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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Portfolio Wars at AAU

Amber Smith with DeKay Photography ( is a current student in the photography program at AAU.  I recently found myself tagged in one of her Facebook posts, which ended up being a bit more interesting than originally expected. Apparently, my work and portfolio was caught in the middle of an opinion battle between this student and her portfolio class teacher.  Here is how it played out:

The Original Rant

Amber: I just had my AAU professor tell me that Betsy Hansen's Fashion/Recent works portfolio isn't a cohesive portfolio. I wonder how she'd feel about that. Wow.

Danielle: Well, I'd agree. I mean, some is studio, some is environmental, some is weird colorful lighting, some is natural looking. One of her shots in her recent work portfolio looks like a documentary shot at a mud run. That being said, the purpose of putting work online is to show variety and she is including a lot of tear sheets to show she is being published, which is good. But for a classroom setting, the images in a cohesive portfolio should definitely relate to one another with some common thread. "fashion" isn't specific enough. "Studio high fashion" or "environmental natural light fashion" would be closer to what you are looking for

Amber: Which if you look at the fashion portfolio, it's very cohesive. I went into a big explanation on how it was, including the use of lighting/on location/etc. I picked 2 images from her recent works that matched her fashion portfolio almost exactly. Considering she gets quite a lot of business by those portfolios, I'd say that it's cohesive enough to garner business, which is the point of this class.

Danielle: I would group her fashion work into about 4 different with the multiple models and all the weird colored lights shots, one with the studio portraits, one with the outside portraits using natural light, one of lifestyle type portraits.

Amber: but you're missing the idea that it's a -fashion- portfolio. She classifies that under commercial fashion, which every single image in there is under commercial fashion. You can't group your portfolio by lighting type. If that were the case, we'd have "series" instead of portfolio's.

Danielle: Right...but to play devil's advocate, if your portfolio looks stylistically schizophrenic, potential clients won't be as able to think OMG AMBER WOULD BE PERFECT FOR THIS because you have an erratic array of things you are trying to sell all at once. There's a whole series of her images in the middle that make me think of David LaChapelle and really don't relate to her style at all.

Amber: Agreed, but when client hires you seeing your portfolio, then asks you to do something completely different... do you turn down the job simply because it doesn't match your portfolio, or do you venture out and continue to grow as an artist? I feel like this teacher is attempting to pigeon hole us all, instead of help us land a job--which means to have a selection of work, not a series. As he put it... "Are you saying you just want a portfolio of formal portraits? Can you find me five wedding photographers who have nothing but this in their portfolios? If so, then you have the green light. My concern is that, in your case, the portfolio might need to have more variety. Remember: The goal here isn't to create body of work to get a grade. The goal is to create a body of work that's going to land you jobs. It needs to be competitive in the marketplace. I'm unsure whether a formal-portraits-only portfolio will do that. It seems that someone shopping for a wedding photographer will also like to see how you do in other situations" .... So if that's the case, you won't have the same lighting, same colour, same everything for every wedding you shoot. If you did, you wouldn't get jobs. same with fashion/editorial.

Danielle: Sounds like he is agreeing with you with that quote.

Amber: Exactly. lol. But he wrote that to another student, and then gave me a shit grade on my paper.... sooooo... he needs to pick one.

Betsy: Well, thank you so much ladies for your thorough and interesting discussion about photography portfolios! I've got quite a lot to follow up on here, so bare with me... The "Recent Work" on my website is exactly that- a collection of recent work that I have compiled into one section. Once a year that section gets divided into the categories of "Portrait, Fashion, and Beauty" and the "Recent Work" section gets cleared out and I work on filling it back up with yummy stuff. Your teacher is exactly right that it has no rhyme or reason besides the fact that it is a collection of "Recent Work" for my clients to browse through. Next topic: Every photographer is different, thus each portfolio is going to be different as well. I pride my own work on my ability to photograph beautiful light in any scenario- studio and environment- be it natural strobe, or a combination of the two. I land new jobs all the time because clients appreciate my lighting technique. Next topic: Considering how I promote and work with clients, my portfolio is perfectly suited for me as far as categories. I want my clients to know exactly what I shoot: fashion, beauty, and portraits. If I started breaking that down even further my clients would get bored and move on before they got halfway through anything. Next topic: You do not want your client to think you are schizophrenic, no. You want them to recognize your style, and you have to shoot a LOT to develop that. A style is not defined as a person, place, or thing. It is a consistent feeling, look, or a mood you get from a set of images. Good luck in class, Ladies! This was fun. 

