Out with the old

In my recent article about how we improve (“A little learning is a dangerous thing"), I talked about how my old work isn’t good enough now - can’t be good enough - as my skills / critical eye have developed. I wrote, “Hopefully, in the years to come I'll feel the same way about the pictures I have in my portfolio now. Because if not, I'm not improving.”

There’s this idea that anything not recent doesn’t represent us, is somehow false or misleading for being out of date. We’ve moved on - or regressed. But I’m now coming round to the conclusion this is erroneous. More on this later.

Regardless, in the meantime my website is bloated, and in need of a refresh: I’ve not done much to it in a while. This seems like a good opportunity to remove some of the dead wood. And besides, the more I’ve improved, the easier I should be able to cull old images. Right..?

Before finishing marking pictures for deletion - a troubling task - I ask for thoughts on a forum: how old is old? How do you feel about showing work you haven’t done in a long time? Does it still represent you?

I say troubling because it’s really not easy. It’a not like old food - I can’t just look at the date and bin it. Some of my old photos I still like. Do I really have to take them down? I don’t want to. Hmm. I’m not nearly as dispassionate as I should be in displaying my work. Or today, at least. It just doesn’t feel like the right thing to do in the name of a cleaner portfolio.

The hive-mind replies. The near-unanimous response - a slight surprise and a great relief - was that it’s completely fine to have old pictures, as long as they don’t look dated, and as long as you have new work, too.

So I’ve gone through again, looking only for the weaker pictures, with only half an eye on the date taken. That’s surely more important, how good an image is. But I don’t know which are good or bad. It’s an important skill and notoriously difficult. I’ve only ever culled a few images over the years, those which begin to stick out rather obviously after a time. But nowadays the quality and style is, I feel, fairly consistent throughout. I know better than to seek true objectivity from colleagues, as they will tear apart my keepers and praise the ones which need to go. And they’ll disagree with one another. As for deleting the weak ones myself, on the one hand I’m bored of nearly all my work, and on the other, I’m oddly attached to much of it.

But the ‘bored’ part - does this mean I’ve improved? Yes? Great…but if so, where’s the new, improved work to replace what’s to be removed? Ah. Well, I do have a few images which need putting up. But for now, mostly, it’s about culling.

So I ask myself these questions about each image:

  • Do I like it?

  • Does it represent the work I do, or would like to do? Or rather, will it appeal to the clients with whom I’d like to work?

  • Is it the best example among similar images in my portfolio? Is it different enough to justify existing?

    (while keeping in mind)

  • Has it been taken recently?

Devoid of context, the best images in a portfolio continue to shine. These images below - the ones I’m retiring - all suffer from the corollary: standing alone as they do, they don’t say much. There’s nothing wrong with them per se, but I don’t feel any of them quite spark an emotion or connection on their own. And I realise why - I’d included many of them as placeholders, representing a technique, style, or kept just because they were a little different.

Getting rid of a dozen images is not quite the grand cull I’d imagined, but it’s a start.

 Broadcaster John Sergeant has made a recording for an 'audio bench' at the National Trust property, Petworth House, in Sussex.  Several other public figures have also made recordings for other locations.

From the archives - two

I've nearly finished going through my archives in search of old images which I'd originally dismissed. 

As I've said elsewhere, even strong images tend to fade over time, both due to familiarity, and as one develops or improves. But occasionally, I'll come across an old reject which, with a fresh look, away from context - and usually with a different edit - I like much better second-time around.

Out of tens of thousands, only two or three of these I've since dusted off, tidied up, and put up in my galleries. But dozens got close - and were then rejected again.

The photo below is from a series of portraits of musicians (initially all 3- or 4-star rated I expect) but I thought this particular one could be worth another look - was it really only average? Yes. I really wanted it to work - a simple, outdoor shot like this would go well on my website. And there's nothing really wrong with it - and technically and aesthetically it's fine, but something about it's just a bit empty, boring, flat:

No matter how revised or polished a photo is, if it's not working, it's not working. You can do wonders in post-production, but there has to be something in the original which can't be created later, which has nothing to do with adjustments or photoshop. 

