Curating to a theme

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Images chosen from past exhibitions/ collections/ projects: note how they stand alone, but not together…this doesn’t necessarily make them bad…or I suppose that depends on your point of view.

I’ve recently been asked by a couple of people about curation – specifically, the process I use when putting together a portfolio, photoessay, exhibition or something similar. Turns out that whilst I’ve talked about the importance of curation in the past, and evaluating images individually and against each other in Photoshop Workflow II, I’ve never actually addressed about the process as a whole. It’s actually a pretty interesting topic that isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

Before the process even begins, we have to figure out exactly what it is we’re trying to curate for; what is the objective of the body of work? Can you specifically define the idea you are trying to represent? The tighter, the better; ‘solo individuals in monochrome in the evening in winter with hats’ is a much easier objective to curate to than ‘street photography in Italy’ or a much looser concept like ‘loneliness and isolation’. Ideally, you want to be able to look at an image and instantly accept or disqualify it. On top of that, you also need to maintain enough discipline that images that sit in that grey area on the edge aren’t allowed to slip through and weaken the remainder of the set.

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The most straightforward part of curation is dumping the stuff that obviously doesn’t work: incompatible subject, technical shortcomings that dominate over the idea, and anything that’s stylistically inconsistent (e.g. cinematic work doesn’t fit with documentary style black and white; it will stand out as being discontinuous and breaking the overall mood you’re trying to set). The important bit to take away here is if you’re in doubt over an image, park it in separate holding and continue on. This is for two reasons: though it might make the most sense initially to be extremely disciplined and dump anything that hits the ‘maybe’ category, you may need to use one of these later as a ‘bridge’ shot between two other frames that are clearly on point individually, but perhaps do not flow.

By the same token, I think that images should be different enough from each other to be distinctive and individually memorable; but not so different as to be logically disconnected and require large leaps in thought for the audience to connect. This is not the most obvious of points: you could have a very tight objective with images that are on the face of it, massively similar – but the differences then lie in fleshing out that idea-space defined by the objective as fully as possible.

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For example: you could have a series of 100 headshots in monochrome with identical lighting and processing for a consistent style, but then for the series to hold the attention of the audience, you’d have to make sure that you have a very wide variety of different faces and features. With this example, I think you can also see how the same concept but from significant shot-to-shot variation of different angles, different perspectives, different lighting would only work if there were enough differences: two similar images would land up standing out because they were similar, but losing individual impact because they were too similar and difficult to differentiate.

This is probably also a good time to discuss length or quantity: I really don’t think there’s a universal or absolute answer to this. There has to be enough images to fully explore the idea you’re trying to convey, but not so many that individual images land up getting forgotten or the audience doesn’t have the stamina to view all of them – and moreover, give them sufficient individual attention. The actual number is dependent on so many things – format, medium, idea, variation in the subject matter itself. You could present a mini-series online – as I usually do in the [photoessay format on this site] – and want to limit it to 10-15 images because anything more becomes somewhat monotonous and anything less seems somewhat incomplete. Because you’re looking at a web page, there’s no way of viewing the entire series simultaneously for a different impact. On the other hand, if you’ve got a huge gallery space whose layout you can control and where the audience definitely and deliberately makes an effort to visit because they are expecting a show, then a hundred images might not even be enough. I think of it as a fast food vs a tasting menu: you have different expectations and different amounts of concentration given by your audience, but everybody comes with a certain level of expectation.

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If given free reign over output medium, there’s no question I prefer print; there’s simply no way you can display all of the captured information in a single frame in a digital medium (especially with higher resolution cameras) and leaving something behind feels like you’re showing an approximation of something instead of the original: something is going to be missing, and that something might make the difference between the idea being successful (e.g. a sort of transparency/realism that comes from size and resolution) and not. I will probably never show the [Forest] series online, for instance – the idea of escape and immersiveness just doesn’t work as a 1000px-wide JPEG.

On the other hand, different subject matter is better suited for different output sizes – portraits at life size are interesting, but anything larger than that is just plain disturbing. Landscapes really need to be as big as possible to fully breathe. You should definitely take the output medium into account when curating, too: if you know the work is only going to be displayed at a certain size or method, then don’t be afraid to exclude images that might be great but won’t deliver full impact (or worse, less impact than something else) when shown in that medium. I know I (and judging from responses, the audience) have very different image preferences when something is shown on say Instagram vs large print – a lot of what I do doesn’t work very well in the former medium because the display method is heavily biased towards square or portrait images and not landscape, and because the actual amount of information you see is very low with a tiny viewing size.

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The last major topic we need to address is one of ordering and sequencing: what goes where, before what, after what? I think if the work is built around the idea of a documentary narrative (e.g. event coverage), then it makes sense for the images to follow the same causal and logical flow as that story – even if that was not necessarily the temporal sequence in which events unfolded, or the order in which the images were shot. In this case, it’s hugely preferable to display the images in the order in which the story would make the most sense to an external observer*. However, if the images are individual stories – i.e. contained within the entire frame – and/or unrelated to the other frames in the set, but hold together as a theme – then I think the aim should be to present them in such an order as provides both a smooth visual flow between subsequent images, as well as some variety to the audience so that they don’t get bored and start skipping through too quickly without noticing details. An example of this might be a catalog of abstract architectural images; perhaps there’s a subtle increase and decrease in brightness or contrast – like a wave spanning multiple images – or perhaps there’s as much contrast and change between each shot as possible (though I wouldn’t personally do this because I find it somewhat visually fatiguing).

