Escaping Your Portfolio

As a professional creative–or even an aspiring amateur–it’s standard protocol to have a portfolio. Whether it’s posted online or neatly bound in a black leather book bearing your name, or both, the portfolio is meant to be a cohesive sample of your work.

But why is the thing so damned precious?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of having a portfolio. I understand it’s a core convention of creative professions and that it does the heavy lifting when it comes time to “get work”… But in recent times I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with the concept of “the” portfolio in our digital world and I’ve noticed–in myself and others–that the metaphysical weight alone of the word portfolio can crush the creative spirit rather than enhance it.

What to do? Ditch it.

Not literally, but ditch the concept in your mind and wander aimlessly creating things that you want to create. (Gasp!) Too many people, myself included, fall prey to the notion that everything you create should drive toward the ultimate portfolio. Well, I’ll say it again: ditch that idea. Let your portfolio come together in an edit, not in a “how to spend your time” sort of fashion.

How can I say this? Well…[click the 'continue reading' link below]
experience, for one. Shooting whatever I fancy has been responsible for almost everything I’m creatively excited about in my life, and ironically, everything I’m getting paid to shoot these days. Could I have ever started my daily iphone picture last year with that measly 2 megapixel camera had I not abandoned the idea of “what is this good for?”. When I spin through that absolutely simple, basic work now, I get giddy because I’m free enough to take a picture of a flag or a shopping cart or a blurry pile of rocks they way I see them on a daily basis, without prejudice, without weight. That’s been incredibly liberating.

Moreover, a spin through my Disposable Heroes (please do), will get you perhaps the most egregious epitome of incongruent work ever. Probably make most hurried art directors roll their eyes… But I created that gallery specifically with a qualifier – as a dumping ground for things I’m making that don’t fit in anywhere else. And you know what? I like it – I’m glad I did it. I’m free to have fun or to suck or to stumble on something fantastic. There are images there combining fashion photography with intentional digital sensor blooming. There’s a collage embedded with “1968″ documenting a series of snapshot portraits I made with the camera my uncle had on him when he was killed in Vietnam. The thing hardly makes sense at 500×700 pixels (considering that it’s really a 4 foot by 7 foot print…), but I don’t care. That gallery is also a dumping ground for some beautiful post production with my award winning Kung Fu HD series, and there’s even some ballet shots where I’m testing some lighting techniques that interest me, and some non-profit work featuring street people. And all of this work is interesting, but I was only freed in my mind to post because it doesn’t fly under an official Portfolio. Blasphemy the weight of that word. Instead, it flies under the made-up moniker Disposable Heroes…which I have no idea what that means outside that fact that, ultimately, it gave me the freedom to post whatever I wanted (and that it’s the title of a Metallica song and from the 90′s).

Other stuff that has been exciting for me that couldn’t have happened had I been thinking of things only in terms of “my portfolio”?

_Video. If I was too focused on my portfolio, I never would have–years ago and long before it was normal, fashionable, or even professionally acceptable to my peers to be transparent–begun to make behind-the-scenes videos of my shoots. And what good has that done for me? Well, ultimately it’s been a big part of creating this humble community, as well as propelled my interest in shooting and directing motion. That led me to be the first photographer on the planet to get to play with the first ever video dSLR, the Nikon D90. It lead me to make short films and music videos, and to the RED camera and the Phantom HD camera. And on and on and you get my point. It’s pays – thru luck or otherwise – to pursue your interests.

_Songs For Eating and Drinking.
Had I not been willing to take a break from portfolio making and collaborate with a buddy to bring musicians to a dinner table and shoot their pictures and record their music, I’d be duller boy. And I wouldn’t have these pictures or this website, and I’d be less happy because of it.

_The Seattle 100 project. I’ve never thought of myself or been described as a portrait photographer. And that’s part of why I was free enough to create the Seattle 100 project. Thousands of portraits featuring 100 underground Seattle cultural leaders. I didn’t care about convention or refining my commercial portfolio. I wanted to make pictures, document my city, meet and unite some interesting people.

_The New Zealand Landscape series. Me? A landscape photographer? Hell no. Unless you consider that my only true fine art gallery show opened this year in Dubai and was entirely comprised of black and white landscape images. Only reason I shot those pictures was because I was inspired by the landscape. I was working there a lot commercially, and when given the chance, I’d escape and make a picture here or there on my own.

