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  • Jon Brock

Seeing the Subject Part III: Using Portfolio Thinking to Feed the Vision

It took some time in my photographic journey to transition from single images to portfolios or groups of images. It was only when I started to think about writing a book about five years into the journey that I started to work groups of images.

At that stage the ideas for the book drove the portfolio. I picked five (abstract) themes (dynamic balance, depth, seeing the subject, place and inspiration) and illustrated the words and ideas with a portfolio of images. Each image was an example of the ideas expressed in the chapter text.

Looking back with 10-15 years more experience it is interesting that most of these ideas were in fact aspects of the craft or at least the process of photography. This should not be a surprise. Many artists write to organise their own thinking and ultimately to codify their practice. And if you don’t see your artistic work as a competition it makes sense to want to share those ideas with others. Not least because the debate stimulates new ideas and hence development. At that stage I was right in the middle of what can be called the ‘slope of enlightenment’. I was learning my craft and developing my vision at a rapid rate. Writing helped me understand what I was learning.

Alchemy: Ice Falls

I said almost above because the last of these chapters accidentally became my first real abstract portfolio - alchemy. This was different - the idea emerged from the content of the images or at least my reaction to the images. Occasionally I would put an image (at that time a sheet of 5x4 transparency film) I had made on a light-box. And my jaw would drop. It surprised me. I had not expected the image to come out the way it did - the result seemed to be something much more than the sum of the parts I had put into it.

I went on to make a project at Mulgrave which I ultimately divided into three portfolios or sequences of images. The project is organised around a physical location but that is where any pretence to representing something physical ends. The whole project is an exploration of abstract subjects.

My latest work involves working on several abstract themes which are location independent and each will eventually be presented as a portfolio of images.

Reflecting on my learnings across this time, I think there are several takeaways that are worth sharing.

1. Make the idea (abstract or representational) explicit

Themes or ideas emerge from ones work either subconsciously or consciously. Usually this happens because the photographer makes an image that is successful and they either recognise that or even take the time to analyse why. This leads to an idea that consciously or subconsciously triggers a second image often in a completely different context or location.

Colliding Worlds: Shrouded by the Sea

The value of making the idea explicit - at least in your own mind - is that by analysing it one can stimulate new ideas for photographs, in other words feed the imagination. Doing so poses a explicit question to the photographer when out in the field - 'can I make an image using that idea?'

There is an old adage that scientists rarely discover anything unless they are looking for it and that rings true for artists. Make the idea explicit and one can increase the chance of imagining and then making a successful image.

2. Group images together around themes and retrospect on the gaps and adjacent ideas

This is easier to do when the goal of photography is representing something in the physical world. When one bounds the scope of the project around a physical subject it is straightforward to gather these images together. But when the theme is abstract it may take time for the abstract idea to even emerge let alone for you to be able to gather the images together. It starts by relating images together and trying to understand why they connect.

The key is to pose new questions for the imagination

Sometimes a gap in the portfolio is obvious when you stand back and see the big picture of all the images end to end. But it is only when you start to retrospect on a body of work you have that you start to understand it. Two distinct steps are key here. Firstly the moment you name and define the collection of images you pass another rubicon. It becomes a thing you can begin to understand and you can use that knowledge to pose yourself a question when out in the field - 'how do I make an image that expands the portfolio?' Again this is liberating. It transforms work in the field from the random aimless search for an image to structure and meaning. This does not mean repetition or lack of spontaneity. It simply means you feed your imagination with questions to answer in the field.

The Processes of Time

Secondly, when you distil the essence of what the portfolio is about and you seek to push the boundaries by trying to grow the idea, it creates new ideas. 'How can I make an image that does ‘x’?' You can see more clearly how an idea evolves when you review a group of images. The key is to pose new questions for the imagination. Again this does not replace innovation and experimentation. In fact it encourages experimentation by trying out different ways of seeing a subject to feed back into the portfolio. The key ideas of a portfolio will often evolve because you have tried to push the boundaries.

3. Sequence and selection drives even more potential to find questions to ask in the field

The third part of making any portfolio work is to sequence the images. The key concepts here include narrative and storyline, flow, colour or subject connection between adjacent images, completeness, the necessary and sufficient test, alignment to the essence of the portfolio’s objective, development of ideas etc. As one plays with various sequences of images invariably it is going to trigger an opportunity to imagine an image that might fit the sequence. And then once again the photographer has a question to feed the imagination.

Deconstructed Circle

Selection is the hardest part of any portfolio. As related images grow one can think of measuring them in numbers of images: 1,2,6,12 etc. It is often when you get to around 6 related or relatable images that the portfolio might begin to take shape and be ready to be defined. However it is important to also decide on and limit the size of the portfolio. The attention span of the viewer influences this a lot. The analogy is a film - nobody is going to want to sit through a seven hour film. How many images is enough? Capping the image budget and looking to replace the weaker images in a portfolio is an important part of getting to higher quality and eventually done. Retrospection on the weaker images again drives the potential to ask questions in the field - can I make a better version of ‘x’?

Moreover, to use the film analogy again if nobody is going to sit through a 7 hour film, might they sit through a tv series of 7 x 1 hour chapters? The portfolio can grow to form sub portfolios that connect to form a wider body of work. For example my Mulgrave project became 3 distinct portfolios each with different objectives and subject content.

With all three of these takeaways there is a constant theme of retrospection and something I will call post visualisation: imagining an ideal image based on retrospection of what has been done before. I will return to talking about these two ideas in a later article.

To conclude, grouping your work and thinking about the group of images as a whole feeds the imagination just as much as building a relationship with the subject or fully defining one’s subject. Starting to play with images at a portfolio level often just takes the confidence to get started. I have found it very rewarding.

(c) Jon Brock 2023.


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