When Morad Bouchakour finished photography school, the artist’s portfolio was a thick, embossed, leather-bound affair. When he came to New York, his mentor introduced him to the world of communal dark rooms, where young, broke photographers gathered to prepare their portfolios together. Much hard work has been eliminated since the move to digital, but according to Bouchakour, so has a beautiful presentation vessel and key aspect of the creative process. His new project Bye Bye Portfolio recalls his past photobooks, and pays tribute to the time before photography became such a solitary profession.
Emily von Hoffman: Your current project is an ode & farewell to the physical portfolio. Can you tell us why you felt this was an era to note or to mourn its passing? Why is this an important piece of nostalgia, for you personally, or more generally for photographers?
Morad Bouchakour: I lived in New York from 1996 to 2008. When I arrived there I was surprised by how much time photographers would spend on their portfolios — this was not the case in Holland. What I especially loved is that most of them would rent a darkroom together and print the photos in their portfolios themselves. I started doing the same and just loved being in that setting. The energy was very creative and open. I have the feeling those were the high days of the physical portfolio.
Much money was spent on the portfolios themselves as well. They were typically leather, with your name on the front, with plastic sleeves and custom printed photos. So besides the fact that a portfolio was important for getting work, the whole process of printing it and putting it together was as creatively important. At the end of my time in New York in 2008, many of those darkrooms were already closed or they would close over the next few years. Often they were replaced by computers at home, which has a lot of advantages, but now you are always working on your own.
EvH: Can you describe your first portfolio for us? Are there any choices you made then about presenting your work that you would do differently now?
MB: I made my first portfolio when I was an apprentice to photographer Dana Lixenberg in New York. So it was more or less a copy of her portfolio style. The one thing I learned from her is that the prints should be absolutely perfect — no short cuts. I learned printing from her at the highest level. But I would say that my first portfolio was not very good yet. The printing could have been much better, I was still learning, and it lacked my signature style.
The photos were chronologically placed, which I would not do today. My edits now are always based on the challenge of taking the viewer by the hand and bringing them into my world, and the world of my subjects. I love it when two totally unrelated photos can create a new world. Something that was not there before, like a fairy tale.
EvH: Can you please tell us about a project you worked on, in any portfolio, of which you are particularly proud? Why does this project remain so memorable?
MB: Hard question, because there are a few of them. Not only were they memorable, they also shaped me as a person. One of these was my project “Peking Dog” in Beijing. I am known for my portraits but have always shot stills, landscapes, and cityscapes as well; I just did not show them that much in order to position myself as a stronger portrait photographer. In “Peking Dog” I let go of that fear and all the elements of my photography came together.
I went to Beijing without a plan. But as soon as I arrived at the Hutong, in a centuries-old neighborhood of Beijing, the story came to me naturally, like I prepared it. I love the fact that although the book is quite abstract in its photography it tells a social story about this neighborhood typical to this time: The rapid rise of a new middle class in the city of Beijing and the social unrest this causes. It became a document we can look back at in several years from now.
EvH: Over the course of your career, the business of photography has entirely changed. Do you have any wisdom for the up and coming photographers among our readers? Is there something you’ve learned that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
MB: Yes it has totally changed and it will change even more in the coming years. I would advise early photographers to study the business side of the job as passionately as the creative side. Without a solid plan you won’t be able to compete anymore. That is a big difference from when I started as a photographer. We had more freedom to play around because the jobs we got were always well-paid. I know a lot of young photographers who work for free or almost nothing. They won’t last, despite great work. Because in the end they have to make a living.
EvH: Who are some artists or creatives in any medium who give you joy or inspiration right now?
MB: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a constant inspiration. I love what he makes and how he makes it. The “making of” DVD of his film Babel is an eyeopener. Another inspiration is the very old photography book Funeral Train by Paul Fusco. It always reminds me how simple a great idea can be. And to keep it simple while executing it.
I am often an examiner at the Photography Academie of Amsterdam. I also teach a class on how to present yourself to your clients. It is an intense 3 month process where I get to know the photographers very intimately. It is very inspiring to see the work and ideas of young photographers. It helps me to stay in touch with them.