It's important to be brutally honest and unforgiving when judging an image, but often, subjectivity gets in the way. Usually it's the lengths you knew you'd gone to to achieve the shot - you were so invested in it that it becomes personal. 

I think it's about changing your role once you've put the camera down and when you're going through the work on the computer. You have to become an editor - a different set of skills - because as a photographer you can't be objective. And as an editor, this image isn't good enough. Next!

Seeing past the subject

The discussion about Charlotte Proudman had me thinking. Not about how inappropriate the comment was, nor the misuse of LinkedIn, or sexism. I wondered whether it's even possible to separate a good photograph from a good subject. Not to say the images below are good or not, but to argue that the subject matter often has a bearing on it.

I have photos of John Sergeant and Arlene Phillips on my website. To be quite honest, I'm not sure if they're very particularly strong images, but they do suggest access, which can equate to experience or skill. Hence, portfolio.

Similarly, many sports photographers might have shots of Usain Bolt/Mo Farah/Jessica Ennis/Oscar Pistorius shot from the end of the race track, crossing the finish line and winning the final. Even though these photos are far from unique and possibly not very exciting*, their value is in their fame and recognisability (which comes from newsworthiness). They show how - like the athletes they depict - the photographer is at the very top of his or her profession.

As for newsworthiness, we have etched in our collective consciousness innumerable images depicting great tragedy or joy, and never really consider or care whether they're 'good' from any other viewpoint (technical, artistic, creative etc.), but only see them as records of historic fact, and therefore as powerful photographs.

So: photogenic subjects, famous subjects, newsworthy subjects. These kinds of people blur one's opinion seamlessly: "Is it a 'stunning' LinkedIn image, or is the subject 'stunning'?", "Is it a great portrait, or just a well-known face?", and "Is it a good photo, or just access to some incredible event?"

Most interesting of the three kinds of subjects above is the 'famous': interesting because our cultural, subjective, informed position affects (determines?) how we view images of famous people. And it's very much rooted in its time. That is, it makes all the difference if the viewer knows who the person is, and even their opinion of them. If they don't know them, or at least don't recognise them, their viewing is immediately and irrevocably altered once given this information**. So, back to the title: I dug out some images of (I hope) less-recognisable but nonetheless powerful ladies.

This is someone you would know but probably not recognise:

She's an author, and as for fame, her most well-known book is perhaps only second to Harry Potter. Her work has spawned shows, films, mugs, socks and school bags. Every young-ish parent in the country will own at least a few of her books, and many (myself included) know them off-by-heart. It's Julia Donaldson, author of the Gruffalo.

But is it a good picture? Well, as I've been saying, sometimes it's hard to see past the fame of a person and judge a photograph objectively. In the end - and despite there being only a couple of decent images of Julia online anywhere - she never made my portfolio because I don't think the image is strong enough. 

So much for fame. Next are three leading ladies who are (perhaps?) less-recognised still but nonetheless hugely influential, powerful and successful. We have President of International Markets for Mastercard, Ann Cairns; Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pearson, Kate James; and Vice-President EMEA for Facebook, Nicola Mendelsohn. All these did make my portfolio - but not with these photos. Other images from the shoots were stronger (please take a look in my corporate and portrait galleries).

Let's assume you don't recognise them, and, unlike with Julia Donaldson, there's no immediate association going on even once named. Does their business or their high position affect your judgment? As it happens, two have appeared in national newspapers fairly recently, so will be recognisable to some. But does it matter? Does it make a difference how you view them?

It comes down to historicism - the extent and angle to which the background to an image influences our opinion. Perhaps we like to think we can be more objective, but there's much more going on here. We can't help but frame our view with external knowledge, a cultural climate, and our personal bias and taste.


*Not unique, since many other photographers are positioned in the same place. And not exciting with respect to a photographer's more creative and/or less newsworthy portfolios. To put it another way, if the images weren't of global sports superstars winning the Olympics, but instead showed (otherwise identical) shots from, say, the second-round heats at the U-21 Commonwealth games, they'd be unlikely to feature in a portfolio. 

**I should add that you can argue it's easier to read a portrait of a famous person. You have some idea who they are, and can judge to what extent the photograph captures and confirms that aspect of their personality. Or indeed, questions it. Success or failure in the portrait is surely tied to this in some respect.