THIS IS MY OLD PORTFOLIO. Or rather, this is the shipping case that I’d use to send my old portfolio by courier, mostly to out of town clients. The last FedEx shipping form in the plastic envelope on the front is from a design company in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I haven’t a clue who they were – probably a firm that produced an in-flight magazine for an airline, but I can’t be sure. In any case, I don’t think I got any work from them.
Below is the leather portfolio case I’d use to carry my portfolio to clients here in town. I think my sister found it for me in an estate sale or antique auction somewhere. It might not have been the slickest container for my work, but I thought it summed me up rather nicely, and made a nice introduction to whomever might have responded to its well-worn, patinated exterior and considered hiring the person who’d have put their work in such a thing.
I used to agonize about my portfolio. The pages below are from that last portfolio – my third or fourth, I think, and the last one that I used to sell myself at the end of the ’90s. It would take me years to update my book, as I’d pore over my work, change layouts, and then decide that I had to wait to shoot something new to create just the right sequence. Because every time I showed my portfolio to anyone it felt like a make-or-break situation – an opportunity that couldn’t be squandered, since they came around so rarely.
I hated showing my portfolio. It wasn’t just the idea of being judged, though that was definitely part of it, as much as knowing that I was the supplicant in an unequal relationship. I could sweat blood over my book, only to have some assistant to the photo editor flip through it at speed, eager to get through the pile of books left with the receptionist on drop-off day. A form rejection letter – some people saved them; I couldn’t – would be your only feedback. Sometimes you wouldn’t even get that.
I particularly hated showing my portfolio here in town. When I started out, there would be “go-sees” with photo editors or art directors, sitting on one side of a desk or standing to the side in a cluttered layout room while they (silently, too often) went through your book. Those ended at some point in the early ’90s, and from then on it was “drop off days” – leaving your portfolio with a cover letter and a business card or promo mailer with the receptionist, then picking it up a day or two later. I can’t honestly say which one was worse.
Showing work in New York City always felt much more rewarding. Maybe it was because they knew you’d traveled there, but you’d have a small crowd looking at your book – whoever was in the layout office at the time – and some of them might even ask questions about the shoots. Even if they couldn’t use you, someone might say they had a friend at another magazine – they’d make a phone call and you’d jump into a cab. I always got more work after showing in NYC, though the hard part was maintaining the relationship at a distance, and hoping that someone would pass through Toronto who they couldn’t, for some inconceivable reason, have shot in New York.
Sometimes you’d ask another photographer if you could see their portfolio. I remember Michael Lavine showing me a huge, heavy, padded and embossed case with sides that folded down, each photo mounted on a thick board with felt backing. I remember thinking it must have cost a fortune to ship, and knew that with my tight overhead I’d never be able to afford such a lavish presentation. All of my portfolios were strictly off the shelf – black books with clear plastic pages into which you’d slip the 11×14 inch prints you’d laboured over in the darkroom for hours or even days.
I’ve been thinking about my old portfolios again because, after a painful period of learning to use Adobe’s Portfolio software, I’ve finally updated my own online portfolio. The previous one was at least fifteen years old, wildly out of date and rather ugly, built as it was just after the era of the dial-up modem. The new one is … simple. Off the shelf, by design. I am a simple man, and while I am still in that supplicant position, it’s been a long time since I felt like it was a crucial, pivotal moment every time anyone looked at my work. Part of that is the internet; part of it is just getting older, and caring less.
I don’t know if anyone actually sends around physical portfolios any more. I hear it still happens, though promotional mailing campaigns are a bigger deal. I’d have a better idea about all of this stuff if I had an agent, but I never have, and suspect I never will. In any case, I have just spent over four years putting up hundreds of my old photos with essays explaining them all. I am still terrible at selling myself, but if anyone is curious about the work I’ve been doing for over three decades, they can learn far more about it all now than when it was represented by a generic black portfolio that spent most of its time sitting in a case next to my desk.