Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize

On Friday 20th January I went to the National Portrait Gallery in London to visit the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize exhibitions. It costs £2 for a ticket which grants a 45 minute viewing slot. The photographs are all framed with a short text beside them giving a tried description of the context, which gives enough to understand the image and also enough to want to research further. I felt that some of the images were exceptionally blown up to beyond their capacity: from afar this wasn’t an issue, but some photographs I wanted to look close at the detailing and I was disappointed to be looking at a haze of pixels.

However, I decided to buy the ‘Catalogue’ for £15 so that I could look at the images again; the winning five photographs have more of a description here too which is informative. With sixty images, it is difficult to remember them. I read that there was a lack of excitement and anticipation with the collection, and I felt that I was walking past some images because they didn’t really catch my eye. I understand that they are winners in their own right but I wasn’t convinced that they were all deserving of a place in the National Portrait Gallery.

Doing some research before hand I read a lot of criticism over the overall winner:

Woodward describes her portrait as “unsettling”. Well, it’s a nice pic: the girl’s hair and the guinea pig’s fur complement each other nicely. And there’s a scratch on Harriet’s hand that suggests Jack may be no gentleman. But “unsettling” it isn’t. The bigger question is: was this really the best of the bunch – a total of 6,000 entries by over 2,500 photographers?

Sean O’Hagen

I had already seen a picture of what was the overall winner and initially had to agree that I didn’t think it was anything remotely ‘unsettling’ or particularly moving. The Director’s Foreword states:

The question of what makes a great photographic portrait is generally considered to be a subjective matter. A location, individual (or group) and pose that affects one person deeply may hold little interest of charm for another.

This being said, and also only seeing criticism, I decided to look at the judges. The judges were discussing how the two day judging period was ’emotional’ and ‘stressful.’ With over 6,000 images submitted, discussing 3,000 images a day (if we’re going by averages) it would seem that although the judges are professionals they perhaps were not as considered as they could have been. Dismissing thousands to chose the final cut of 60 for exhibition makes it appear a little fickle. I might be being a little judgemental and sceptic; however, a portrait should tell a story, like a conversation between the photographer, subject and viewer. However, with some of the images in the collection I was particularly disappointed: especially that of the winner.

Harriet and Gentleman Jack, Jooney Woodward, July 2011

I suppose the question I am putting foreword is ‘is two days long enough for a group of professionals to decide what makes a fantastic portrait?’ and ‘do these images have more than a short term impact?’

I spent about 45 minutes looking through the collection. From memory I can remember the woman who’s nose was mutated by the taliban, the ‘Happy at Hundred’ old lady, the boy in the shower, the girl in bed with -17 degree weather outside, the Japanese family portrait in the cemetery.

Similarly I noticed how there was only one photograph selected that was in black and white, by Mark Blower. I was thinking that although we are now very much in colour imaging, is black and white really going out of fashion in portraiture?

Although I appreciate that all of these photographs are selected to be apart of the winners, at the same time, they have been curated out of context. Photographs don’t go together nor are ones that are of a similar genre in the same area. I suppose this is because you are supposed to look at each individual photograph on its own and appreciate it. Yet, I find this difficult without viewing a larger body of work. Each photograph in the gallery was framed with a white mount in a black frame. Some were side by side and some were placed one above another. Yet, they all had enough space for themselves.

I do criticise how when you walk into the second ‘room’ with the seats in the middle that straight ahead is Keira Knightly pouting in the centre of the wall. Whether it is because she is a famous figurehead that I even noticed or not, I didn’t think that the image was exactly deserving of this ‘first glance’.

Erika E, Born in 1910, Karsten Thormaehlen, March 2010

I looked at Thormaehlen’s website after I was pretty taken back by such a stunning portrait of Erika. The description said it was part of a series that I would like to look into further as it is linked to what I am looking into at the moment.

I felt that there were a couple of very generic images:

Old Truman Brewery/ Claudia, Darren Hall, June 2011

I understand that Hall is a highly regarded street photographer and uses light well to illuminate his subjects. However, the description for this image was discussing how some people stick out of a crowd for their individuality. I thought that the angelic glow of this photograph of the attractive young lady in amongst a hustling crowd was sort of typical, especially with a fashionable breeze giving a little more light on her hair casting this sunlit effect. I can’t deny that it is a well executed image, but I just thought it was cringey and that perhaps the judges could have found something that was a little different and not over done.

Overall, out of the 60, I think ten really captured my interest, which is I suppose to be expected because we can’t be interested in every piece.

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