Ask an Art Buyer: Trashed Portfolios

by Heather on February 9, 2010

Christian Girabaldi just sent me a lovely picture of his brand new business cards. Have a look:

© Christian Garibaldi

© Christian Garibaldi

Given the care with which Christian has designed, printed and then lit his beautiful cards, his question is understandable and apropos.

Hopefully it doesn’t seem too silly. I was curious, in your experience since you as well as many other art buyers look a tons of books, how do you typically treat the book? I mean in terms of your own way, or ways that you have seen others physically handle the book. Do they get tossed around and trashed, have coffee spilled on them, dog eared pages, dropped, have stuff stacked on them while open etc.? or do they get looked at with a degree of care and respect for the book itself? Not saying that you would purposely drop kick it across the room, or use it as a coaster or dart board, but I wanted to know that despite the fact that in your position you must look at many many books, do you take care in handling it and respect the fact that it is someone elses property that they may have put a lot of effort into and time and expect to get it returned in the same condition that they presented it? Or is it to be expected that a lot of people will be handling it and are blowing through it really quickly, so taking time to turn the pages easily without creasing, or maybe you have a really greasy burger in the other hand hovering over it while you peruse the contents while you eat lunch and get fingerprints all over the page? If so how is it usually handled when something does happen to the book? If for instance a photographer drops off a nice book in a nice box, and then comes to pick it up and there is cream cheese dried between the page and maybe another page is torn and the cover is scratched up? I mean I would understand that accidents happen, but is there often blatant “Hey we’ve got a lot of these to look at, so chop chop” kind of mentality and if it takes some bruises, oh well that comes with the territory? Also that being worst case scenario aside from losing or misplacing the book, is it inappropriate to ask to speak to someone about how you feel they mishandled your property and can rectify it?

Once again, it gives me great pleasure to hand over the blog and the burden of answering this messy question to Anne-Maureen McKeating, Art Buyer at Taxi:

Christian, I wish I could agree that your question is silly but in this imperfect world, it is not. I continue to hear stories from photographers’ regarding the ill treatment of their books and these stories continue to baffle and horrify. It seems that not everyone was taught to “turn the pages nicely” “wash your hands after x,y,z “or “don’t pontificate with your mouth full” lest your lunch remnants calcify on someone else’s person and/or property.

I hope that the majority of us in the community handle your materials respectfully. We understand that it takes a ton of time, effort, emotion and money to put together a book appropriate for presentation. I suspect less damage is done when an artist’s book goes through an Art Buyer or Photo Editor mainly because the book is with them for a specific time frame and purpose – whether it be for review or a job. When a book is released into the “general population” it’s my feeling that the AB/PE is responsible for tracking it’s whereabouts and condition.

You have to expect some wear and tear on your book given that it is passing through so many hands. With that in mind, choose your materials wisely and expect that some of your printed pages will have to be replaced over time. I’m certain that the widely reviled plastic sleeves came into being because of the very issues you’ve questioned. I would also suggest that you don’t allow your book to languish for too much time at an agency. Set a reasonable pick up date. I currently have a photographer’s book in my office that that has not picked up for over a year despite repeated phone calls. It has survived three office moves unscathed – but can I guarantee the fourth? I no longer see the photographer’s name, I only see a shape. Your book can become a part of the furniture and therefore open to damage if you don’t follow up.

Accidents can also happen when a book is dropped at an agency for general review – it can get lost in a pile and therefore become another surface on an already busy desk. I don’t think the harm is deliberate – I would hope that no one is consciously making a direct connection between your book and their coffee cup. I suspect damage happens when an agency is really busy, stressed and not seeing beyond a deadline. Stress however is not an excuse for the casual disregard of another’s property.

If you receive a damaged book back from an agency you are absolutely within your rights to sanely address the matter. While I haven’t been in the position where I’ve had to seek compensation for a damaged book I am curious to hear from others who have had the experience. Christian, I hope you are spared!

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Ana Schechter February 10, 2010 at 2:03 am

This is a terrific topic!! Makes me feel a bit better too. My LEAST favorite type of abuse is when they send it back using one of those crappy labels so that if you try to peel it off–it half-rips and stays there FOREVER despite multiple sponge/soap applications! ACK!

Anna February 10, 2010 at 8:33 am

Considering the above, why do art buyers expect photographers to have portfolio sleeves that are uncovered? AB’s cannot control for the possibility of damage by a clumsy AD, so why should we be expected to keep rebuilding our books every time their uncovered pages are ruined?

Photographers go to a lot of expense to present their work, please take care of it and please don’t be offended if you see plastic sleeves.

We have our reasons


Ryan February 10, 2010 at 12:41 pm

I agree with Anna. If so many people are handling our books and can’t be trusted to take care of them, why should we be expected to have un-sleeved pages?

Heather February 10, 2010 at 1:02 pm

#1: I’m not sure we “can’t be trusted”. As Anne-Maureen said, we do take as much care as we can and I think for the most part the portfolios come back unscathed- there is some normal wear and tear after time- to be expected.