_Etc etc

And I could go on ad nauseum, but I’ll spare you since you’re undoubtedly getting the picture. Very little of what I’ve created and shown as my “work” has been centered on creating the perfect portfolio, and it’s felt so good.

Since you’re still with me, you now get the qualifier: Don’t ditch having some tightly-edited body of work…something, somewhere you can mail around or point to that will help you get hired for what it is you want to get paid to shoot… That is an necessary evil of the profession. Just ditch the concept that everything you create needs to go toward that body of work. There are people in your life, friends, editors, creative consultants and agents especially that are extremely deft at plucking out the threads of your work that can unite it into one black book that gets into the advertising agencies. Let them guide you in part – as an editor, not as a muse – to what you should show of the work you create. Find them and cultivate those relationships: those people are geniuses
in their own right. But just don’t let that “portfolio” mentality strangle your vision to create.

Most of you are probably free from this curse of the word portfolio, and for those of you who barely sat thru this ramble, I apologize. Guys like me have had a lot to learn from people like you. I bow down. But for the rest of us, for those that have hated that word – no, not the word the concept – let this be new news: we’re finally getting over you.

If I’ve done anything in this past year, it’s been escaping that word “portfolio” and editing for my book rather than shooting for it. And it’s been the most productive, creative, and enjoyable year of my life.

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50 Responses to Escaping Your Portfolio

  1. Matt Beaty May 19, 2009 at 12:47 pm #

    Well put Chase. I think creativity is the one important thing that we have as photographers. Anything that stifles or inhibits that creativity needs to go.

  2. elzora May 19, 2009 at 12:50 pm #

    Thank you. Finally, somebody said it.

  3. Robin May 19, 2009 at 12:53 pm #

    Great post Chase. You should write a book about the Photographer 2.0. =)

    /Robin

  4. Corey Hage May 19, 2009 at 12:54 pm #

    Right on, Chase. Well put…

  5. Marco May 19, 2009 at 12:57 pm #

    Thx Chase,
    I just had the problem that I wanted to create more pictures for my upcoming website. But as I was trying to keep the “big picture” in mind (the portfolio) it started to slow me down and hinder me in just shooting the stuff I really wanted to, becuase I was constantly worrying that it wouldn´t fit into my portfolio. And therefor I would wast time and energy on the wrong projects.

    So thx again

    marco ruschkowski
    aka
    marcoImagery on twitter

  6. Anthony Harden May 19, 2009 at 1:08 pm #

    Great thoughts here sir. This adds validity to my concerns about portfolios in general being stifling to the creative spirit. Glad to hear a pro voice the same concerns.

    Just starting myself, I’ve been contemplating what to show and what to, for lack of a better term, “hide”. Most of the more creative work resides in the latter category. I suppose I should be more daring.

    Nothing wrong in trying and failing, at least I tried right? And who knows what might take me by surprise. Thanks for the inspiration!

    -Anthony Harden
    Twitter: aehric
    http://www.hardenphoto.com

  7. Michael May 19, 2009 at 1:10 pm #

    Great post and I couldn’t agree more. When I started my website I made sure I had all nice portfolio areas for topics. Then I went to just one portfolio and kinda hid the stuff that I didn’t feel should be in a portfolio somewhere else. Probably about a week before you relaunched chasejarvis.com with the different sections (or portfolios) I did roughly the same thing. One portfolio section which contains THE portfolio which a lot of people still seem to expect and a “Projects” section into which I dump the stuff I’m working on because I want to and still like to show it. Am I a still lifer? A landscape photog? A portrait guy? Commercial, fashion or whatnot? It doesn’t matter. I view myself as a photographer or even more now with getting more and more interested in video as well a visual artist. I agree, shooting _for_ your portfolio is never a good idea because then you need to match what you shoot to whats already there and your ideas get limited instead of free flowing. Plus I constantly get bored of my own stuff so I change things up all the time anyway :) .

    Do I have the black book? Sure, it’s still nice to meet with AD/CDs, PEs etc. and show them your work in print in 11×14 instead of just a website. But what’s in the book is coming from a pool of existing images.

    Michael
    http://www.michaelschulz-photography.com/blog

  8. Norton Zanini May 19, 2009 at 1:11 pm #

    How grounded would you feel only shooting what everybody wants to see? It would be like living in a cage and getting paid a fortune to be there.

