Sofie in the kitchen by Snezhana von Buedingen
From the series Meeting Sofie, 2019 © Snezhana von Buedingen
Britain’s most prestigious portrait photography awards, the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, is back again with another group of affecting portraits being displayed at the National Portrait Gallery opening today, 7 November. The winner, Pat Martin’s photographs of his mother titled Gail and Beaux and Mom (our last one), which serves as a reflection on the easily misunderstood nature of addiction, was announced on Tuesday evening, with the Los Angeles-based photographer receiving £15,000 as a prize in the unanimous decision. Second and third prize went to Enda Bowe for the portrait Neil from his Love’s Fire Song series about youth culture in Belfast, and Garrod Kirkwood’s The Hubbucks respectively.
It’s no surprise that the competitive award, narrowing 3,700 images from 1,611 photographers down to 57, features some of It’s Nice That favourites, alongside other heavyweights of contemporary photography. Winner Pat Martin, recent Nicer Tuesdays speaker Enda Bowe (the only photographer to have made the shortlist for two years in a row) Vikram Kushwah, Catherine Hyland and Sirli Raitma, who was also a winner of the Portrait of Britain awards back in August, are just some names on the list of exhibitors.
Although the prize has been running since 1993, before being sponsored by Taylor Wessing from 2008 onwards, the world arguably has a different relationship to photography today than when the prize started. New photographic technologies have emerged, social norms and standards have changed, and even the way that photographers earn a living have shifted with the decline of print media.
Due to how normalised selfies are and the sheer volume of photographs that are taken and shared daily, thanks to the widespread adoption of smartphones, it’s almost tempting to say that perhaps the art of the portrait photograph has been lost in a sea of content. However, it’s important to realise that despite this apparent explosion of portraiture, the sentiment is not new. After all, it was Susan Sontag who opens her 1977 essay collection with: “just about everything has been photographed.” But despite this sustained reputation of being an ever-present medium, photography has never meant the same thing for everyone implicated in it – from the photographers, the subjects and the exhibitors to the viewers. From theorist Ariella Azoulay’s view of photography as a form of social contract and Martin Parr’s self-described role as the subjective archivist of British life, it’s one of the main reasons that photography still intrigues us today.
What we wanted to know, therefore, was what portrait photography means today for the people who have curated this international prize. What is it about viewing portraits of ordinary people in the context of an exhibition that makes it so special? How do you even begin to narrow down the thousands of entries to a long list of 57 works, to a shortlist of three and only one winner? We had the opportunity to chat with the Magda Keaney, the curator of the exhibition and also the senior curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, about portrait photography today.
“I think one of the most exciting things about the prize is that it’s a kind of barometer of contemporary photographic practice and also that you do tend to see certain themes or issues being picked up on which have been significant in the past year,” Magda tells It’s Nice That. This year’s panel includes Magda herself, Dr. Nicholas Cullinan, the gallery’s director, photographer Elaine Constantine, Shane Gleghorn, a managing partner at Taylor Wessing, Sara Hemming, the co-founder of Nataal and Nicola Shipley, the director of Grain projects. “Because the prize is judged anonymously, it’s very different each year depending on who is on the panel and what they see or look for in a portrait. As a judge you have to make a call based on your immediate visual response,” Magda explains.
So how does this judging process actually work? The first phase is done digitally, narrowing down the thousands of submissions to a list of around 200, which are then judged as printed work in person. The anonymous process means that there is no prior research into the images – the judges are only provided with the portraits, a title and a reference number. Over the course of the day, the panel depends on its immediate emotional response.
“There aren’t any defined priorities or particular qualities articulated in advance for the judges to look out for,” Magda says. “I do think there is still a difference between how we all might engage and use photography in a day-to-day way, and how an artist working with photography might approach making a portrait,” she adds. Although the technical ability of the photographer is important, since it’s what ultimately determines the visual quality of the photograph, the specifics of the medium don’t matter as much as the effect of the portraits themselves. “There isn’t necessarily some kind of credibility in using a large-format camera on a tripod, or film above digital,” Magda adds.
“Naturally over the course of the day, you see the longlist become a shortlist, so you have a chance to reconsider works or think about why an image might appeal to you in context of the other entries, and to discuss the merits of particular images with your fellow judges,” Magda explains. “There is often a great and very enjoyable debate with the initial differences of opinion, but this year I can certainly say there was a lot of consensus – especially when it came to the prize winners.”
