Your Alt Images: They Can’t All Be Good

Peter J. Blackburn gives tips on how to edit your work before showing it to the world.

Writer and photography / Peter J. Blackburn

I never hesitate to remove inferior work from my portfolios. It has always been an automatic process.

All right, gather them up. Begin by sliding out the drawers and spill the contents on the floor. Drag out the piles from under your bed and then very slowly open that hall closet so it all cascades gently to the floor. Check the garage, the attic, the cellar, and the trunk of your car. Don’t laugh.

Now pile it all up in one gigantic pyramid.

Look at it. Just look at it all.

What am I writing about this time? Your artwork, of course—or in this case, your alt-work.

Have you ever considered . . . here it comes, that most inconvenient word . . . editing your work?

Artists my age will recall evening slide shows of yesteryear where nephews and nieces alike were strong-armed into sitting in front of a noisy, clunky projector loaded with a carousel or three, squinting at one dreadful image after another of Uncle Harry’s and Aunt Freda’s vacation trip to Florida. Fuzzy pictures with burnt colors, blown out highlights, and crooked, cock-eyed compositions pretty much sum up the whole ordeal. Trust me, it wasn’t worth the popcorn. What was eye candy to them was more like an eyesore to me, and most everyone else scattered about the living room. How we all would have appreciated Uncle Harry exercising some better editing skills, not to mention some better camera skills, too.

Those Kodak moments from decades past remind me of the ubiquitous PowerPoint-less presentations of today. Ah, but I digress.

Let’s get back to your great pyramid on the floor. Look at it all. Odds are you can’t even begin to mentally process, let alone actually answer the following question I have for you. So, please go find a sensible, bright and brave associate who knows you fairly well to answer as your proxy. I’ll wait.


Do you hoard, and perhaps even venerate every single, itty-bitty fragment of overexposed, under processed, stained and fogged bit of hand-brushed alternative printing to ever to make it to your drying rack?

So while you and your hapless helper bicker over that one for a bit using your pyramid as Exhibit A, I’ll take a moment to crank up my time machine and capture a few sound bites of past show and tell gatherings. You remember, those opportunities you seized to show off your work to friends, family, and even other artists. Ah, yes, I can distinctly hear the colorful excuses, alibis, and double-talk sprayed like polka-dot buckshot to jury-rig a rosier facade on some rather inferior prints. Prints that could have and should have been discarded soon after the rinse water went down the drain.

Now say thank you to your friend and try not to hold a grudge for the opinions expressed. Honesty, truly is, the best policy when it comes to culling and cutting.

As I wrap up this short and sweet slice of bumper car derby prose, may I ask a final question or two? Do you have a critical eye? Are you even capable of making ruthless cuts and edits of your work, throwing out the bums and embracing what remains as material worthy of true grit?

Here are three suggestions to ponder.

First, only show work which can proudly speak for itself, with no reservations, free of any polka-dot buckshot excuses. Your images should immediately capture both the eye and mind of the viewer. It should have qualities which reflect without reservation your competence and intentions. Of course, some less than perfect work can be kept as learning tools or springboards from which to create better work. But remember, too much of it could land you on the next episode of Studio Nightmares.

Second, summon the expertise of other artists with experience into your editing process every now and then. Listen with attentiveness and respond with gratitude. I invite, or should I say dare you to act upon their advice.

Third, regularly revisit your efforts. Learn from how you have made progress while making sure progress, indeed, has been made. Does some of your older work now look out of place, showing traces of buckshot? When it comes to your portfolio, it’s to your advantage to never let the jury recess.

Show no mercy, grant no parole.

Remember, they can’t all be good.

Peter J. Blackburn, MA, has been working in tricolor gum and casein bichromate processes for over thirty years. He is represented by Afterimage Gallery, Dallas, Texas, one of the oldest art galleries in the world devoted exclusively to photography.

Peter J. Blackburn, MA, has been working in gum and casein bichromate printing for over thirty years. He is represented by Afterimage Gallery, Dallas, Texas. You can also see Peter J. Blackburn’s gallery or read more articles he has written.

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