versatility (n)
    The property of being versatile or having many different abilities; flexibility.

Mike Johnston's The Online Photographer (TOP) is one of my favorite blogs, a term that doesn't really do justice to the style and content. It's also one I don't read very often. Whether within my sphere of photographic interest or not, the postings are always interesting and informative, the writing is first-rate and a joy to read, and the (moderated) comments are thoughtful, non-combative, and often quite funny. I tend to visit in spurts; I’ll read new postings for several days and then drift away, and realize after a while I’ve not checked the site in weeks. I’m not sure why that’s so. Human (or, at least, my) nature, maybe. We get busy, new things catch our attention, the usual excuses apply.

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, just before sunrise.

A reader's comment at the end of a three-part set of TOP postings in January, 2019, left me thinking about my own work and whether I’m guilty of the foible the writer describes. As a judge in a couple of national photo competitions, he writes, the entires he most quickly rejected were from photographers trying to show versatility. If an entrant’s series “contained both black & white and color, or a portrait and landscape, or a macro and anything else, boom—next entry. Versatility ranked down there at zero for our criteria.” He goes on to explain that the judges loved to see series of photos that all clearly came from the same vision, and that resulted in series of images that were all pretty similar. They considered this a plus, not a drawback.

I reread this a couple of times and decided I shouldn’t feel conflicted about it, but initially I did. After thinking about it for a while, I've decided there's really no conflict, but I may have learned something I can apply when needed. I think one can be “versatile” while maintaining a visual consistency in one's body of work.

Not a Drawback

I'm a photographic omnivore; I make pictures of many kinds of things. Landscapes and wildlife. Color and B&W. Close-up (if not true macro) and, uh, not. I also like to play with formats, from the 35mm standard 3:2 to square to panoramas. It’s hard to know if format falls within the scope of the man’s comment. In recent years I’ve found I lean more toward the “grand landscape,” planning my trips and local outings around making those pictures. Most of that work is color, and made with normal to mid-wide-angle views in the 28 to 50mm range, nothing extreme on either end (I could probably get along quite well with a 35mm prime lens, but I love my 24-70 F/2.8 zoom). But when I encounter wildlife or birds in a nice setting I’ll attach my 100-400mm zoom, maybe with the 1.4x teleconverter, and take advantage of my good luck. I sometimes get an idea for a close-up photo of something, so I’ll use my extension tubes and set out to find the subject I had in mind. And although I don’t do a lot of it, I love black-and-white photography and sometimes photograph with shades of gray in mind. I wrote about this in my June, 2012, article Shades of Gray and have had somewhat more success commercially with B&W since posting that article. I do these various kinds of work because I enjoy all of them. Each has its own set of challenges, and for the kinds of stuff I do less often (like B&W) I tend to learn something each time.

Sunrise and steam, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park.

Sunrise lights steam on the terraces above Yellowstone's Mammoth Hot Springs on a cold June morning.

I suspect this behavior to continue; I don’t see myself doing things much differently.

Is this versatility a bad thing? Are there reasons to avoid having these different kinds of work in one’s portfolio? I think the answer depends on what one does with the pictures. When I submit work to juried shows I do tend to include only pieces of similar subjects and styles, and since one is generally limited to a small number of pieces in these submissions (four to six is common) there’s not a lot of room for wide-ranging subject types anyway. When I hang four or five pieces in a gallery show they are, again, of similar types. If I’m a featured artist in a show and can exhibit a larger number of pictures I always include both scenics and wildlife (especially birds), and may have some black-and-white in the show, too. Each show, and each venue, is different, and I decide what to display based on the feel of the thing or who I might expect the audience to be. What matters most to me is that all the pieces exhibited together look like the same guy made them.

As I continue to consider this, I'm coming around to thinking this “consistency of vision,” especially for very small series of photos like jury submissions, is a really good idea. As mentioned, I already do this to some degree, in that series I submit to juries are of a similar type of picture, and that I do attempt to make all in the series look like they came from the same photographer (me)*. Perhaps I wouldn't be instantly rejected by the author of the TOP comment. As I select picture series for future submissions I'll make a point of applying this criterion, but I don't discount the value of selecting photos by feel as I've always done. Some combination of the methods may be the best approach: chose several pictures as usual, and then apply a more critical eye to eliminate any that seem out of place in the series.

TOPping it Off

I'm glad I came across those TOP entries and the comments. I've got several shows coming this spring through fall, a couple of those are juried, and I'll keep all of this in mind as I select the pictures to submit.

Yellowstone's Madison River at sunrise, Wyoming U.S.

Sunrise through fog over Yellowstone National Park's Madison River creates a moody, monochromatic image of a sub-freezing September morning.

There's another lesson here, too: I need to visit TOP more often, and if I'm going to do that, I will continue to support Mr. Johnston's efforts by following his links to the photo vendors I use. I'll also consider subscribing; a small but regular financial obligation might be the incentive I need to to become a more frequent TOP visitor.

*I hope the images I selected for this article look like they were all made by the same photographer!

January, 2019

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