Taylor Wessing 2016 at the NPG

Thea+Maxwell from the series Surfland © Joni Sternbach                                          American artist Joni Sternbach was born in the Bronx and is a native New Yorker. She is a Visiting Artist at Cooper Union School of Art and faculty member at the International Centre of Photography and The Penumbra Foundation in New York, where she teaches wet plate collodion. Sternbach uses early photographic processes to create contemporary landscapes and environmental portraits and her work centres on man’s relationship to water. Her long-term projects involve the pursuit and understanding of the Western landscape and the series Surfland, which features tintype portraits of surfers. 16.02.20 #1 Thea+Maxwell (Thea Adler and Maxwell Schultz) was taken in February 2016 at Davenport Landing, Santa Cruz, California, USA. Sternbach says: “This is the first image I made in February when I was invited to give a talk and book signing in Santa Cruz. My hosts and I planned a shooting day prior to the event and they arranged for several local surfers to have their portraits taken. Maxwell was the first to arrive and he brought along his lovely girlfriend. For me, this photograph addresses many aspects of what it means to make a portrait. Faced by someone entirely unknown, I hoped to create a dynamic complexity within the picture that is both unique to that person and also understandable to others, as well as to share with the world just one moment.”



The National Portrait Gallery’s annual photographic portrait competition, sponsored by Taylor Wessing, is on display again. The exhibition includes some 60 portraits selected from the many thousand submitted each year, including of course the overall winners.

I have reviewed this annual exhibition for a number of years now and it is always difficult to know what to say because there is little that links the portraits other than their selection by the judges. Some years there is little in the election which appeals to my personal tastes, other years there are. this year was a ‘good’ year in my estimation because there were quite a number compelling images.

One of the most compelling was the picture featured above of surfers in Santa Cruz, California. Through the use of antique processes photographer Joni Sternback manages to create something which is not backward looking but somehow timeless. It is a very compelling image.

The second most compelling image, to my mind, was Josh Stedman’s nude portrait of 83 year old Frances. Lit with strong chiaroscuro lighting the photograph was an utterly captivating image which perfectly captured her humanity and her agelessness. It was a very beautiful portrait which unfortunately I have not been able to source to  illustrate here.

Josh, With Axe, Matt Hamon, from the series The Gleaners. The series addresses a group of ‘primitive skills practitioners’ who scavenge animal parts left behind by the annual buffalo cull in Yellowstone National Park.

Another compelling image from the show was Josh, With Axe featured above. This in fact was one of two images from the same series selected for exhibition, representing what seems like a rather different approach from the judges than in previous years. Across the exhibition there are ten different series selected with multiple images chosen from each photographer. And for the first time the judges award one of the prizes to a series rather than an individual image. I have mixed feelings about this seeming change of direction. On the one hand some of the images make most sense in series and so there is logic in seeing them that way. On the other hand if the exhibition is moving away from a focus on a single compelling image which can stand alone to a series of related images, that needs to be clearly signalled at the time when submissions are requested. I don’t believe it was.

All in all Taylor Wessing continues to show something of the diversity of portrait photography today, and make that diversity available to a wide audience both in London and as it tours round the UK. That is surely something to be celebrated. And if the selections chosen to represent that diversity do not always represent your personal tastes that is probably inevitable. But if you wait another year, something that moves you will definitely come around.