For a record 16 times, London-based photographer David Stewart has had his work selected for the annual Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition held at the National Portrait Gallery. But last night (10 November), David was announced as the 2015 winner of the prestigious £12,000 prize for the first time. Second place was awarded to Anoush Abrar’s photo of a young boy inspired by Caravaggio’s Sleeping Cupid and third place was a picture of a woman on London’s Oxford Street taking by Pete Zelewski.
The winning portrait, Five Girls 2014 is a re-staging of an image he took several years ago titled Five Girls. “The [original photo] was accepted into the portrait prize in 2008, so it seemed worth a go,” David explains. “It was taken as a one-off after a suggestion from Alice, my daughter who’s in the blue jumper. All the girls were round our house and it was a nice opportunity to shoot a mirror image to the one I did six years ago.”
The photograph of the five young women sees them sat nonchalantly round a table, vacantly staring and surrounded by empty salad pots, half-drunk coffee cups and smartphones. “The girls were easy to photograph because they were just being themselves,” he explains. The differences between the images are subtle and it’s in the details where comparisons can be made like hairstyles and the stark change in food choices from burgers to salads and sushi. The images is more than a duplication though, as it signifies a progression from childhood to adulthood. “It was the end of their university time, so marked a new chapter for all of them,” David says.
The initial idea behind the image was to convey antisocial networking. “They are disconnected to each other… but the image also touches on other teenage themes like fashion, girl bands and food. It’s composed as if I was just walking by the scene looking into their world,” David says. “They are photographed as they arrived at the shoot, in their own clothes and there is no outside influence on how they look. I even told them to buy their own food.”
David Stewart: Sisters in scarfs eating Pimlico chips
David Stewart: Stray stick woman
David started his career photographing tourists on Morecambe promenade, as well as bands like The Ramones and The Clash. Even now the focus of his work remains on people in some way but it’s young people and their actions that have remained intriguing to David. “Today’s young adults seem very different to when I was their age. They appear insecure, looking for something to follow, weighed down by technology, obsessed with what other people are doing,” says David.
“It is my past work that informs my new work and plots the path into unexplored subject matter.”David Stewart
In the classic sense, a portrait is an artistic representation of one person, but with five people in David’s image he feels the term is up for interpretation. “I think the definition can be stretched. Sometimes it is the surrounding story and context that really defines the portrait.” The subjects know each other and have a shared story, but with several relationships to dissect a deeper narrative is created. “I have always had a fascination with the way people interact – or in this case, fail to interact,” explains David. “Here the girls are physically very close and their style and clothing highlight membership of the same peer group, but there is an element of distance between them.”
This distance gives the image an eerie feeling but the oddness is something that David embraces. “It’s the people and culture I see around me everyday that influences my work. There is nothing stranger than what I see in real life, which is sometimes why my photographs appear slightly surreal.”
David shoots on a large format camera with 8×10 film and he feels this brings a “heightened sense of reality to the image. The details are clear and become more important.” It’s the way the Lancaster-born photographer has always worked: “It involves thinking more about what you are about to shoot and then trusting your instincts,” he explains.
“People often tell me that my images reveal more the close you look. Initially all looks normal but there are layers of detail that draw you in.” Despite being an update on a previous image, David feels his work is constantly evolving. “It is my past work that informs my new work and plots the path into unexplored subject matter. Essentially I am trying to entertain myself and hope there are others who are interested in it.”
David Stewart: Archie and Marnie
David Stewart: Des’ First Date
David’s winning portrait was chosen out of a whopping 4929 submissions, entered by 2201 photographers from 70 countries. Last night at the awards ceremony it was the support from all of his family, including his daughter Alice that mattered most to him. “My son was on FaceTime with [Alice] throughout the presentation as she’s working in the Hague. She was incredibly excited for me,” he says.
In the hopes of bringing his work to a wider audience, overall the photographer is modest about his win: “Each year I have entered as a way of seeing what portraits I have taken and which ones I thought were the best. I never really thought I would win and was just happy to be included.”
This year’s exhibition for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize will be on show 12 November until February next year at the National Poratrait Gallery.
About the Author
Rebecca became staff writer at It’s Nice That in March 2016 before leaving the company at the end of 2017. Before joining the company full time she worked with us on a freelance basis many times, as well as stints at Macmillan Publishers, D&AD, Dazed and frieze.