Amber: WOW.. Thank you SO MUCH for responding,Betsy Hansen! I have been incredibly inspired by your work, and it has really given me a great direction in a world of overwhelming possibilities. I agree on his comment that your "recent work" isn't a cohesive portfolio. I had actually selected two images from that portfolio (one of a woman lying in brown grass, and another of a tear sheet that was very similar to something from your Fashion portfolio). The image I believe he is pointing out as causing your Fashion portfolio to not be cohesive is the image of the woman in a man's dress shirt (very boudoir-ish). To me, that is still editorial, still fashion, and definitely still commercial. I'm standing up for you, as well as myself and giving a very thorough explanation of why I believe your fashion portfolio is cohesive. Unfortunately, he's attempting to make me re-do my assignment, and choose another photographer that has a "cohesive" portfolio. I feel that's unfair, considering yours is cohesive, obviously lands you jobs, and is my inspiration. I can't help who I get inspired by. 

Betsy: I agree that those two images would not go side-by-side in a portfolio. The cute blonde in the dress shirt is a more commercial style of fashion, while the other is 100% fashion editorial. Even the type of model is different in the two photos. Too bad you cannot just switch images to two images that fit together better. Who is your teacher out at AAU? Do I need to make a phone call? 

Amber: HAHA! oh Betsy Hansen! You're the best. I had to choose images from one portfolio, and your Fashion portfolio just... oh it's to die for. I love it. My teacher is Shannon Ayres. I think he'd have a heart attack if you called him. lol! I have inboxed you my review of your fashion portfolio. I would love it if you'd read it!

Dan Biferie: Greetings Amber, Betsy and Danielle, I have enjoyed following this conversation too. Betsy, you hit the nail right on the head in your comment above, "A style is not defined as a person..." Amber you sound as though you are a perceptive and independent minded individual. Keep asking questions and reach out for answers from a variety of sources so that you can formulate your own opinions and stand by them with confidence.

Amber: Hi Dan! It's great to see you on here! I very much so appreciate your input. I am always looking to other professionals I respect and admire for guidance and understanding. We all learn every day, and I'm certainly no exception to that! I absolutely agree with you and Betsy Hansen. A style isn't defined as a person. For me, what I get through Betsy's images is a sense of emotion. I can feel an edge, yet a soft femininity that inspires a sense of whimsy. Love her work!

The Paper
     The artist I have chosen is a local artist I admire. Betsy Hansen is an Orlando based photographer that has donated her time at the University of Central Florida, as well as Daytona Beach College. She is a fashion photographer that works mostly on commercial assignments in editorial and fashion work. Her body of work is absolutely beautiful and it is of great variation. Her style is very clean and slightly varying, but her ability to utilize and shape light is absolutely impeccable. I have been lucky to have the chance to meet Hansen and listen to her lecture on her work. She talks a lot about how she functions as a photographer, not just how she gets the photos. It’s a pleasure to know that she has her trials with each photo, just like we all do.
     One of my favorite things about Hansen’s work is her whimsy. Even in serious images for publication, she still touches on the wild parts of our imagination. She photographs as though she just so happened to stumble across the models in that position, wearing those clothes under the right light. While her work is not classified as lifestyle, I definitely see it having a lot flavor of real life. Each image is flavored with passion, intrigue and personality. With each image that I have pulled from her portfolio (, you can easily see that her shots are stylized, but they are representing life; whether it’s imagination, sex, passion, or the little fairy tales that happen in our lives. From all of her images, I get a feeling of wonder.
     Her composition is very different than the majority of commercial photographers that I see. Her framing strays away from the traditional rule of thirds and heavily favors center weighted images. While she does adopt the rule of thirds for some images, it seems as though she is more concerned with filling her frame with interest rather than leaving excess empty space. I love how her work varies in colour, orientation (portrait/landscape) and feel. Her portfolio shows that you can be flexible in your style without damning your career. Too often do we see artists shooting the same thing each time: the same colour palette, form, lighting, styling and direction ending up in repetitive images.
     With each image you can see how she focuses on highlighting the feeling not just the product. This is what makes me classify her work as lifestyle editorial. While her shots may be posed, her work makes us believe these scenarios and people are real. It makes us feel what those people are feeling in the setup from the emotion that can be evoked by the product she’s shooting. She highlights the feeling by the use of her colour and texture palettes. The image as example number one (blonde woman in a blue dress in the woods with a horse) shows the use of a solid blue, brown and pink colour palette being combined with high quantities of complimenting texture. This image is a prime example of her cohesion in her work. The texture in the lace bodice of the dress is mimicked in the cream and blue tinted mirror, just as the wood is mimicked in the horses coat and in the crackled suit case. By far, this is one of my favourite images of hers.
     Betsy Hansen is a natural light photographer when she is working with editorial or fashion spreads. She will use studio lighting if the situation calls for it, but her preference is to use natural light modifiers (such as reflectors, gobos and scrims) to help mold the light the way she needs it. This is evident by image number five. She used the natural (extreme) sunlight of Florida to highlight the texture of the Spanish moss and to repeat that texture into the model’s blouse. In this image, a scrim was used along with a zebra reflector to bring warmth and highlight to backlit model. Each one of her images utilize as much natural light as is possible for the unpredictable situations she shoots in. This is not necessarily true for her studio work, but her editorial “lifestyle” photography is dominated by natural light.
     While this image uses the rule of thirds, which is rare for Hansen; you can see that she retains her sense of balance and form by standing the model next to the downed tree, which fills the frame. Also, an interesting note on Hansen’s shoot style: she is a huge fan of keeping the eye moving. In the same image, we can see how the moss pulls our eyes down from the bright sunlight to the model. The dark wood stands in stark contrast to the rest of the frame, so our eye is drawn to the middle of the frame. Due to the triangular shape of the tree, the step effect of the mushrooms and the direction the tree is pointing; our eyes go to a perpetual triangle shape (top of tree, vertex of the top and bottom of the tree aided by the contrast of the bright mushrooms and the dark tree, then to the models knees and up her body, back to the log).
     For me Hansen’s work speaks to the conflicting sides of my art. I am constantly pulled by lifestyle (photo documentary) shooting, but I love the feeling of planning, arranging and styling a shot. Her work allows for both styles of work, and that’s one of my largest goals: cohesion in style and personality.

