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Posted on 16th November, 2011

Review of Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition,

at National Portrait Gallery (Nov 2011).


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The 60 images that make up the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition are on display at the National Portrait Gallery until 12 February 2012. Owing to the fame of the competition, it attracts a global entry, seeking a highly-regarded exhibition placing. This year in fact, there were 6033 photographs submitted by approximately 2500 contestants, although those figures are only slightly better than 2010. However, previous entrants are showing some loyalty I think, as it's surprising just how many winners have also featured in the awards of earlier years. Also surprising to me is just how many of those winners have had work published, which suggests that the competition may be attracting entrants of certain background, rather than a good cross-section of photographers.


In my opinion, there are a number of brilliantly-stunning images on display, such as my favourite "The Embrace" (so atmospheric), "Old Truman Brewery / Claudia" (beautiful lighting), and "Malega, Surma Boy, Ethiopia" (superb technical quality). Equally, there are the also-rans, and they're there in strength in my opinion. "Flower Garden" (the rear of a subject) comes instantly to mind, follwed not far behind by "Glamis Castle, Angus, UK" and "Christina Killa, Chief Prison Officer". These last two are typical of what I see as a depressing trend in portraiture, and well-represented at this exhibition I'm afraid: they're of individuals taken face-on to the camera, showing no emotion / expression, and doing virtually nothing more than simply being there. They're lifeless, soul-less and uninspiring, and only slightly more interesting than a photograph of Milton Keynes for instance.


As I say, images of this style feature heavily at the NPG, with the 15 on show giving a 1 in 400 chance of selection. Popular at not just the NPG though: travelling there by tube, you'll frequently be stared-at by an album-cover-image of emotionless Jasmine Van den Bogaerde, or Birdy as she's better-known.


Whilst talking of potential selection, it's worth mentioning that a famous subject comes in useful too. There's four that I recognise (Julian Assange, Peter Crouch, Keira Knightley and Dolly Parton), so that in itself gives a 1 in 1500 success rate. Just pose them with a blank expression, squarely-facing the camera, and your odds are down to 1 in 100 aren't they? In a similar manner I'd say, full-frontal nude studies earn extra brownie points.


One other 'theme' comes across to me. Not purely within the 2011 exhibition however, but between this year's winner "Harriet and Gentleman Jack" by Jooney Woodward, and, last year's equivalent "Huntress with Buck", by David Chancellor. Others have commented that both feature a young girl with reddish hair, but for me, it's the aloof, almost arrogant look that links them. I must mention at this point that I've warmed to the 2011 winner, but the 2010 example leaves me feeling as cold as must be the body of the unfortunate buck.


I mentioned earlier that many featured entries are by photographers who have been published elsewhere, and most famous of these I suspect is Jodi Bieber. Her shot is of Bibi Aisha, a young Afghan woman who was disfigured, apparently by the Taliban, after escaping her abusive husband. The photograph is similar to the classic 'Afghan Girl' image by Steve McCurry, but whereas McCurry's shot featured in National Geographic magazine, Bieber's was the cover of the July 2010 edition of Time Magazine. Furthermore, although McCurry's shot hides Sharbat Gula's pain behind a young, fresh face, Bieber's image pulls no punches in terms of the suffering experienced by Bibi Aisha.


The image of Bibi Aisha is disconcerting then. And on a lesser scale, so is this exhibition. I wish I could feel comfortable with the decisions of the judges: that they honestly believe that these images represent the best of contemporary portraiture. Or, that most shots have a message to tell that deserves to be heard. But, even though there's a fair number of decent shots amongst them, I can't. So, even allowing for the fact that every competition is a lottery, subject to personal taste, prejudice, and vested interest, I think that something puzzling is going on.


Now I know that the Taylor Wessing award has attracted some ridicule in the past, although much of it was under previous sponsors. So the judges have had the chance, if they wanted it, to revise their approach in order to earn greater respect. Yet they've not done so. To be fair, and knowing the reaction their selection will incite I think, they've tried to explain a little of their judging philosophy on the display panel that confronts you when you first enter the exhibition. But, they've carried on regardless, and not surprisingly I suspect, they've met disbelief, and a little contempt. So, can we assume that the judges have a clear enough conscience to sleep at night, or should we look for a hidden agenda?


Well, there's an agenda that's true, but not hidden by any means. No, the judges are simply doing what all judges do, which is to make it clear that they are the ones in charge. They're the only ones who have a say, and, they're exercising that right with a vengeance, choosing very much on an individual rather than a communal basis in my opinion.


There is however another objective I think, one that's conveniently achieved by a controversial selection. That's simply to generate publicity. It's a common ploy in the art world of course, as we've seen from Tate Gallery selections of the pile of bricks, and Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' for instance. In that respect then, and against my better judgement, I'm doing my bit.


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