Describing yourself and your work

March 28, 2013  •  3 Comments

Originally published on Boston Photography Focus, a blog from the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University

Issue #2 from the series Marketing Conversations for Photographers


As artists we are natural visual communicators and are comfortable sharing ideas and information through images.  It is written and verbal communication, however, that is often used by artists to bridge the gap between our creative intentions and the audience of our work.  It acts as a translator to the language of photography.


Whereas artists are comfortable at storytelling using imagery, the rest of the world (including art collectors) often needs a verbal translation from these visual clues to discern the intended meaning. Reviewers and jurors sometimes need this verbal translation too when reviewing work.


Photographer and founder of Lenscratch, Aline Smithson, tells me that the way photographers share work has changed in the past 10 years.


“Prior to 10 years ago artists were bringing in portfolios of beautiful images unrelated to each other.  A lot of the focus was on the mastery of the darkroom print.  Now in the digital age, reviewers are looking for artists to have explored an idea in a deep way with at least 20 images.  Often times that work is enhanced by the written articulation of it.”


Describing yourself and your work now goes way beyond defining yourself by the photographic genre you fit into, such as landscape or nature photography.  “That’s old school,” Aline says.  “Now you are articulating ideas.  Why are you making those landscapes? What is that other layer that makes the work deeper?  How could a gallerist or curator convince a buyer or museum director that your project is meaningful?”


Aline shared an example from her experience jurying a body of work.  It was an architectural series that wasn’t resonating with her.  Then she read the artist’s statement.  It was from a person who had been homeless.  He described his experience looking at these buildings from the outside while he was lying on the sidewalk at night.  His personal experience brought a whole new meaning to the work.  She understood why he had taken the photos and the work was charged with new layers.


Describing your work generally involves three elements:

  1. Bio: a brief description of your background
  2. General artist statement:  your philosophy about photography
  3. Artist statement for each portfolio: explanation of why you created this specific body of work


Creating an effective bio

I asked Aline to define the elements that she believes makeup an effective bio.  She suggests that the key is to make it very personal and keep it to half a page.  Aline looks for personal details such as where they were born, where they are currently living, and perhaps their education.  If it gets too long she believes the reader will lose interest.


 “It’s harder when you first start out [as a photographer],” Aline explains.  “When I started, my bio was more about my jobs prior to photography. As my career grew my bio grew too.”


Aline’s 345-word bio now includes short paragraphs on where her work has been featured, awards she has received, and information on exhibitions she has curated or reviewed.


There’s an important point here: a bio is not static.  It evolves over time as we mature as photographers and our professional careers advance.  Start with what makes sense for where you are in your career.


General artist statement

Aline believes that each body of work should have its own statement.  Photographers, however, also need a general statement that is broader and not focused solely on one idea.


“Describe what drew you to photography, what kinds of things you are interested in, and your philosophy on being a photographer,” she explains.  “When you start getting your work out into the zeitgeist, the photo world wants to understand your point of view.  People will be curious as to your philosophy, not just your bio, so it’s important to talk about why you make work.”


Aline’s 172-word general artist statement is concise yet wonderfully personal and expressive.  She speaks about what imagery she is drawn to and enjoys making, what has influenced her, and the cameras she uses.


Portfolio specific artist statement

A statement that is specific to one body of work “usually starts out with someone talking about what led them to make the work, what they responded to, and how they are able to see the work contextualized to the bigger picture,” Aline says.


“For me, it is about recognizing that the photographer truly understands their project, why they are making it, and what they learned from the experience of creating it.”


An artist statement doesn’t work, Aline says, when “a photographer strings together photos and says it is a body of work.  But it wasn’t made with intention.  And then they come up with some art-speak statement that doesn’t convince me the work was made with intent.”


So, what’s the bottom line? Be personal and explain why you do what you do – what the intent is behind it and why that is important to you.


Susan Worsham is a photographer who Aline says does a very good job describing herself.  “She starts out by describing her childhood and the world she lives in now and the people she is drawn to,” says Aline.  “There is no artifice to it at all.  That’s what I really love.” 


Tips for describing your work and yourself


  1. Be honest:  “Do not over inflate things,” Aline says.  “Be honest about where you are in your career.  If you are new to photography, why not talk about that other career and what made you pick up a camera and start now.”
  2. Bring something fresh and original: “Your life and your world is the only place that no one else can shoot.”  Aline suggests if you “make the work within the ideas in your head, the things that concern you and interest you it will be unique”.  If you want to do something on a topic that has been done before, Google the idea and bring a freshness to it.
  3. Check out Critical Mass portfolios:  Photolucida, a big portfolio review, happens every two years in Portland.  They have a call for entry for Critical Mass. “This is a great place for people to view significant contemporary portfolios and read their statements and see how photographers articulate their work,” Aline says. 


About jurying Review Sante Fe, Aline wrote “Most importantly, the work has to have authenticity – it has to convince the viewer that it has come from a genuine place and it needs to persuade us that there is meaning and purpose behind the efforts.  That meaning can be reflected by a statement that helps elevate the work, but most often from the perfect marriage of intention, writing, and unique visual expression.”


That’s a language that needs no translation.


You may also be interested in:

  • Issue #1 in the series, How to build awareness for your work


Aline Smithson After a career as a New York Fashion Editor and working alongside the greats of fashion photography, Aline Smithson discovered the family Rolleiflex and never looked back. Now represented by galleries in the U.S. and Europe and published throughout the world, Aline continues to create her award-winning photography with humor, compassion, and a 50-year-old camera.  Aline founded and writes the blogzine, Lenscratch.

Cindy A Stephens is a Vice President of Marketing and a fine art photographer.  She specializes in developing high-impact marketing strategies using digital and content marketing to build brands and expand market share.  As a photographer Cynthia specializes in photography of main streets and back roads using unusual framing and multiple planes of perspective.


Titano Ctuz(non-registered)
Great article, this is what I was looking for, the explanation and a step by step on how to explain what I do, the way I do and see my photographic work, thank you this was really helpful.

Titano Cruz
Nik Catalina(non-registered)
Thank you for a well articulated article expressing key elements in creating and projecting important aspects of who, what and why an artist is about... all of which embellish, support, enrich and add value to the work they create.
Peter Treiber(non-registered)
Wow! This is a great explanation of why my photography has not been noticed at PRC and this year at Review Santa Fe. In 2008 I was invited to Santa Fe and had great reviews. I guess I will be hiring an art-speak expert to write some material for me. Sorry, but I feel that if art can not speak directly to the beholder, it fails. The current dependance on art-speak to sell art is 95% B.S. and it will pass, before I am dead, I hope. I see it many times as I view exhibitions where good and bad work hangs side by side. Some times you get to read the artist's statement and realize the he/she should have been a writer and not an artist. Some times you can't even understand the statement which looks like it came from a creative writing thesis. I know I am old school, where quality counted. How many great masters used artist's statement to sell their work?
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I am a marketing professional and a fine art photographer.  With more than 20 years of experience as a marketer and image maker during the digital technology revolution, I now educate creative professionals how to create their artistic presence in the changing art world.  


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