By Rebecca Webb
What Is a Body of Work?
The mere idea may sound overwhelming to an emerging photographer, but each individual shot, print, or concept adds to the sum total of the overarching idea of a body of work. One can easily identify Ansel Adams’ majestic and exquisite tonal landscapes, Annie Liebowitz’s high glitz commercial approach to image-making, or Avedon’s unmistakable portraits – typically frontal views of people, either full body or head, often black and white, and shot against a plain background.
For each of these photographers, there is an undeniable unity of both theme and vision. This unity is what defines a “body of work.” These artists have created a recognizable style, voice, and message.
Why Is It Important to Create a Body of Work?
Creating a consistent presentation of images provides structure for the photographer to explore their ideas and techniques. Publications and exhibitors such as museums and galleries require 15-20 images that can be clearly identified as belonging together under one theme and aesthetic. On the other hand, it’s perfectly possible to earn a living without ever creating anything that might be formally recognizable as a body of work. The caveat is to remain honest to your vision.
Jorg Colberg, In his interview with photographer Brian Ulrich, writes about what he’s looking for in a photographic body of work: “…something that turns me into a different person, something that I need to come back to, something that when I come back to it looks and feels at least slightly different even though it’s the same images. I believe such photography comes from a photographer who has undergone a transformation of her/himself. In part, that is why some projects take a long time to do: It’s not just that taking the photographs takes time, it’s also that their maker evolves along with the images.”
Even naysayers to Ulrich’s school of thought agree about the merits of developing a body of work. Dr. Martin Irvine of Irvine Contemporary states that “Whether intuitively or intentionally, some photographers develop a body of work as an argument about a way to work, a way to see and represent things. Photographers like Jeff Wall are very explicit about the kind of argument they want to make; others work more intuitively but know they are engaging with larger questions and debates … a good photographic work, like any art form, will indicate its position in a larger dialog of what’s been done before and going on now. Context is always where meaning happens.”
Developing your voice as a photographer and staying true to it demonstrates what issues/topics/themes you are passionate about and your unique viewpoint. It also attests to the commitment to your practice; the time you took for careful reflection and dedication to your subject matter.
How Can You Create a Body of Work?
There are three important qualities you will need: will (faith + ambition), dedication, and opportunity (you must create opportunities). Figure out your strengths, and what you are passionate about. Start exploring that subject. Keep notes in a virtual or paper sketchbook and research your subject matter—online, in books, images, etc. Hang up your work and step back to look at it to see what “threads” you can connect that spark your interest. Ask others what underlying theme they see in your work. You may not agree with what they might have to say, but revisit their viewpoints to see if your own views have changed. Last, but not least, don’t underestimate the importance of presentation. Printing quality, image size, color versus black and white; these elements should all be considered when showing your work to prospective audiences such as gallerists, clients, portfolio reviews and more.
Going to portfolio reviews are a great way to get feedback and ideas that can help you formulate your vision. Practice articulating what your work is about, so that you can clearly explain it to your audience.
Portfolio Review Pointers
• Your portfolio should be a complete body of work with a solid vision (15-20 prints). Do bring alternate portfolios and examples of other work if you want, but your primary presentation should be a complete body.
• Package your portfolio such that you can carry it, open it, show it, and put it away with minimum fuss. Simple clamshell portfolio boxes are one perennial festival favorite.
• Research the reviewers as best you can before you show up at the portfolio reviews, and honestly assess which reviewers are the best fits for your work (the internet can be a valuable tool for this).
• Bring leave-behinds for the reviewers; make sure that it includes all of your contact information. Bring plenty of extras as you will probably want to give some to your fellow photographers as well.
• Take notes after your reviews or use a tape recorder during. Follow up with reviewers when you return home. Truly, this is important—follow up!
(Pointers originally references at photolucida.org)