Blogs and websites yield, for the most part, the same answers to the question “How do I build a photography portfolio?” Shoot the type of work that will appeal to your desired clients, edit your work ruthlessly, establish a style with your work. This is all great advice except it doesn’t really tell you how to actually make the work. For me this has been an ongoing problem. I often find myself thinking “What to shoot? How to do it? Here I am, sitting in my room, itching to make more photographs, but unsure how to make that happen.”
I already know from experience that no amount of Googling, forum-surfing or article-reading will give me the answers that I seek. All that will do is exhaust and frustrate me, leaving me with no new images to show at the end of the day. And with no images there cannot be a portfolio. So, understanding this, I fall back on my own advice that I gave to others in the past: “Making art depends on one thing and one thing only - taking an idea, no matter how vague, and making it into something tangible. Your work has to be done and it has to be finished. This is the only way.” Okay, good advice. Now what? Now we get to work.
Doing the work is extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible, when we don’t know what work needs to be done. Abstract ideas floating around in our minds seldom find a way to manifest in reality unless we guide them diligently to fruition. So the first part of the advice is “…take an idea, no matter how vague…” Ok. An idea. Not many ideas. Not a string of ideas. Just one idea. This is essential. We are not trying to create a lifetime’s worth of work in a day. We are just trying to make one new picture, a decent picture, hopefully. But with all the different ideas bouncing around in our head, it can be strange to have to zero in on just one because we don’t know which to choose. It doesn’t matter. Pull one out of a hat. Save your other great ideas for later. If you haven’t written them down yet - do so, so that you don’t have to worry about forgetting them. Now you can focus on the one you chose.
I had a dream, a very long time ago, in which I was walking up to a futuristic city in ruins. A city that used to be home, but was no longer. In that city I ran into some of my old friends who survived the destruction and were now sitting on piles of debris, discussing how to proceed with their lives. The ruins were beautiful in a morbid, devastating kind of way. Buildings stripped of their exterior walls, broken tiles, glowing neon signs, remnants of peaceful life before the storm. These images stuck with me for years. And now, I am thinking that it is finally time to do something about them. So this is my one idea: photographs depicting a futuristic world post-apocalypse, in which the characters get a chance to build a new life after the collapse of the system. Your idea doesn’t have to come from a dream. It can be anything. And you already have many ideas. Occasionally they pull the strings inside you, begging for your attention. Let them. Feel them. Find your idea.
The second part of the advice is “…and make it into something tangible.” But how? To recreate the scene I saw in my dream would require a crew of 100 people and a budget of a Hollywood blockbuster. No chance. But that doesn’t mean that I have to put this idea away. Instead, I grab a piece of printer paper and write out the elements. I am bad at drawing but I don’t hesitate to throw together a quick sketch because it is for my own use anyway. So… Let’s see. I have no budget, no studio, no set designer, no models. All I have at this point is my idea and my camera. Since I cannot do the full setup I have to simplify. Can I shoot just one character instead of the whole landscape of ruins? Yes. All I need for that is one model, one location, one costume, one makeup artist, enough gear to light one person, and… that’s about it! Much more manageable. And if I can shoot one character, then I can shoot two. And if I can shoot two, then I can shoot a group. And if I can shoot a group… As a matter of fact, starting with just one character is a good idea regardless of the availability of resources. This will serve as the beginning of what can turn into a bigger project. A small team can grow into a bigger team over time. Details will be figured out. And most importantly, photographs will be made, meaning that the idea will no longer exist only in the realm of fantasy. Slowly the individual pictures will inform the larger work, more resources will become accessible, and the vision will begin to shape up. This is how the initial process of elimination, and actually getting to work with available resources, create more opportunities down the road.
But once you get the ball rolling, the rest of the work is just details. Finding a model, finding a location, figuring out the set up, figuring out the logistics… It’s hard work, confusing work, but “the work has to be done.” Ok, now we are really getting somewhere. Will my pictures look anything like my dream did? Probably not, considering the limitations of the real world and the limitations of skills and resources. So wouldn’t it be better if I waited until I had more skills and more resources to execute the idea? No. Because the work “has to be finished.” In my case, this idea has been incubating for years, and it looks like I will never have the resources to match the dream. But I am not after making an exact copy - I am after making this idea come to life through a photograph before it fades away and vanishes into the black hole of my memory. Turning ideas into reality is the most crucial step of the creative process, and thus it is the most difficult.
So find your idea. Break down your idea. Get to work. Finish the work. “This is the only way.”