Wednesday 9 November 2011

Review of Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011
National Portrait Gallery, London
10 November 2011 – 12 February 2012

It feels as if I am being watched. Myriad sets of eyes staring down at me: some searching, some questioning, some seductive. Individuals, couples, groups. Sixty portraits selected from over 6,000 submissions to this year’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, a rich celebration of contemporary international photography and all it can achieve.

Footballers, artists, celebrities. Children, teenagers, and a remarkable woman of 100 (Erika E., Born in 1910, from the series Happy at One Hundred, by Karsten Thormaehlen). Prostitution, war, death. The subject matter knows no bounds. The winner of this year’s £12,000 award is Jooney Woodward, 32, for her portrait of a 13-year-old girl protectively cradling her guinea pig, her ginger hair matching his ginger coat. The portrait was shot on film with a Mamiya RZ medium format camera. Woodward says: “I prefer the quality and depth you get from using film; unfortunately it’s a dying art. I don’t mess around with Photoshop so what you see is what you get. Enhanced images can portray a false sense of reality, whereas my work celebrates the people and places as they appear every day.”

This rings true for the majority of works on display – even those more instinctively of place than of individual remain true to their nature. No narrative is imposed, and figures are not so much placed as captured mid flow, as, for example, the teenagers sitting on and leaning against a wall in Edmonton, North London, clustered around the memorial flowers laid on the pavement in memory of their fatally wounded friend (Friends Mourn Negus McClean, by Antonio Olmos). The sombre atmosphere transcends the image and hangs heavy in the gallery space.

On a more cheerful note, there is a wide variety of portraits of couples, ranging from Claudia Burlotti’s elderly grandparents (Anna and Roberto at Home, Italy #6153) to two young women in Brighton, one dressed, the other naked (Colin Hampden-White’s Normio and Miss HK); from Monette and Mady, Rue de Partants, a set of identical twins in their 60s or 70s, who describe their relationship as inseparable, and stand together, joined in hand, with matching cream outfits and perfectly coiffed red hair, to Geoff and his equally heavily tattooed partner Joe, in Jonathan May’s The Embrace, from his series Hot Ink.

Disfiguration and shock raise their ugly heads in Jodi Bieber’s Bibi Aisha, a woman whose nose has been deliberately mutilated by the Taliban, and Tobias Slater-Hunt’s Closer to God xvii, which takes its inspiration from the Old Master paintings of Lucas Cranach, Matthias Grünewald, and Leonardo da Vinci.

My own favourite is Torben Åndahl’s image of Eike from his series The Bereaved, 30 portraits of relatives or friends of suicide victims. Straightforward and unstaged, Eike’s eyes speak volumes and her unmitigated pain sears your heart. When the art of photography was first being developed, it was valued for its ability to capture exactly the reality of its object without any necessary interpretation on the part of the intermediary. Regardless of the many more sophisticated techniques and trends open to exploitation for the modern photographer, this directness is still something unique to the medium, and remains as refreshing and breathtaking as all those years ago.


Harriet and Gentleman Jack 
Jooney Woodward
© Jooney Woodward

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