Prize Portraits

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the London National Portrait Gallery has often proved controversial, and this year is no exception. The show opens today, Thursday 13 November 2014 and is at the gallery until 22 February 2015, and entry is free. I’ve not seen the actual images, and don’t feel a great compulsion to rush to the gallery, but doubtless I’ll find myself with a free half hour in the Trafalgar Square area in the next couple of months and will pop in to have a look.

From some reproductions on-line, the winning entry, by David Tatlow, described as an “intimate portrait of his baby son being introduced to a dog” is certainly rather disappointing, the kind of picture that if I’d taken it I would have kicked myself for not having done it rather better. As the photographer comments “Everyone was a bit hazy from the previous day’s excess’ after a midsummer party”, and on-line at Taylor Wessing it does seem to me to be more a portrait of a photographer’s hangover than of his baby son. Reactions I’ve heard from other photographers have been largely unprintable. But then the reproduction of it on the Taylor Wessing page is a shocking travesty – and I hope they will quickly replace it. Seen in the Evening Standard – as I did last night reading it on the top deck of a bus in a London gridlock – it is actually a far better picture!

The contest this year attracted 4,193 pictures from 1,793 photographers. At £26 per picture, that brings in a considerable sum of money, my calculator makes it £109,018.  The prizes add up to £19,000, and either my maths is wrong or this seems a pretty poor bet to me. Far better take your £26 to a roulette wheel.

You can see more of the 60 selected images on-line at the NPG, along with some technical details, and also, thanks to Portrait Salon, a slightly larger selection from the 4,133 rejected images made by Christiane Monarchi (Photomonitor), Martin Usbourne (Hoxton Mini Press) and Emma Taylor (Creative Advice Network). Overall their choices seem a little more interesting from what I’s so far been able to see. And I am sure that there would be work from many of the other over 1,600 photographers who entered that was at least as worthy of showing as that in either of the shows. It really is a lottery.

Portrait Salon was at Four Corners Galley in Bethnal Green from 6th-11th Nov and has future showings at Fuse in Bradford (Dec 4-27), Oriel in Colwyn Bay (Jan 9 –  Feb 9), Napier University Edinburgh (19Feb – 16 Apr) and Parkside Gallery Birmingham (6-31 July) and also in Bristol.

It’s a competition I’ve never thought seriously of entering, in part because although I take very many pictures of people I’ve never considered myself a portrait photographer. More importantly I’ve never been a great believer in photographic competitions, and after a few in my early years (some of which I even won) have generally avoided them. I reject the idea of treating photographs like the Eurovision Song Contest or Miss World or prize pigs. Though of course there are some bad photographs, some incompetent photographs and a great many more that have little or no interest for me.

And it’s that last phrase that is important. Judging such competitions will always be a very personal matter and any different group of judges would have picked a different set of images. It’s a shame that two of the five judges for the Taylor Wessing prize were ‘in-house’ from the NPG and a third came from the sponsoring law firm; the prize would certainly have greater credibility from a more independent panel.

In some past years, the NPG prize has been criticised as a competition for who can produce the best Rineke Dijkstra rip-off. Some years so much so that it rather seemed misleading if not even fraudulent not to have added this as one of the contest rules. At least this year’s winner, whatever one thinks of it, has broken that mould.

It’s certainly always been a contest dictated by whatever was the current fashion, and run in an organisation that really seems to have little understanding of photography. They do have some great photographs in their collection, but every time I visit I find myself appalled by some of the other work I see on the walls, tired, vapid and often highly fashionable.

But I also feel the whole idea of the photographic portrait questionable, though I can think of some great examples – such as Stieglitz’s portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, though of course here I’m not referring to a single image. But relatively few photographic portraits seem to me to have much more significance that the small rectangles we have on our passports or ID cards, and it is only when they are subsumed into some greater project – such as August Sander‘s – that they gain depth and greater meaning.

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