To interject and make some literal corrections, keep in mind that all of these ideas in her paper were derived on her own.  I was not interviewed for this paper.  Some of the things in this paper are assumptions based on her own observations.  I would not call myself an editorial lifestyle photographer, nor is my favorite type of lighting natural.  I am a fashion and beauty photographer, and I would consider myself a master of light.  I use whatever lighting necessary to get the job done beautifully.

The Grade & the Follow-up Rant

Amber: After fighting my teacher in regards to Betsy Hansen's portfolio, He's left me with the extremely low grade, ignored the idea that the artist herself wrote me in regards to the assignment and told me that I had an option to have redone the assignment by thursday of this past week--which I can't check my school until Friday.... a reason why I'm in online classes. This is just another reason why AAU is NOT the school for me, and is really not a school for busy, working professionals to finish their education. Nothing like starting my semester out behind the 8 ball. Awesome.

Jenna: wait, why did he give you a low grade? his opinion?

Amber: He said that my choice of Betsy Hansen's portfolio did not show cohesion. He said that her portfolio isn't cohesive, and it doesn't merit the type of portfolio to get jobs. HAHA. I actually copied and pasted what Betsy wrote me and sent it to him, and he COMPLETELY ignored it. I'm so aggravated. Now, he won't let me shoot bridal fashion and typical fashion in the same portfolio. He said that if I want to shoot fashion, it has to be the same "style" throughout. That I can't include anything different. SO.... All in all, he wants a SERIES for my final portfolio, NOT a cohesive portfolio of a body of work. This class is absolutely RIDICULOUS. I'm so angry right now.

Jenna: That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard, Fashion doesnt have to be cohesive, its not meant to be. The rules bend in fashion that is what makes it different. That is pretty funny that he thinks he knows what he is talking about considering she is extremely amazing and sought after for her photography skills. Can you go over his head to the dean?

Amber: It'd be a really long, shitty fight. Honestly, all I'm going to have to do for this class is create a SERIES of images, not a PORTFOLIO. If I only shoot "regular" fashion for my portfolio, I won't get any bridal work. If i only shoot bridal fashion, I won't get magazine work. he's looking to screw me over either way I go. Now he's saying to make one portfolio for bridal and one for fashion.. I can see that to a point, but he's asking for a portfolio that I can present for a job. If I'm approaching a fashion magazine, say, W, they do bridal fashions once in a while as well. WTF...

Jenna: Sounds very small minded, I'd think youd want a portfolio you could interchange. If your going to vogue, I could see pulling out the bridal fashion but W that makes perfect sense. How many images do you need? by when?

Amber: Full portfolio, 25 images by the end of the semester. I'm wanting to challenge this teacher now. I want to show him that it can be done, and it can be done well. Do you think the March 10 shoot that we have we can come up with something that's fashion, but alternative fashion that can be considered bridal? He is thinking white dress, long veil and super traditional.. he's completely missing the idea that there's a world of nontraditional fashion for both fashion and bridal fashion. He's incredibly small minded, and he's not asking for a portfolio. he's asking us to pigeon hole ourselves and I'm not going to do it. I have an idea for this portfolio. I like that you understand and that you see that certain magazines can combine them!

Krystle: some people can't handle other peoples creativity. Also, I think you're instructor shouldn't be involved in anything that has to do with photography if he's going to be so closed-minded.

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