The concept of a one image portfolio is difficult to imagine. But what if you had to only display one image? Which image best represents you as a photographer?
During a conversation with a fellow full-time photographer, we discussed the notion of heavily selective portfolios; how some photographers have just a handful of images to represent mountainous bodies of work. I’m always conflicted over the idea of potentially sacrificing evidence of consistency and social proof from having a wealth of past clients to browse through. I’m in the minority here — I know that — and even the research that has been done contradicts my views. The conversation moved on to just how small do you think you could get your portfolio if you needed to.
I wouldn’t know where to start. For one, I’d need two portfolios. Then, I would have to spend far too long thinking about something not worth that time, I imagine. However, the next question, while only in jest, was more interesting. If you could only show people one photograph you’ve taken, which would you choose?
It seemed an inane question at first, asked tongue-in-cheek, but it can be very telling, particularly if it’s re-framed slightly. Imagine your photography could only be remembered by one image and that’s all that will ever be show, which photograph would you choose and why? Firstly you need to decide whether you’re choosing the image you’re most proud of, or the image that best represents your work, presuming they aren’t the same. Then the information from your answer can be vast. It shows the sort of style and genre you’re most attracted to, what sort of photographer you identify as, what you want to be known for, and potentially the direction you want to continue going. It could identify a direction you want to go when in fact, your current trajectory is unfocused and erratic.
Then of course, perhaps it’s nothing to do with direction or how you want to be seen at all. Perhaps it’s about a moment; a photograph so rich in emotion and memory that if you had to narrow down your body of work, you would happily forgo the technically superior images or the images with mass appeal in favor of that special shot. I wrote recently about an event in my life that was extremely difficult to discuss, but that an image I had taken offered a small silver lining that I cherished. It’s an image that simultaneously breaks my heart and warms me.
I’m not sure I have an answer to this question, but I do have an established thought process now. My gut reaction was for the first image that ever did well for me. It went low-end viral, received a lot of attention, unimpressive awards, and was displayed in a few galleries dotted around the globe. It even threw me in the deep end with image theft, copyright, and strangest of all, someone copying the concept very closely and then selling the image when I could prove they used my image to create it. That image, taken many years back now, was part of a series I shot called Innominate:
I don’t love the image anymore; the concept is no longer innovative or unique, there are lots of things I would change, but it did do something important. It acted as propulsion for my interest in working in photography full-time and it was confidence building. For that alone, I’d be tempted to have it as my only image. That said, I’ve never written about one of my most successful images on the very platform I’ve been a writer for years, despite there being a story of costly mistakes attached.
Interestingly, while going through my work trying to narrow it down, I only looked at portraiture. While I have done a lot of commercial work and I’m immensely proud of some of it, my love for portraiture has always been an anchor tethering me to photography no matter how jaded or tired I might get in those occasional times of creative drain. The lead image for this article is another contender and an image I’ve always had some sort of connection with; it just works for me. I was shooting on a beautiful day with a good friend, I had a Russian manual focus f/1.5 85mm on the front of my camera and was firing off shots wide open. I looked on the back of the camera and saw this tack sharp image, with the butteriest bokeh I’d ever seen, engaging reflections, and crisp light. But I still couldn’t pull the trigger and make it the only image I’m ever remembered by.
I can imagine that area being particularly difficult for you photographers out there who passionately and regularly shoot multiple genres. The question over which sort of photographer you want to be seen as is trickier for some that others. Very few photographers I know shoot exclusively one genre (landscape, portraiture etc.), but most shoot one predominantly. Sometimes that is the fruit of enthusiasm for the subject, but sometimes that is a monetary decision.
To be truthful, I don’t know the answer to my own question. But the inquest was worthwhile nevertheless, revealing a lot about my true ties to photography, and my relationship with my body of work. Perhaps it shows that I need to push myself in portraiture more and try to achieve a unicorn shot. Perhaps it shows that I always chase an image holding the concept in high esteem, only to discard its importance once it’s captured. It’s quite unexpected that such an innocuous and frankly sarcastic comment could send me so far down a rabbit hole. I’m one for self-reflection and growth, but perhaps I wasn’t ready for something quite this challenging.
So if you had to choose just one image for your photography to be remembered by, which image would you choose, and more importantly, why? Share the photograph and story in the comments below.