Portfolio Review with Mike Johnston

For Hanukkah this year, my wife gave me the gift of a portfolio review with Mike Johnston.

As you may know, Mike is the proprietor of The Online Photographer, the wonderful little weblog which talks, almost alone among its peers, about the *why* and the *what* of photography, not just the *how*. It’s been a big influence on me, ever since Mike first commented on my work in 2006.

In that post, Mike reproduced a picture of my brother, Dan. Here’s a newer photo of Dan, which I brought for review.

Mike’s words back then prompted me to reorganize my photos on the web by theme, rather than chronologically as I’d been doing. This issue of the relationship between photos came up again in the portfolio review. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Once we got Lulu and Butters settled, Mike addressed himself to the question of what I hoped to gain from our work together. Somewhat sheepishly, I had to admit that I have no immediate goals; I don’t seek public recognition for my photo work (though I’m thrilled when I get any), and I’m happy with my technical level and subject matter. I wanted to meet him in person, after nearly a decade of online correspondence, and as for goals, we could let our pleasure guide us. Mike said this made me the perfect client.

We talked about why we photograph, and how that changes over time. I have a young son, and the audience I most fervently desire for my pictures hasn’t been born yet: it’s his children and grandchildren. Conveniently, that saves me from the dangers (and rigors) of shaping my work to please any living persons.

When we got down to looking at pictures, I braced myself for the familiar (but never easy) experience of learning that I’ve missed my mark. Oh, it stings to find out that my carefully selected, processed, and printed portfolio communicates something other than I intended. The only salve is knowing that I’ve learned something that will let me do better next time. Anyway, there I am holding my breath as Mike flips through my prints, when he says something like, “These are great.”

Well, probably he just says that to everyone to make them feel comfortable before he comes out with the bad news? Not in this case. The hammer never dropped. I was almost disappointed when Mike said that I should keep doing what I’m doing. Of course it was a thrill as well, since I respect his opinion so highly. To the extent that I am disappointed, I bear some responsibility, since I didn’t arrive with any problems identified for Mike to help me solve.

Mike did mention that a couple of my photos were weaker than the others. This was useful. In one case, I agree with him, in the other I’m a bit more attached. But he said that their thematic consistency with the rest of the grouping helped to carry them.

I’ve learned from Mike to neither seek nor avoid perfection in photography. Would this photo be better without a random auto wheel in the corner of the frame? Perhaps. But if a print survives long enough, perhaps some car enthusiast will find that element interesting. You don’t really get to decide what your own picture means.

I particularly enjoyed our conversation about meaning in photographs. Mike showed me a photo which, he said, would only have meaning to him. Then he told a story which, to me, made the photo quite interesting. I said that I thought an otherwise banal image could be invested with meaning by knowing the context. I thought of this picture:

A figure representing Elizabeth Kertész in a window, with the World Trade Center in the background.

Kertész made this after the death of his wife, Elizabeth. The glass figure reminded him of her. For me, that knowledge makes this otherwise ordinary picture very affecting. History has added another layer of meaning: with the violent destruction of the Twin Towers, this image of private loss became, independent of the photographer’s intention or knowledge, a picture of public loss as well.

There is so much more I could tell about the time with Mike and with Llewelyn and Laurel of La Belle Vie B&B (about which more here), but I’m probably taxing your patience already.

I prevailed on Mike to accept a print with my compliments. I think he chose as he did because he also has a son, though his pick is also one of my own favorites.

Max tries to catch falling leaves.

In the interest of transparency, I should note that I’ll receive a rebate from Mike for making this post.


1 Comment

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One response to “Portfolio Review with Mike Johnston

  1. Trecento

    I followed your link from Mike’s. It sounds like you had a great time, and you’ve given me some things to think about.

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