As we briefly covered as part of the prize’s announcement, Pat Martin’s winning series, was chosen for how “sensitive, tough and even humorous” the images are, noting his “assured use of light and a confidence in his compositional approach to the figure.” Enda Bowe’s Neil struck the judges for the simplicity and beauty of the portrait, “particularly in the photographer’s use of natural light as well as the pose and expression achieved with his sitter,” the judges announced. On Garrod Kirkwood’s The Hubbucks, Magda says: “we felt it elicited the narrative of the family holiday wonderfully, which most people can relate to in one way or another. Also, I think the composition is really interesting,” noting the contrast between the small car and the expansive blue sky.
As with any form of art, design, or music theory, it’s important to remember that this language that’s used to explain the judges’ choices – composition, colour, light, emotion, narrative – are not simply rubrics to fill and sum up. Rather, it is a way to have a common vocabulary to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of a portrait, a method to turn the intangible qualities into a structured way of describing its merits.
“The magic in any portrait photograph can be there for lots of reasons and it is hard to define or pin down,” Magda says. “That could be about the directness, accessibility and likeness we associate with photography, it could be around the notion of the beauty of the sitter, it could be an emotional or human connection we have with the person depicted,” she adds. This is why the prize doesn’t specify if the sitters should be well-known or not, contrasting the historical importance of the figures depicted in the portraits housed in the gallery’s primary collections.
For instance, take the two portraits from Barcelona-based Alex Llopis Cardona that was chosen from his Persona series. In each photograph, a befuddled person walks by the photographer, staring at a commotion off-frame. In the first is a woman wearing reflective sunglasses and an orange t-shirt, while a white-haired man with a blue shirt holds his forehead in exasperation. The sand-coloured background and the harsh direct light evokes a feeling of a hot day on a beach, and the placement of the subjects in the middle of the frame makes for a striking image. It’s not quite clear what the two people are staring at, but an underlying narrative starts to form in this street photography project. The expressions are complex, captured at the right time and it’s surely an intriguing pair that makes you start wondering about what’s going on.
Another series by Rory Doyle, titled Delta Hill Riders, captures the subculture of African American cowboys and cowgirls in the rural Mississippi Delta. In Rodeo Future, a young African American cowboy is dressed in a cowboy hat and placed right in the middle of the frame, his expression calm and determined. Newest Cowboy in Town shows a young baby lying in the cradle of an older cowboy, with the baby’s hand loosely grabbing onto his small straw hat. The light on the baby’s face is quite sublime, refracted from the translucent curtains just visible in the corner of the photograph.
Whether it’s bringing us striking images that we’ve never seen before, or presenting deep and multifaceted expressions of the images’ subjects, the photographs chosen for the exhibition all seem to tell a long, multifaceted story beyond what we’re shown. They almost always pique your curiosity – what is this project about? Who are these people? And even if questions like these don’t immediately pop up, it’s easy to form an immediate connection with the subjects and come face to face with expressions that we don’t normally see in our daily lives.
In a way, the underlying premise of portrait photography is finding out about a person’s truth – who they are, what they’re going through in their life, and what unbridled emotions they’re willing to show. “We all seem much more comfortable with having our photograph taken now than 150, or probably even 50 years ago,” Magda says. “The portrait photograph was a revolution in the 1840s, so its popularity or significance should not be considered new or contemporary.”
Because of this, instead of fading away to obscurity after nearly 200 years of exploration, portrait photographers might find new ways of taking portraits as subjects become more comfortable with the idea of portraiture. It’s still no mean feat to find this truth, but it also means that portraiture is not just this stable, traditional form of photography that’s separate from how we consume images today. The themes that emerge each year also change, with notions of “ageing, mortality, memory and challenging the narrow bandwidths around identity” being the emerging topics from this year’s submissions. “I think I expected to see more work connected to Brexit or even say Extinction Rebellion, but there is none in the show,” Magda says.
“Almost all of the artists I can think of whose work I find compelling and important has a conceptual idea which they are exploring visually in a sustained way and probably with an underlying practice that includes ways of using the medium that’s particular to them,” Magda explains. Even if the form of the portrait photograph hasn’t changed over the years, it’s still an incredibly powerful way to capture the constantly shifting social conditions, identities, personal lives and cultural practices of the subjects. The photographer’s conceptual approach that Magda champions also changes with the changing norms and techniques of photography. In the end, it seems like judges look for the same thing that we, as viewers, look for in these images: portraits that move us, captivate us and resonate with us. Sometimes, that’s just quite impossible to put into words.
The Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize 2019 exhibition will run from 7 November 2019 – 16 February 2020 at the National Portrait Gallery.
The exhibition will also feature previously unseen prints from a new body of work by New York-based photographer Ethan James Green for the In Focus display from Green’s monograph, Young New Work.