#2: No one “expects” you to have unsleeved pages. Nor are we “offended” by them. I’ve seen some portfolios with plastic sleeves that are pristine and, except for the glare, the shots look great but I have also seen many books with sleeves that are very scratched up and damaged- that plus the glare doesn’t “offend” me but I think it’s not the best way to show your work.

#3 The advice on this blog is intended to give you an insiders take on how your work is received and viewed. If you don’t value these opinions, don’t read it. It’s all designed to help you and I’m not mandating you into presenting your work in a specific way (I don’t get any kickback from Moab papers). I haven’t done the cost benefit analysis on plastic sleeves vs. changeable paper sleeves (have you?) but I do know how much better an image looks on nice matte paper vs. through the glare of plastic sleeves- do what you want with that info. Yes, good imagery can rise above the glare, and if you’re the next Nadav Kander, I don’t think it matters how you show your work, but if you’re not and you want to put your best foot forward, some of this advice might be useful. Please take it in the spirit in which it was given.

Dana February 10, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Your book will be beat to hell. Not on purpose. But it’s a tool and tools get dropped and damaged. When it happens, repair the tool and put it back in service. My books get updated twice a year at which time they are cleaned, repaired and any pages that need to be replaced are replaced. If your book looks brand new after being in service for a few months, it probably means nobody is looking at it. And no matter how gingerly the AB and AD treats your book, you can be sure that the FedEx warehouse will throw your book from truck to truck on loading day. For that reason alone we switched from the soft Tenba type cases to hard cases.

Matthew Dutile February 10, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Great discussion on a less than savory topic. I think unfortunately we live in a world where accidents and misuse just sometimes happen and have to hope the AB/PE is respectful of the work. I think most are. Wear and tear happens.

eric f. February 10, 2010 at 2:05 pm

@Ana, regarding those horrible return labels, use Goo Gone. the 12 oz spray gel will last for years.

Ben February 10, 2010 at 7:15 pm

To remove goo from most labels i now use swix citrus solvent (used to remove wax off skis and snowboards) and it smells great to boot.

dshapton February 10, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Greetings all. I don’t usually weigh in to the comments but I was just speaking with Ann Maureen about this very topic and couldn’t resist.

A bit of background. I have 14 or 16 portfolios with my Canadian reps, and a similar number for the US, split amongst people, travel / location, corporate and food books. There is no image crossover between books, they are all distinct bodies of work. When a book goes out we try to tailor it to the customer it will be visiting, generally including 2 of the 4 types of work, for example copies of the people and location portfolios for a potential ad job, or the travel and corporate books for an annual report. We are also able to send out individual books if a client has a very focused need.

The portfolios take quite a beating. I am into my 3rd set in about 7 years. They come back in all kinds of condition, everything from greasy fingerprints and coffee rings and spills, to scratches and dents, to food scraps and crumbs crushed inside them, to pages that have been removed “for comping” and then replaced messily, to pages that are gone completely, cut or torn out for God knows what reason. It’s often the same pictures that go missing, a portrait of Scarlett Johannsen is particularly popular — I lose about one a year.

We’ve given up trying to chase after people to figure out who was responsible; particularly in a large agency, it’s next to impossible to determine. It’s just the cost of doing business. We diligently clean, repair or replace the portfolios and prints as needed, and the overall design of the books themselves has evolved to make them as hard to mess with as possible. I use very durable, library grade bookcloth, in a variety of colors (the various types of work are color coded to make it easier for the reps to organize), which quite apart from being rugged, is also reasonably priced, and distinctive. I have a very simple binder design; no nested u-channels, rounded corners where possible (sharp crisp corners quickly get dog-eared and bent), and no spiral bindings, just three screw posts spaced so we can use a standard three hole punch for the pages. I use the most economical paper I can; there are a lot of prints in all those books, and if I was using something that cost me two or three or four bucks a sheet they would cost MUCH more than they already do. And yes, I still use plastic sleeves; extremely clear, extremely hardy polyester sleeves from Brewer-Cantelmo in New York. They were rather expensive but are supposedly archival and “museum quality”, whatever that means; all I know is that they stand up to pretty much anything short of being keyed (fingernails? no problem). In fact, much of the original batch from years ago are still in use, having outlasted the original portfolios themselves.

Their main drawback is that they are quite reflective, but I’ve been able to balance that a bit by using matte paper, the overall effect is more or less that of glossy prints. I would love to have beautiful, naked prints and nothing else but they just wouldn’t stand up to the wear and tear. In fact I know several photographers who put together gorgeous prints-without-sleeves type books only to switch back after a few months when the prints started getting dirty and creased and torn. Have you ever seen the paint around a lightswitch, where dozens of fingers have touched the wall? Or the greasy head shaped stain under the posters next to the doors in a subway car? That’s what starts to happen to the paper. Sad but true.

