, but I hated the way it looked. I eventually tried it in black and white and finally felt like I was on track. With careful conversion to black and white, I was satisfied with the details, but glossy paper just made the blackness of the background too shiny. The black background was fighting with the jellyfish and felt like it was on the surface of the paper. I wanted it to recede and actually expected that it would based on my experiences with darkroom printing on fiber based glossy paper. Being that I was wrong, I decided to try matte surface paper. I was surprised how the blackness just fell away creating an abyss for the jellyfish to float in. That was the winning combination, black and white on matte surface paper. Now for the disciplined part.

Creating a portfolio requires the discipline to present your work in a well defined manner. Each piece should have a matching , signature look. The pieces are being made to belong together and it is up to the artist to decide how to identify with the work. The jellyfish have become contemplative dancers to me. The frozen movements fail to give away the undulations and currents of the actual movement but instead suggest a different kind of movement. They are now gracefully moving toward and away from each other in a controlled dance. The jellyfish are no longer in water but rather they are in space. They are in their own abyss. So, editing requires that I create the same abyss, similar dance, adequate detail in each and every one of them. This is sometimes easy, an hour or so of work, but most often several hours for each one. And all of this can possibly lead to no one liking any of the work. To never displaying or showing the work together as intended. But, I have found a connection to my work and have grown through the discipline of creating it. I’ve currently reached number ten, and have much more work left to go. Eventually, I will be rejecting some of them, another discipline.

Please comment below. Tell me what you think, for better or for worse. What do you hate about the work? What do you like? What is your take on portfolios? I’d love to hear from you!

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