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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