*Note: this is also one example of how clever curation may be used to strongly bias the impression given in photojournalism.

I suspect one of the reasons many photographers use external editors or curators is because it’s not just difficult to imagine how an unconnected observer might read the sequence, but also difficult to maintain objectivity when you’re emotionally too close to the subject matter; the more investment you have in the work, the less objective you’re going to be. Time and space do help here, and a degree of emotional investment is required to select a body of work that both holds together and has something extra – but I’ve always felt that some photographers are better at it than others. Personally, I choose not to use external curators or editors as I have to and have done this process enough that I think I’m fairly proficient at it; beyond that, I simply don’t have access to a capable person locally.

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An image that’s good or bad in isolation may not have the same weight or value or merit when considered in series; it’s important to remember that the aim of a curated set is to create something where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Those individual parts may not make sense when viewed in isolation, but we have to be as objective as possible when putting the whole thing together.

So when do we stop – both shooting, sequencing, and curating? That’s perhaps the most diffiuclt question of all to answer, because there’s always going to be an infinite variety of possibilities and situations and subjects (even around a single idea) which would take forever to capture. Aside from the obvious situations in which resources are finite and have been exhausted, I personally think the cutoff comes when the images you have are enough to form a solid definition of your intended idea, the set is long enough for the intended medium, you can display enough visual variety, and all images are equally strong – if there are one or two that are exceptional, that’s fine; if there are one or two that are much worse, they should probably be dropped. And during the production of the series, it’s always a good idea to do intermediate rough cuts to see where the gaps are, which helps focus your capture. After enough time putting sequences together – it’s easy to get a feel for when you’re on the right track or not, and to even be shooting for several ideas or projects simultaneously (providing it doesn’t require major logistical issues) – this tends to be the way I work in practice because I find that inspriration for one idea often comes from another… MT


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  1. Ming, was the first shot taken in Venice? It looks like it, because I took a photo in Venice at night at what appears to be the same exact spot! Years ago, using a Yashica T3 P&S and slide film! Seeing it was just so interesting because it brought right back to the night I took my photo there .

  2. Michiel953 says:

    I’ll have to re- and reread this I’m afraid. This week, by regrettable accident (what have I got myself into now?) obviously, I decided to embark on a project called “58 portraits”. 58 because, well 58 images, and 58 because of the lens used; the infamous 58/1.4G.

    First challenge is going back over three years in my files for these portraits, look them over, re-edit, put in one folder. How many? How many are good enough? Can one person figure more than once?
    A rough estimate? I’m not even halfway.

    Interesting and challenging though.

    • I think you’ll find one of two things happens: either you have too many images and the curation isn’t tight enough, or you have too few and it’s either too narrow a specification or you simply can’t find enough material to work with.

      • Michiel953 says:

        There might be a third way. Isn’t there always?

        Anyway, in three years more than 58 images with that lens will have been accumulated, most of them portraits.

        First selection will be to divide them up into separate subjects; I’ll be lucky to get to thirty. Some overlap is allowed, but only if the lapse in time, setting and place makes the overlapping images interesting.

        Chronological or alphabetical order? Hmm.

        Lots of work still to be done; another two years to go probably.

  3. A very well executed post which gives a lot of food for thought. Thank you!

    There are a couple of bits in parentheses in the first paragraph. Presumably these should be links?

    • Whoops, yes – let me fix that. That’s what happens when you write in mid-air and then post during your layover but forget to check extra carefully due to the jet lag…

  4. Larry Kincaid says:

    Very useful. I should save a copy and review it once in a while or before starting a project.

    I’m wondering if the medium chosen is a book, does everything you say still apply but, say, by sections? For example, a a 10-15 section on Prague, then Venice, etc.; or still life, street, landscape (say all in black and white, or all color to help unify the book).
    The other question is about getting critical feedback from others whose opinion you respect, then revising, and so forth until satisfied or out of time. I cannot tell you how many novelists I’ve heard say that they were saved from themselves by a good editor who helped them see which parts were not necessary or distracting, etc., in exactly the same sense that you’re intending for photography. Now that I think of it, this would apply to curating an exhibit of painting or photos at a gallery. So, useful advice for a variety of curation projects.

    • Sections: I imagine you have to be tighter/ more specific in the subsections and can get away with being a bit looser one level up, but as usual – a structured taxonomy is probably the best way to go.

      As for editors, I think from a creative standpoint it’s not so easy to find the right person; from a commercial one you do probably want to listen to the people who know what the audience (if not necessarily agree 100% with your interpretation of the theme).

  5. Wayne Melia says:

    Thank you. Excellent topic, and you have such a coherent, distilled way of explaining things. Much appreciated.

  6. Thank you so much for your thoughts on this very difficult and for us photographers sometimes emotional topic. This was great reading and lets me reconsider a few things! Marcus


  1. […] extra. If anything, there’s still too much open-ended possibility here, and we would have to further curate the result down to something with higher consistency – around subject, mood, style, light […]

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