    The concept of having a Portfolio doesn't mean that there is All you have and is Done & complete, because actually should never be, otherwise you are limiting creativity. But having it, should be like inviting somebody to my house to eat a piece of a Cake I made and leave that unremarkable taste making the guest want to come back. But not just for the guest to come back but for your own delight, first YOU enjoy with such a joy that no one would taste differently, then you Share it.

  9. xequals May 19, 2009 at 1:35 pm #

    Inspiration indeed!

    All … delightful post!

    |B
    {x=}

  10. RJ Photography May 19, 2009 at 1:48 pm #

    I like the honesty and humility in your outlook at photography and life and your job. I believe there is more to be read in that with regard to your success than others or you have thought. I follow your blog, as of recent, for two reasons: 1) your art and line of work are similar to my aspirations 2) you don’t hide or put your tail between your legs or yield to “the world” At my vantage that is extremely “educationally attractive” to those both raw and professional in photography. Continue to be that Chase. I hope to meet you one day not for photography but just to hang over a beer, dinner, and just talking about whatever.

  11. Adam Swords May 19, 2009 at 2:10 pm #

    This is a super-well articulated version of the lesson I learned after organising ‘that’ proposal portfolio for you last month and then having you tell me to completely flip it on it’s head.

    A flock of sheep moving together all look the same, but the elephant running in the other direction certainly doesn’t.

    Be the elephant…

  12. Younes Bounhar Photography May 19, 2009 at 2:45 pm #

    Amen

  13. matthew lyons May 19, 2009 at 3:11 pm #

    excellent advice chase. perhaps because i’m coming at the profession and career of photography late, i have been more prone to shoot whatever, only sweating over how to make them fit into a portfolio gallery now. i would like to maintain the freedom of shooting what catches my eye and/or inspires me. most often those things are seemingly mundane and ordinary. i’d like to think that way i see them is what appeals to people.

    cheers!

  14. cb May 19, 2009 at 3:15 pm #

    hi Chase,
    thanks for putting this post out there and give us something to think about.

    I agree with you in the point of not to limit yourself by working only towards a portfolio.

    Other than that I think you can’t be an expert in everything. That’s actually a big point in these ‘D SLR times’ right now and the core of the problem people complain about.

    Besides your commercial work, which I like a lot, I think you re showing inconsitancy with the ski book, landscapes or the phone photos. Some weak photos in there. And that affects your entire body of work you make public. In the end it’s about the receipient, but at the core it s what people complain about when talking about the kid with the D40.

  15. Rob Casey Photographer May 19, 2009 at 3:27 pm #

    Good points, been doing that for years. shooting for a specific look can limit one’s creativity. for years i’ve read about having a consistent look for all promotions, as well as in fine art, again limiting where a person can go. if you have to have a book, then put different styles of work in there, why not? life’s too short.

  16. Tom May 19, 2009 at 3:38 pm #

    Hi Chase –
    Couldn’t agree more. When I was an AD and editor looking for new photographers I wanted to see more, not less, and I wanted to see variety. I always roll my eyes when “experts” go on about how a portfolio has to show one “coherent vision” or whatever. Yeah, edit tightly and only show great photos, but if you’ve got great photos in a mix of styles, formats, whatever, that just means you’ve got a breadth of talent. Who needs a one-trick-pony these days (or ever)? I just want to see who you are as a photographer.

  17. Neil Wade May 19, 2009 at 4:34 pm #

    Well put. It seems to me that, in this day of digital photography, you’re limiting yourself by specializing. Go shoot what you want! Go do what you want! Enjoy yourself and be creative! Editors and potential clients will see this and be impressed!

  18. MaskedGK May 19, 2009 at 4:54 pm #

    Disposable Heroes was on “Master of Puppets”, which was released by Metallica in 1986. Back to the front!

  19. Anonymous May 19, 2009 at 5:26 pm #

    Are you in my brain?

  20. Anonymous May 19, 2009 at 6:30 pm #

    I feel for anyone who actually takes this advice seriously. Go ahead and design your portfolio that way, and don’t hold your breath waiting for the phone to ring.

    Chase, It’s easy to be so indulgent when you’ve already made an International name for yourself, but suggesting that photographers, who trying to establish themselves, should throw away all of the rules is terrible advice.

    Maybe it’s time to put your ego in check and realize that there are hordes of young photographers who hang on your every syllable, looking for the key to obtaining a sliver of your success. You get your accounts because you are Chase Jarvis, not because you run around snapping the world with your iPhone. I give you major props for all that you’ve accomplished, but you need to remember that things work differently when your coming up.

