The National Portrait Gallery’s open competition for portrait photographers has been running for almost 20 years, under the colours of its successive sponsors. It makes an accessible and popular group show that is to an extent a shop window for the wide photographic discipline behind it. This year, some 2,000 photographers submitted almost 6,000 pictures. One would expect the exhibition of 60 pictures to be excitingly diverse. It should hammer at the questions of good portraiture from different angles and leave viewers challenging the judges to explain how this fine portrait could possibly be “better” than thatone.
This year, none of that has happened. The great majority of the portraits on display are surprisingly and depressingly similar in one crucial respect: they are almost all stock still. Although few of them were actually made in studios, they look like a collective attempt to recreate studio conditions, even outdoors. No camera movement, no movement or suggested movement of sitters, no hint of flux or change, tensions or flow. It’s as if the judges agreed among themselves some private definition of portraiture that excluded so many of the things skilled photographers can do.
Even the winner, a study by David Chancellor of a young huntress returning to camp on horseback with her first shot buck, owes as much to still life, to landscape and to a certain kind of documentary as it does to portraiture. Its basic contrasts are between the glorious evening light, the dead animal slung across the withers of the horse, and the youth of the trophied girl. It’s a fine picture, but closer to Landseer than any study of the girl’s character as interpreted by the photographer.
The problem may be systemic. The Taylor Wessing prize is judged anonymously. Prints are shown to the jury without any background information – not even the names of the authors. Yet the 60 chosen for the exhibition are displayed with detailed and copious annotation in the form of anecdotal captions. We get a plentiful source of stirring information upon which to mull, even in connection with pictures quite strikingly shorn of content. Many of these pictures are neutral as well as still, shot against plain backgrounds or uninformative ones, as if people existed in Petri dishes.
Some themes do come through. Portrait photographers often prefer to make a study of a close group rather than an individual. It allows them to concentrate on the spaces between people, in the manner of that illusion where two profiles leave between themselves the shape of a vase. A study by Kurt Hörbst of three girls in similar dresses is of this type. There are mother-daughter and husband-wife pictures. There are several studies of twins or near-twins, one of which was shortlisted.
Another recurring theme is the way portraiture tails off into other genres. There is celebrity portraiture, now almost a photographic industry in its own right. We have several nude studies, too, and several that seem anchored in photojournalism rather than portraiture. A study by Amy Helene Johansson comes to mind, a picture of a Bangladeshi woman travelling on the coupling between railway carriages. The sitter is anonymous, and I found myself wondering how helpful it is to label a picture of an unknown passing stranger a portrait. There are definitions lurking in the background of this competition that perhaps ought to be brought to the fore.
All this is necessarily haphazard. It is not a curated show, but a competition. What we see is what came to the top of a process – and I have no quibble with that. And there were several pictures I liked a lot. A fine study of a 98-year-old woman by Monika Merva had just the right touch of fading: the comb in her hair pin sharp, yet parts of her face not quite clear in exact mimicry of the way we recall little details that are not necessarily central, but which become central to us. A study by Steve Bloom of Tim Andrews, who we are told suffers from Parkinson’s, was utterly different in detail but curiously similar in effect. The picture swims in and out of sharpness so sympathetically it might have been a self-portrait. The subject’s bare chest, so often the sign of bravado or heroism, here acquires an extra layer of vulnerability.
The Taylor Wessing is not the National Portrait Gallery’s only portrait competition. I noticed how many of the paintings in the BP Portrait Award this year were clearly derived from photographs, or worked in manner to refer to photographs. Yet the surface treatments of paint gave vigorous internal movement even where there was stillness of pose and thought. With very few exceptions, I found that absent here, and I missed it badly.
It is partly for that reason that my “winner” was not chosen by the judges. I admired James Ostrer’s subtle portrait of Nicky Haslam, the British interior designer. He has been photographed naked, sitting in a chair which we are told belonged to the painter Lucian Freud. Haslam’s flesh acquires the extra-fleshiness Freud has made his own. He begins to look like one of Freud’s own sitters, or an amalgam of several. Plus, I found that removing the clothes from a sitter known to be attentive to his own clothing made a proper study and a fair one.
But it’s that kind of show. Make up your own mind.
Until February, and then touring.