The books themselves go into padded bags with label pouches integrated into the top covers. The covers themselves snap shut quickly and easily with simple, bulletproof magnetic fasteners (no moving parts); the bags can be machine-washed if necessary. The whole package, complete with 2 books and a handful of promos, is sized to fit perfectly into a large FedEx box, and was designed from the outset to do so. I guess the point I’m trying to make with all this is that I agree with Dana; your portfolio is a tool, and should be looked at as much in that regard as any other. Having a jewel-like work of art as your portfolio calling card is fine and good, but if you spent so much on it that you can only afford one, and having it lost or damaged would set your career and finances back a year, then you’re taking the wrong approach. I think it’s as important to be practical when it comes to designing your book; nobody else will ever take as good care of it as you do, it’s just a fact of life. And last but not least, it’s true, goo gone is a godsend. Still haven’t found anything that will clean off Sharpie ink, though.

aaron mckenzie fraser February 11, 2010 at 1:33 am

That’s the most comprehensive and “real life” description/handling of portfolio books that I’ve seen.
Excellent info.

Selina Maitreya February 12, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Wonderful topic great info.When Port Authority started one of our services was to send portfolios for our clients to a minimum of 40 specifically chosen agencies, design firms, editorial pubs, etc per year per client.We had an average of 20-30 clients per year, the service ran for 5 years. Clearly I have had a super opportunity to see how books are handled.
Clients overall do take care with books, and the more care you take building your book from inside out, the more care they will bring to the experience..I dont use the word EXPERIENCE lightly. Each client you are looking to sell to be they an art buyer, graphic designer,corporate product manager sells the EXPERIENCE of the product /service to a customer. You understanding this and developing a print portfolio that brings the EXPERIENCE of your work to them and shows them how you can contribute to creating an experience for their buyers is huge. So as we discuss the protection aspect ,I urge you not to make decisions out of fear that your book will be damaged. Assume that along the way it will, if for no other reason than it s in heavy use mode,(thats how you get business!) and be prepared to let go of the who did what to your stuff and just accept that you will be vigilant about replacing images, and books over time and chalk it up to the cost of doing business.
Make your decisions on housing, parer sleeves (no sleeves please:) based on what works best in regards to creating the best experience for your buyers. Thats what your buyers are doing for their clients!

Kat Dalager March 15, 2010 at 11:07 pm

A great thread.

Alas, despite best efforts, I am not proud to say that I have had books receive minor damage over the years while under my care. Thankfully, nothing major in 25 years, but damage does happen on rare occasion. I can tell you that although careless, it’s not due to maliciousness.

Books can be handled by many people, often while multitasking in an effort to get through the day. Sometimes that means they cram down a sandwich while looking at the book, or sometimes it means that a page creases while trying to close the book. Sometimes the books are poorly crafted.

And as several contributors noted above, the point of showing the book is to get jobs, right? Therefore you will want it to be seen, even if it means the risk of damage. Better to be seen and worn, then not to be seen at all. It also means not considering the portfolio precious. Valuable, yes, precious, no.

Which brings me back to the plastic sleeve issue. To me, plastic sleeves in a portfolio is like covering your furniture and carpets with plastic when showing your home for sale. Sure, it protects things, but it greatly detracts from the house. On the other hand, taking good-sense measures such as putting a scatter rug by the door is widely accepted. This would compare to not covering your portfolio in white silk fabric or printing on a paper that shows fingerprints.

And be patient. There may come a day when physical portfolios disappear as they become entirely digital – another topic of discussion!

Debra Frieden March 24, 2010 at 10:04 am

I’ve sent out two books. Each cost me $150.00 ea. Beautiful, over sized, hardcover books. I spent a year designing it, content, paper quality, images, order etc. One made it through two sets of hands in NYC. The other is there also. BUT here is the problem, I could never get them back. They all loved them so much it was hard to pry their fingers off, and now they sit on shelves or a coffee table. It’s hard to argue with “Can I keep it?” when you want the forthcoming representation, or work. Keep it yes, but for how long? So I did inquire…..and no progress.

What happened is I wound up gifting out a glorified coffee table book, with no further work from my investment.

What happens when people want to keep your book FOREVER? One does not want in insult some of the BEST photographer reps in the field, or Editors, etc. by demanding them back. And yes, I tried the gentle request on several occassions also.

This is my quandary. I put a lot of work into them, but I can’t afford to offer beautiful portfolios (reduced to the status of a customized coffee table book) to the masses at $150.00 each. – that isn’t their intention – the intention was to wow them for photo jobs.

I am highly complimented, but my budget isn’t big enough for a continuation of this. Should I create a book with sleeves? It’s a palatable expense considering my experience.

christian garibaldi April 12, 2010 at 4:45 pm

I would think that while flattering to have someone request to keep yoru book because they like it, I would say no. I dont think that it would be offensive to the AB or rep, or client if you explained to them politely that you would like it back and it is not theirs to keep. I have not had that happen, but I suppose if it had, I may say that if you really like it that much, then I can make one for you and you can pay me for it. Our books are just too costly to give out like that for free to keep. If you are concerned that a client would hold that over your head in terms of you saying no and them in turn saying that they would not hire you, would you really want to work with someone like that anyway?

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