    I agree that new photographers should shoot what moves them, but they also need to be aware of who in the marketplace will use their style of work, and they need to brand their work to those specific markets.

    2 cents from a veteran art director

  21. Bonobo Cinematographer May 19, 2009 at 6:54 pm #

    Thanks for that Chase! I completely agree and will fallow this advice.

  22. Chase Jarvis May 19, 2009 at 6:58 pm #

    @ anon (veteran art director). I agree with your central point but I think the irony is that you might think i’m claiming something different than i am… and thus we’re not coming from different ends of teh spectrum.

    i am gunning to be as overt as possible in saying that we should all shoot our portfolios without that albatross of a concept in mind…shooting what you love, what means something to you in your style with your creative touch and with your vision–rather than to some master plan–and then EDIT for a cohesive book. i don’t think what i’m saying is that radical in practice, just radical in us poor photographers conceptual and deeply scarred minds ;)

    most good editors, agents, creative consultants i know and respect can pull a “style” from a body of work if there is one. and what better way to encourage developing a style than to shoot what you love?

  23. Parv May 19, 2009 at 10:21 pm #

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, Chase. As a photography enthusiast trying to build an online…sigh…”portfolio”, I found the process very restrictive — probably because I was trying to do the same thing everyone else was doing!

    Now, I just photoblog…and show whatever I want to show…regardless of whether it’s related to my rant of the day. :) It’s very liberating!

    Thanks for the continued inspiration, my friend.

  24. Doug Menuez May 19, 2009 at 10:26 pm #

    There is so much stuff in this post to talk about but the main thing I want to support and emphasize is the idea of letting go and just doing. Sometimes we get paralyzed by our own standards and expectations. The portfolio is a huge drama. Your examples of what you’ve done to free your mind and keep the creative heroin in the bloodstream are truly inspiring. Very cool.

  25. Adam May 19, 2009 at 10:27 pm #

    Cool…well put…I just wanted to comment on your lead in photo for this! Stunning. Love it.

  26. Dov May 20, 2009 at 2:07 am #

    Chase,
    Well written, and I agree with you 100%.
    @ "veteran art director"- If chase had an ego, he wouldn't be sharing any of his knowledge, experiences, thoughts & perspectives about photography. Nor would he be speaking to a room full of enthusiasts on June 12th. We do not live in the dark room anymore where photographers keep their signature (brand) lighting styles a secret in order to gain their share of fame. Nor does this really have anything to do about one photographer making an international name for himself.

    We are in an era of savvy, iPhone- twittering, young, fast pacing, accepting art directors seeking for that fresh selling image; the next level of creativity. Things change, including your, "veteran" ideals as an art director.
    A lot of photographers are not shooting film. We're in a digital age where professional photographers for the first time can jump the boundary & find room for creativity snapping 1,000 or 5,000 photos a day and not have to worry about their bank accounts draining. The possibilities are now endless, and a new level of creativity is on the horizon. Chase among many other young established photographers are demonstrating this, and sharing it with the world.

    Photographers don't necessarily have to brand their work toward a specific market place to establish a career anymore. Photogs can now shoot selling images through their creative efforts; and generate amazing coherent "offshoot" portfolios potentially landing them gigs that they might not of gotten if they never took any initiative finding their creativity….

    James Russell Lowell once said, “Creativity is not the finding of a thing, but the making something out of it after it is found”

  27. jason groupp May 20, 2009 at 5:03 am #

    Chase –

    I think this is awesome advice, and you’re right about not “restricting” yourself….

    Despite that though, havent you just created more “boxes” (portfolios) for yourself? You really have not “ditched” your portfolio, you’ve found other ways of sharing it. It’s very innovative, and that’s why it works, but I don’t really think “ditching” is what you’ve done.

    I agree with Robin when he says you should write a book about “photographer 2.0″, because that’s really who you are. :)

    jason

    PS – fan of your work, and hope to meet ya someday.

  28. Scott MacKenzie May 20, 2009 at 6:37 am #

    Hell, I feel better already!

  29. fas May 20, 2009 at 7:27 am #

    Nice post there. I agree you need to click click click and not just focus on gear.

  30. momof3 May 20, 2009 at 9:17 am #

    Veteran art director brings up an interesting point about personal branding and the time it takes to build one. Will your brand look visionary when you are starting out? Most likely not. Will your “brand” evolve over time? I certainly hope so, there’s nothing worse than a static brand.

