Let me start with a confession. I went to this year’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition at the National Portrait Prize with a degree of cynicism. In part that was because I was one of the 2,435 photographers who had submitted 5,410 pictures and one of my images had not been one of the 60 selected for exhibition. And in part it was because of a very ‘damning with faint praise’ commentary on the exhibition in the British Journal of Photography which I had seen in advance and which commented that the prize “should provide an important focal point to discuss and observe new trends. Instead, it tends to replicate itself year-on-year so that what we have now is a kind of self-parody”.
Set against that, this competition and exhibition is the only one of its style and scale that I am aware of, and it would be tragic if it were to stop. And it seems immensely popular. Certainly the gallery space was full of engaged people actively discussing the work which I was there yesterday, and that must be what any exhibition seeks to achieve. So well done to the NPG for sticking with it.
Let me deal with the “self-parody” point first. There is no doubt that there is a certain sort of intense, direct portrait, tinged with melancholy, that seems to be extensively represented at the exhibition year after year. There is never a surfeit of smiles at this exhibition. I have shown below some of the examples from this year’s exhibition, including the winning portrait of Katie Walsh by Spencer Murphy.
Now these are all good photographs, particularly the winning photograph which very nicely brings out both the toughness and vulnerability of the country’s leading female jockey. But the photographs are also very much of a type, both in their choice of subject matter and their style and approach. And while it a style which is legitimately recognised in the exhibition, my own view is that it dominates the exhibition. Maybe that is because it is a reflection of the photographs which are submitted; I don’t know but I think it is a shame.
My second criticism is that there are photographs by very well-known photographs who I really admire, but I’m not convinced that the selected photographs are their best work. For example, Julia Fullerton-Batten has a photograph in the exhibition, taken from a series on independent women in Tokyo. I am a great admirer of her work which I featured in a post on Inspiring Photographers only a few weeks ago.
It is a good photograph from a very interesting series. But by coincidence I picked up in the NPG shop a copy of Aesthetica magazine which featured photographs from another of her series, A Testament to Love. I have no idea of whether any of these photographs were submitted but in my view they are much more arresting and intriguing images than her selected entry. They are of course constructed narrative images and that may be why she does not submit or the judges do not select them, but they seem to me to be entirely within the terms of the prize which stipulate that the pictures should be of people. Here is one example:
Another selected entry came from Ilona Szwarc. She is another photographer I greatly admire who has been developing a series, American Girls, featuring girls and their dolls for some time now. And I was delighted to see that the work was recognised in the exhibition. But I’m not at all sure that the featured work, shown below, is the strongest image in the series. You can judge for yourself by looking at her website: http://www.ilonaszwarc.com/american-girls.
So what in the exhibition did I like? Well there were three images which I liked in different ways. The first is Holy Mother by Erik Almas which features at the top of this post and on the exhibition catalogue. Now you could legitimately say that this falls right into the standard Taylor Wessing success model. But what makes it different is that this is not a person being themselves but a model playing a role from a series exploring a modern take on religious imagery. So I suppose I like the concept and the underlying narrative as much as the image.
The second image which made you really stop and look was by Oliver Mark. Entitled Cameron Carpenter and his Personal Trainer it is a picture which is full go untold narrative and really makes you step back and think: what is going on here? It seems to me that the pictures ability to let the viewer develop their own narrative around the picture means that it improves with repeated viewing and has a depth missing from other work in the show.
And finally, continuing the theme of narrative pictures I liked Ian Atkinson’s picture Memories of Childhood 5. Again, this is a constructed narrative picture which makes you go back for repeated viewing as you form your own view of what is going on and what the message of the picture might be.
In summary, I am very glad there is an annual photographic portrait prize at the NPG; long may it continue. And I would be immensely proud if I had taken were ever exhibited, so every person with a photograph in the must rightly be delighted. But it would be good if there could be a greater variety in the selected work, and a reduction in the number of standard ‘Taylor Wessing pictures’. I know that the judges can only select from what is entered, and people will only enter what they think might be selected but let’s hope there can be some progress to break away from what the BJP referred to as ‘self-parody’. I’m looking forward to seeing next year’s show already, and judging from how busy the gallery was when I went, so are many other people. Onwards and upwards.