Saturday, 24 December 2011

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize

Verdict: Go see it
Where: National Portrait Gallery, Westminster
When: 10 November 2011 – 12 February 2012

What is it?  60 selected entrants for the portrait prize, including the 5 prize winners.   This doesn’t mean all the photographs are simple portraits of just one person, but it does mean the people in the photos are the focal point.

My opinion:  If I have to pick between landscapes and portraits, landscapes always win hands down for me, so I entered this exhibition with slightly lowered expectations but I was surprised to find there are quite a few portraits that I loved. 

Photographic portraits can be split into three types:

1) Story known:  This is where the photographer picks someone famous / who has been in the news, so you don’t need to read the blurb to understand the significance of the portrait; you already know.  A perfect example in this exhibit was the moody photo of Julian Assange.  This is my least preferred style of portraits as it’s dependent on my emotions towards the subject rather than the portrait evoking an emotional response itself.  Even if the photo itself has artistic merit, this tends to get marginalised by the background story.  Having said that, the portrait of a Pakistani boy knee deep in still floodwater, reflecting everything around him, is brilliant.

2) Story accentuation:  These photos do stand out, but the story that goes with them adds poignancy.  A photo of ‘Gianni’, a hermit on a mountain path surrounded by his dogs all looking out across the forest below expectantly is a prime example.  The knowledge that since his wife died he spends all his time alone with his dogs brings an extra touch of sadness to his searching gaze.  The photo by itself would have been impressive but the back story gives it extra emotional weight.

3) Standalone: These are my favourites, portraits that stand out by themselves, are of unknown people and don’t need an explanation to be truly admired.  The portrait of ‘Claudia’ a face among a crowd on a busy street has been captured so that it seems she is the only person not moving on that particular stretch of pavement, yet it creates a sense of spontaneity that suggests it hasn’t been posed for.  Another great example being a portrait of a man who was badly burned at 14 and is now 60 years old, but has had over 120 operations to repair his face.  Your mind tells you that everything isn’t quite right in the photo but you can’t quite place him as a burns victim as the repair was carried out at a young age and the ‘new skin’ has aged with the subject.

This exhibition has plenty of all three types of portraits so should have something for everyone.  There’s something surreally appealing about a young boy in a mac under a shower with the photo capturing the splashing droplets in glorious detail.

The only disappointment was the winners.  I am not a big fan of the fifth to second prize winners as I think there are many more noteworthy photos in the exhibition that are superior to the prize winners.  However the intensity of the winner (‘Harriet and Gentleman Jack’ pictured above) is brilliant.  The complementary nature of Harriet’s hair and the guinea pig’s coat provide a sense of intimacy in the photo, yet the sterility of the white coat create the opposite effect with a sinister undertone of experimentation.

Overall, any fans of photographic art and/or portraits should definitely check this exhibit out, and it’s easily worth the £2 entrance fee.   

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