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Editing and Sequencing Your Work

One of the most difficult challenges for a photographer is to edit his or her own work. It is nearly impossible for artists to be completely objective about their own images. An experienced outsider can look at a body of work and comment on which images feel like outliers, whether or not the work feels cohesive, what images propel your story and which do not, which images feel technically or aesthetically weak, and how to make adjustments to improve the project. An artist sees more than just the image – the artist looks at a photograph he or she made and remembers that it was the most beautiful day out, the windows were down, and a favorite song was playing on the radio. The artist cannot divorce the image from the context, and that is ok. But that is why soliciting experienced, objective feedback is critically important.

First, seek out experienced people whose opinions you trust to give you constructive criticism on your edit. Asking a supportive spouse or neighbor without any industry knowledge will make you feel great about your work, but will not help it improve. And it can always be better.

 Utilize the resources around you. Most local gallerists and curators will carve out 15-20 minutes to sit with you and review your work, so long as you respect their time by making an appointment and clearly outline your objectives from the meeting. Explain that you are looking for constructive feedback on your project in order to improve it and get it ready to launch. Be clear that you are asking for their time and feedback, not an opportunity for exhibition or representation. If the work is fantastic, that will come naturally.

 Second, be as critical and objective as you can when looking at your images. If you think an image is strong but does not completely fit the project, take it out and save it for a future body of work. If you are thinking, “I know this photograph is too soft/isn’t really working/has a different feeling/etc. but _____ (insert any excuse here)”, then take it out. Again, just because it does not fit this project does not mean it will not fit in another project in the future.

Finally, do not dilute the impact of your project or series by including weaker photographs to meet a self-imposed image count. If you only have 13 strong images so far, then only include 13 in the portfolio. Adding two weak images to bump up the total to 15 will leave the viewer remembering two out-of-place photographs and thinking you may not know the difference between a weak and strong image.

Once your edit feels tight, the sequence is your next challenge.  Sequence can strengthen or ruin a project. If the images feel like they are jumping around and the viewer is jarred moving from one to the next, the story you are trying to tell gets lost and the photographs will not hit their mark.

Quite simply, the flow needs to work. Let the story unfold in a clear, logical way that makes sense as the viewer moves from one image to another. Make sure you are telling the complete story without hiccups (images that take the viewer off-track) or narrative gaps. Allow the viewer to move seamlessly through the work. Keep a consistent vibe and feeling, building a narrative or emotional arc without disrupting the viewer’s eyes or emotions. 

In addition to considering a logical ordering strategy (chronological, narrative, etc.), pay attention to aesthetic qualities in the photographs. Colors and shapes can bridge transitions between images and create a smooth flow. Less obvious connections also create an interesting sequence. Consider what associations a straight read of an image bring to mind and what other image in the series creates a logical link to it.

In talking with photographers about their editing and sequencing practices, one thing that comes up again and again is the value of living with the work. Many artists find it useful to take their work prints and hang them, or spread them out on a worktable or the floor of a studio. And then they "live" with the work—they look at the edit or sequence repeatedly over a period of time. Connections reveal themselves; pacing, and narrative and emotional arcs change or fluctuate; and individual images gain or lose importance. 

– Conor Risch, Senior Editor at Photo District News


This article is an excerpt from Crusade for Your Art: Best Practices for Fine Art Photographers, Crusade Press, copyright 2014 by Jennifer Schwartz, reproduced here with the permission of the publisher. This excellent book is available from Amazon, here.