Actually I have few practical purpose of editing a portfolio of my own. But I think editing is a step of the photographic process, an important and difficult step. Editing is not just doing a selection of what you think are your best photographs but instead it is a decision of what body of work you want to show, which is not exactly the same. You have to define your own motivation and criteria for that, which may vary depending on the context for the work selected (an exhibition, a book, a website …).
From that perspective I don’t think I ever managed to do a successful editing of my own work. What I do is just to try to decide whether a photograph works or not, and every so often this is not easy.
When I read here and here about how other photographers edit their work I am kind of perplex because it is rather elusive. One thing I have sometimes read to decide if a picture “works” or not is to try to figure out if something in it is either missing, misplaced or exceeding. If that is the case it does not work. That may sounds easy but except for some obvious situations I believe that you have to be very mature to proceed that way.
I like to think of a photograph as something which is basically objective. Others would say it is a “document”. Of course what people think about a photograph is subjective, but that does not affect the image itself. If subjectivity has to be an essential quality for a photograph then we might as well do family shots only because they are the most subjective photographs one can make. And this is precisely what makes family shots a very challenging body of work to show outside the audience of your relatives because on the end of the day the pictures must stand out objectively so to speak.
Hence also why I have come to think that the elaborate photo critique (the one that says you should have framed more to the left, or clicked a second sooner etc..) is pointless. Because doing that is to question the objectivity of the photograph, it is talking about another photograph – or more specifically about an idea of a photograph that will never exist, which does not make sense at all. After all you don’t do that for painting or music (“That is a nice song, except that Em7 chord at 1:25, I would have played Cmaj7#11 instead”). Don’t get me wrong, I am all for feedback and don’t mind the negative judgment, nor do I mean that all photographs have merit on their own right. But to me a brief and simple “doesn’t work for me” is fine and says it all. On the end of the day it all comes to a works/doesn’t work situation, and the inflated critique does not help that much. For feedback less is more and most of the time we largely overestimate our capacity to question what makes a photograph – that is why I said earlier that you have to be very mature to proceed that way, even for your own work. What really helps is piling failure i.e. shooting and shooting again. Shooting is basically that: an accumulation of failure. That may sounds odd but I think acknowledging failure is more important than trying to figure out how it might have worked. The photographer’s experience is all about the digestion of failure.
As I said it is nevertheless hard for me to decide if a shot works or not. Especially because I try to be analytical rather than emotional as much as I can – I don’t think emotion makes a good judgment of a picture. What counts for me is a mix of clarity and sense of unusual, or unseen (for lack of better word). If I can see both clarity and singularness in one shot I am close to think it might work. Finally it is all in that saying from Lisette Model “‘Nothing is so mysterious as a fact clearly presented.”
Clarity often has to do with composition, timing, light – and also the absence of unacceptable technical flaw. Except for the technical part I don’t think there are rules for that, but most of what clarity consists of is the sheer responsibility of the photographer. You are accountable for the clarity or the fuzziness of the pictures you make, whatever the subject matter is. Good photographers always come up with clarity, and the highest form of clarity is what I like to call “authority”, which is a difficult thing to define with words but has to do with imposing ones own vision to the audience. It also has to do with style (finally “authorship” is a good way to sum it all). Many photographers manage to acquire skills in composition or whatsoever makes pleasant images, but few go beyond that. On the opposite there are photographers with that innate sense of authority when they shoot, and it goes without saying that all great photographers are shooting with authority whatever the genre.
A sense of unseen has more to do with subject matter. I don’t mean it to be exotic and on the contrary the best for me is when the most familiar situation becomes unusual, ineffable – at best absurd – within the frame of a photograph. But to me it has to be devoid from too much stylistic artifact. Hence why I am often bothered by enhanced dramatic lights ones often see (though I shoot that too). That is also why I don’t like over-processed pictures or worse, manipulated photographs. It all comes out pompous. Maybe it is what Winogrand meant when he would elaborate about the “openness” of prints. To me luck has more value than craft for a photographer. And the more “thought” (in the sense of overdone) a shot looks like, the more it seems to lose that sort of spontaneity, innocence which I believe is important – I see it as is one of the challenge of staged photography. More often than not what makes a good photograph involves a tension or balance between the author involvement and his/her own effacement.