Portraiture is a sly medium, always suggesting it depicts a simple truth, particularly in photography, but it is as much about what it conceals or obscures as it is about the character it claims to reveal. The Taylor Wessing prize each year at the National Portrait Gallery emphasises this as it highlights how much a winning portrait is down to craft rather than subject or story. On each wall of this small exhibition hang the faces of actors, butchers, children, officials, friends or family without an order of precedence, Instead, it is the startling background colours, the framing of the subject’s face and the photograph’s composition which always catches my eye.
I have found that although I am interested to see who is judged a winner or highly commended I do not always agree. My particular favourite of the exhibition was Yngvild by Tereza Červeňová (shown above) which appears to make the dreams of the Pre-Raphaelites a reality and actually won the John Kobal New Work prize. I was amazed by how much a photograph could echo such a fantastical genre of painting and yet also be a likeness of someone the Červeňová has met at a wedding. It would be interesting to compare this photograph with others of the same person to tell whether the overwhelming Pre-Raphaelite feel is related to the angle and light or whether it could only have been created with that particular sitter.
The exhibition continues until the 21st of February and creates a delightful pause in a London afternoon. You’ll then be able to see the other winners and let me know what you think!
Every year the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize opens countless windows into lives across the globe at the National Portrait Gallery. The prize is open to all photographers and can be of anyone, famous or not, that the photographer believes should be noticed and recorded. This leads to the faces of politicians, grandmothers, teachers, children and soldiers all staring out into the same gallery space.
This profusion of human faces makes it almost impossible to compare one image against another. Some photographers simply present human life, with its joyous highs and miserable lows, through focused portraits of individual faces for the viewer to aesthetically appreciate whilst others use their subject as an explanation of a wider context. An Afghan girl holding a skateboard suggests a great deal more than an interesting hobby and the soldier standing in rubble is only a small image of a larger picture. This range of motivations behind the portraits inevitably leads to the question of what a portrait should aim to achieve. Is capturing the essence of your subject the most important goal or should there be more material information about their surroundings for the viewer to contextualise? Interestingly the judges chose photographs from both categories to award prizes to with the aesthetically pleasing Konrad Lars Hastings Titlow by David Titlow being given first place. In this image the composition of the light and the almost Old Master depiction of the subjects elevates the photograph above the status of a casual family snapshot.