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Alex Eaton

[ Stillnotes ] 26 — Alpine daydreams, portfolios

Published 8 months ago • 5 min read

25 » Alpine Daydreams

Hey there Stillnotes crew,

The summer has flown by. My last transmission was about Oaxaca, yikes! Plenty more photos from that trip have come through, including my film, and a gallery and essay are in the works. In the meantime I've had plenty going on photographically and otherwise... surgery, moving, trips to Telluride/Crested Butte/Moab/Santa Fe/Michigan/Tennessee. The summer has been the type of busy where you only realize you're holding your breath once the black spots appear around the edges of your vision.

I've been taking photos consistently, which has been great. Keeping the eye sharp. The rub is I don't think I've been taking many "portfolio-worthy" shots. Lots of nice photos, great memories, but not shots where I'm pushing myself forward photographically. I know by now not to expect progress to fall into your lap without intention, but it's hard not to be disappointed. So I've been spending a lot of time with photos like the ones I'm sharing today—photos that aren't during the best time of day for photography traditionally, photos that weren't planned but happened upon, opportunistic and completely driven by my whims—and with some help I've come to find some purpose in them. Let's talk more about these portfolios.

Working in portfolios

This week I attended a webinar by photographer Cole Thompson (amazing black and white work) around the topic of portfolios. He discussed his love for them as opposed to single images. I've felt drawn to this, especially as I dive into work on my book, but it's also been an intimidating subject because when I hear 'portfolios' I hear 'massive years-long ambitious project' or 'gallery of greatest hits'. Both of those come with a lot of pressure. According to Cole, that's unnecessary. A portfolio can simply be a collection of related images. The idea can be big or small and doesn't have to be unique. He said the key is vision and passion. It must be something you love, are drawn to and want to shoot, only then will it be successful (whatever your definition of that is).

As I listened to this I mentally scanned my favorite images, recent images, and archives. Shooting consistently over time clues you into your preferences and inherent desires as an artist. What catches me, how do I typically compose scenes, what shows up again and again over time?

The image below sprang to mind, from the same weekend in Telluride as the image leading off this post. It's not the first of its kind.

Roads often show up in my work. They're all over, a common theme in my life and vision. I already have growing collections of road shots and dashboard shots saved in Lightroom. But I remember stopping at this scene up on a forest road south of Telluride and spending an inordinate amount of time getting the framing of the turn signs exactly right. Beyond just roads, I seem to have a thing for these caution turn signs. They show up both subtly and overtly.

Without planning, without realization, I've been drawn to this specific, innocuous piece of my road experience for years now. Regular, more broad road shots? Always love them. Yet this takes the idea one step deeper which gives it more pointed interest to me. What is it about these road signs I seem to innately enjoy photographing? Is it the overall scene where they are? How they frame a background? Their cautionary aspect, telling you you're going to get messed up if you don't slow down for this turn?

I'm not sure. But I dig it. I already have a nice collection of these without realizing it, but now there is the adventure of finding more, of seeing where I can take this simple concept.

Cole listed off about ten different projects he's worked on or is working on. One took 12 hours of shooting, some will never end. That's the best part about portfolios, the part I'm now seeing clearly. Building through-lines and connections in your work gives it meaning and purpose, but it doesn't have to come at the cost of over-built projects that drag you down.

Working on portfolios is exciting, it feels like you're building something bigger. And you can work on as many at once as you'd like. So now I'm taking a closer look at my archive and my favorite photos. Cole made an important distinction about doing this: the photos must actually be your personal favorites, not photos you think would be popular or well-received. Are there connections between them? Are there themes, or is there something I've been missing that I seem to unconsciously pursue? Can I identify what I'm seeing? I'm paying more attention to any detail that reveals my preferences—composition, light, subject, edit, anything.

Process before portfolio

There are other photos from Telluride that don't represent a theme, a possible portfolio. They're just a moment, a memory, but I've been trying to derive meaning from them beyond that. What is their value? Sure, photos can simply be for me. It doesn't have to be so serious! But I know myself well enough to know I'm not satisfied with that. I enjoy this search, even if it leaves me grasping at straws sometimes.

Here are a few quick thoughts I've had as I've combed through this Telluride collection:

  1. These photos represent the process — Looking back at work, especially work that won't be used, reveals the journey. What ideas have I played with? What am I interested in? What worked and what fell flat? Seeing the failures is just as valuable as finding portfolio ideas or images worth publishing.
  2. These photos represent my way of exploring — Not necessarily a photographic realization, but it's fun to look at how I like to explore the mountains in the place I call home. I can quickly lose a day putzing around forest roads, hopping out and running to grab a shot, hiking a bit with my pup on a side trail, saving campsites for later. It's one of my favorite ways to spend a summer day, and I should do it more often.
  3. Alpine meadows during the daytime are just as beautiful as sunrise/sunset — Hot take? There is something about a filmic look to a mid-day alpine setting that sticks with me. Bright yet softened colors, inspiring scenery, hopefully some wildflowers, the warmth of the sun. And building off that...
  4. Portfolio shots don't have to be taken during sunrise/sunset — There's always a photo to be had. Always bring the camera.

All right, that's enough for today. If this hit, I'm curious to hear from you. Do you have a hidden portfolio or two in your archive? Did something come to mind as you read this?

So many photos and stories to share from this year so far. I'm excited about the future of Stillnotes, and I feel it pulling me in a different direction. I started this newsletter 25 issues ago thinking it would be a simple place to publish my work and share some thoughts. I love a good newsletter. But as Rambler ended the length of these posts increased. My desire to connect my writing and photography never goes away. So Stillnotes may move beyond just 'one photo and the story behind it'. A line sitting in my head is, "documenting a photographic journey through life". Feels a bit corny, but it does hit on the mixture of images and writing I enjoy. How does that line sound? Enticing? Total cornball?

We'll see. No rules in place yet. Just hitting send to you fine folks more.

Thanks for reading.

—Al

Alex Eaton

Writer, photographer

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