Putting it on the table, literally

Just got back from NYC – a quick weekend trip for a portfolio review hosted by Powerhouse books. Portfolio reviews are like speed dating for artists; an opportunity to meet a number of key people in the industry in a short amount of time and get their opinions about your work.

The room was full of numbered tables and, depending on the photographer’s interest (gallery representation, magazine/book publishing or assignment work) the artist and the reviewers were paired up accordingly. Each session was 20 minutes in length. 20 minutes for the photographer to lay his or her work on the table, bare their soul, tell their story and get immediate feedback from these professionals. Over the course of the day, each photographer had five such sessions.

This was my first review and despite being published last month in Black+White (UK) and COLOR (US) last November as well as other publications over the past couple of years, I was surprisingly nervous. Maybe it was the very personal nature of the situation. With publications, you usually submit to someone named “Entries@” whereas on Sunday it was face to face, looking the reviewer in the eye and seeing their immediate physical reaction to your work.

Summary of the day: it was a great experience, at times affirming, at others, reflective. I knew going into it I was going to learn something and I did. I heard things that I already knew (“It’s a crowded world out there – lots of photographers in this digital age”) and things that I didn’t (“Your use of captions with the “Logo” graffiti makes them unique works of art, transforming parts of other artists’ works into your own piece”). I also learned that while the portfolio “Shadows” is, well, shadows, that the individual images stand alone and stand alone well; that the thread I’ve created between them makes them a surprising and cohesive body of work but that each of the images has merit on its own. I received reaffirmation that my eye is unique and that I do cool work.

That said, there were no “high-fives”, no contracts signed, no corks popped. There was a lot of encouragement to keep at it, keep pushing forward and keep sending my work “out there”. Beyond being an artist, one has to be a marketer to move their art forward and keep putting their work and soul on the table time and again.

One last thing I learned on Sunday: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (“Sorcerer’s Stone” in the US) was rejected by 12 publishing houses before someone finally agreed to publish it – a clear message that one just has to keep at it.

Life, in a photograph

Taking a photograph is a lot like life: the key considerations
we make in creating a photo are the same decisions we make in our lives in

Composition – It’s
a conscious decision as to what’s in the photo and what’s not; what have we
chosen to have in the image and what have we chosen to exclude.  Which elements in the photo are dominant and which ones are not? Is there
balance in the image? 

Zoom in or zoom out
– While it's part of composing an image, zoom needs separate consideration. Some images demand a closer, intimate look while others need the bigger
picture emphasized; sometimes we need the details while other times we need to
pull back and see more in the image.

Focus – Too sharp
or not sharp enough? Sometimes we need a sharp image – really crisp and clear
and in other situations we need a little less focus – soft focus if you will –
or even let the image be out of focus. 

Exposure – How
much exposure we need depends on the situation. Generally, there’s a desire for
just the right exposure – a good balance of lights and darks with rich middle
tones. Sometimes we need less exposure, with darker tones being dominant,
obscuring some of the details. Other times, overexposure is called for to
emphasize the highlights and clean up the darker tones. 

Contrast – Too
much, too little or just right? We definitely need contrast in our pictures to
keep things interesting. Too much contrast can be impactful (and sometimes
distracting) while too little is boring. 

Color or black and
– Neither one is better than the other; they’re just different and most images dictate what's needed. Color
taps many senses and adds variety and impact to an image while black and white
brings gives clarity to an image and brings out the richness in textures. 

Finally, Selection
– Not all pictures are perfect and one never keeps or shows all of their images.
Do you only keep the flattering and pretty ones or do you keep some of the ugly
ones as well that tell a different story? Are they all in focus or are some of
the fuzzy ones important as well? 

Making photos is all about making decisions – there are
always multiple options available when we create an image and our decisions on
the critical elements ultimately determine the final product. Just like life.



Andre Kertesz

I’ve been a huge fan (doesn’t sound very sophisticated, but it’s genuine) of Andre Kertesz since I first saw a book of his images when I was about 20. His work has been a significant influence on mine; in particular that he taught me to look up and to look down – at least more than I used to.

I recently picked up a copy of The Polaroids, a collection of images he made with his SX-70 in the waning years of his life. The images are pure Kertesz, albeit in color. A lot of sadness in them as well as they were shot after the death of his wife.

Beyond the photos, though, is the introduction that gives a short history of the artist and how his career progressed throughout his life.  Not sure how I’ve missed it all of these years, but the book recounts that his career – the world-recognized creative part anyway – took a nearly 25-year hiatus from 1936 to 1962. For 25 years mid-career he was relatively unknown.

This news has completely floored me.

How could that happen? How could a world-renowned artist have his art misunderstood and fall into relative obscurity for so long? The answers, in part, are in the story: he moved to NYC and his faltering command of English combined with an indifferent marketplace created the trough. I’ve always assumed that he was producing, exhibiting and appreciated from the time he was first recognized until today, many years after his death, but I’m wrong on the exhibiting and appreciated parts.

Aside from the surprise, this is so inspirational to me. Through those many, many years where he was working as a staff photographer for Conde Nast’s House and Garden magazine he still was crafting his real art. Shooting around his adopted city of New York he kept creating. Frustrated, I’m sure, but he persevered. Finally, in 1964, at the age of 75 he got his due with a one-man show at MOMA and spent his remaining years at the forefront of the craft.

There are several messages in this story for me but one is simple and clear: never stop creating; feed your creative fire at all times.

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