    Branding your work to specific markets can be a slippery slope and the path to mediocrity. What happens when the market changes? Should a brand and portfolio then change to meet the market?

    Don’t let the veteran art directors of this world talk you into playing it “safe” and creating what the market “wants” at the expense of exploring to discover your unique vision. That same art director will be the first to tell you if your portfolio looks just like everyone else’s.

    There will always be those who tell us what is not possible. Find and cultivate those who help you dream of what might be possible. Chase Jarvis is a testament to the reality that it is possible to do what you love, …and make money.

    Many thanks, Chase. I agree with you, I see the possibilities of editing for “style” as potentially limitless. Thanks for helping inspire and develop creativity in myself and in my children.

  31. Tibor May 20, 2009 at 10:32 pm #

    Chase,

    You inspire me all the time with your posts. Thank you very much.
    (You may want to check the URL of Disposable Heroes ’cause it currently leads to your iPhone portfolio instead of the desired page)

  32. Daniel Regueira May 21, 2009 at 12:16 am #

    Very eye opening post. I feel that younger people tend to do this more and that as things get more and more formal the older you get the structured portfolio becomes the norm. I like the idea of the youth escaping that box though.

  33. christian May 21, 2009 at 3:59 am #

    i think it's funny to tell creative people not to restrict themselfs…

    I've been reading the comments. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle of what the AD had to say and Chase's comment (rather the comment than the post)

    For sure it is true that you have to kick people in the butt so they reach (more of) their potential. This is actually the distinction between a professional creative and an amateur. And that again is why Chase has no problems to engage others. Either you can deliver (under pressure, if things don t go by plan, etc.) or you can't. Sometimes doesn't count if you pay for a service and expect a result that you got offered –> Portfolio!

    Chase, the advice you give here is not for everyone. But it's good to be remembered on things for some.

  34. Me May 22, 2009 at 9:06 pm #

    Very well put and I couldn’t agree more. Ultimately it has been the work that I have shot for myself, with no end use in mind, that has resonated the most with creative directors.

  35. Martin Gommel May 23, 2009 at 1:36 pm #

    Hey Chase. Thanks much for this insightful post. It’s good to see that you have your mind where times change and you have developed a style in which you can communicate that to a wide audience that trusts you. Rock on, Dude.

  36. Robert Christopher May 25, 2009 at 8:13 am #

    I am glad you wrote this. It places a lot into perspective and we all need to be reminded to shoot for passion.

  37. Mike Yip May 25, 2009 at 5:41 pm #

    one word. BEAUTIFUL!

  38. jake alvarez May 25, 2009 at 11:01 pm #

    Thank you very much.

  39. Anonymous May 26, 2009 at 11:26 am #

    Great read.

  40. Chris Rudsdale June 7, 2009 at 9:42 pm #

    Cool viewpoint. Thanks for taking the time. By the way, the word 'uncle' is missing from your info bar on the 1968 photo.

  41. Jake Catlett June 9, 2009 at 11:01 pm #

    I really agree with what you're trying to say here, however I think the digital age is putting an interesting spin on things – wouldn't it be valid to say that blogs are becoming a new sort of portfolio?

    I think that blogging has added a journalistic twist to the idea of a portfolio, where in the past people were expected to have that leather-backed book you spoke about, it's becoming more and more the norm for people to be interested in seeing somebody's blog, and therefore being privvy to their creative process and even being able to follow their development as a photographer.

  42. Kim July 2, 2009 at 7:39 am #

    Thanks for this post. I'm a writer/editor and found this link on a site for writing teachers. Your strategy of giving equal credit to all ideas is useful for writers, and it's especially useful for students who have trouble figuring out which ideas are "disposable heros" and which are potential papers, stories, or poems. Reminding that all ideas are good helps them explore what they want to write about. Here's Traci's post in case you are interested: http://blogs.bedfordstmartins.com/bits/assignment-ideas/create-what-you-want-to/

    Thanks again!

  43. Dragos October 18, 2010 at 5:51 pm #

    Actually, you can refer to your work – any kind of work, being commercial work or more personal, experimental work – as your “output” :)

    So create a website/physical book of your “output” and just sort that “output” by “commercial work” “personal images” “playground stuff” “etc.” ;)

  44. Chiemela April 20, 2011 at 4:41 pm #

    thanks a lot for this, been struggling with the idea of shooting stuff that interests me versus making a folio. this is liberating, thanks again.
    Regards,
    ChAz.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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