Monday, 21 November 2011

ArtSlant Review: Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery

(Originally published on ArtSlant)

Digital photography has gifted us the monkeys and typewriters theory in action: with no printing costs we can snap away and fluke ourselves a beautifully constructed shot. But pinpointing exactly what makes a magical photo and reproducing this by design not chance is a different matter, especially when it comes to portraits.

When a photographic portrait works it’s incredibly powerful and nuanced; in a fraction of a second the photographer distills something of their complex subject. A truly affecting portrait must be intimate but simultaneously metaphorical, detailed but still mysterious, speaking of the personal as well as the universal.

So on what basis do the judges for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize whittle-down thousands of entries? Every year the selection throws up a host of contradictory views on whether the entries are brilliant or in fact a monkey with a camera could have done as well, which makes it an exhibition well worth seeing.

Don’t expect anything too radical; the jurors have played it traditional again. But what seems quite uniform on first inspection (probably down to the fact the gallery frames the photos) has on closer inspection an eye for pose, colour and composition as skillful their painted counterparts.

Jasper Clark’s ‘Wen’ is a beautifully subtle portrait of the artist in her studio, dressed in a man’s shirt and slacks with her luminous nude paintings in the background. Jonathan May’s ‘The Embrace’ pictures two heavily tattooed and pierced men in a tender hug, expressing both the niche and the everyday in one shot.

Expressing or withholding emotion is a powerful tool. Caludia Burlotti’s portrait of her 85 year-old grandmother kissing her husband radiates affection and is one of the few smiling portraits. Meanwhile Paolo Patrizi’s portrait of ‘Anna’, a Nigerian immigrant to Italy who works as a roadside prostitute, shows her lying on a mattress in the undergrowth with her face completely concealed. The denial of engagement is heartbreaking.

Portraits of celebrities, like Michael Birt’s Kiera Knightley, raise interesting questions of personal taste and celebrity endorsement – his image will be judged as much on whether the viewer likes Knightley as it is on his technical prowess.

But subjectivity is what makes this choice of images, the way they have been taken and the reaction that they generate buzz with debate. Of course being part of the exhibition or winning a prize bestows prestige on a photographer, but don’t be told what to like, go and decide for yourself.

-- Laura Bushell
All images courtesy The National Portrait Gallery

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