Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011
Almost a year ago, when I’d just started my Course, I wrote an early post on the 2010 Prize. I was just beginning to really look at photographs and the book of the Exhibition really caught my eye. At the time, I initially thought that the 2010 winner ‘Huntress with Buck’ was a ‘cruel’ picture in its depiction of a beautiful 14 year old who had been taken to South Africa by her parents so that she could kill her first African animal.
My visceral response to this meant that it took some time before I could appreciate the colour, rich tones and composition and compare this with ancient depictions of Celtic goddesses/queens.
I never did get to see that particular Exhibition, but last month (6th December 2011) I went to see the 2011 Prize at the National Portrait Gallery which finishes on the 12th February. It was a busy day, and the gallery seemed cramped and photographs small when I compared them with some of the other Exhibitions I had visited during the year (I’m thinking here particularly of the Thomas Struth Exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery and the Deutsche Bourse Photography Prize contenders at the Photographers’ Gallery Ambika P3, the University of Westminster).
The first prize is Harriet and Gentleman Jack, by Jooney Woodward. It’s what I would call a ‘beautiful’ image. A young 13 year old girl with long, flowing titian hair who is cradling her guinea pig, a pink eyed golden cavey, whose fur just about matches Harriet’s hair (although a deeper tone). Could it be called ‘sentimental’ well, maybe it could. It’s certainly the antithesis of last year’s winner. Two girls, a year apart in age – one who kills some animals for pleasure and the other who proudly cradles her pet. They both have similar colouring and gaze confidently at the camera. I wonder what would happen if they both met. What might they have in common?
On a technical note, Jooney Woodward used a Mamiya RZ medium format film camera on a tripod, using natural light, whilst David Chancellor used a Mamiya 711 6×7. I can’t say more than that because I’ve never used a Mamiya or a larger format camera but I’m hoping to have the opportunity in the future. There’s something so soft yet clear about the images, with such rich colours.
Apparently, this portrait inspired Woodward to continue photographing the ‘quirky’ world of guinea pig enthusiasts .
The 2011 second prize went to Jill Wooster for her portrait of her friend, Of Lili. this is a different, more gritty, image which is taken from an ongoing series by Wooster on middle-aged women at difficult stages in their lives. Of Lili was taken with a DSLR with minimal retouching.
Another portrait which caught my eye was Erika E, born in 1910 by Karsten Thomaehlen. She must have been beautiful when young and is still beautiful now – her wrinkles only enhance her bone structure.This is from a series, ‘Happy at one hundred’, taken of more than 40 men and women over the age of 100. I can only hope that, if I live that long, I will still have the inner strength and certainty to look the camera straight in the eye and state, “This is me!”.
I’m realizing now that these four females, whose ages range from 13 to 100, all have that same direct and confident gaze and this is what has drawn me towards them. I could write more on the portraits exhibited but I think I’ll leave it at this. The Exhibition is still on and the accompanying book presents the images faithfully.
When I got back home after my visit I read an email newsletter on, “The return of photo-realism”, by Robert Genn who is a painter. He was commenting on a letter from a reader that bemoaned the fact that painted portraits can now almost be indistinguishable from photographs. Genn’s response was that “tight rendering is easier to do than realistic painting done freshly and expressively”. He also reminded us that many portrait painters do also use photographs – as painters may in general I think, (cf George Shaw) plus, of course, painters also used to use the camera obscura and the camera lucida. Genn also referred to an Exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, “Snapshot – Painters & Photography 1888-1915”.
I couldn’t go to Amsterdam (and the Exhibition ended on 8th January) but there was an accompanying large and heavy book which I bought from Amazon. It’s fascinating to read. The book investigates seven Post-Impressionist painters and printmakers who also made many personal snapshots which were kept private. They are Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Felix Vallotton and Edouard Vuillard (members of the Nabis group, Paris) and also George Hendrik Breitner, Henri Evenepoel and Henri Riviere who were working in Europe around the same time. The Introduction by Easton explains that all seven ‘displayed common approaches and interests. They were all enthusiastic about photography and the photographs were meant to be private records, ‘without artistic pretense or commercial aspirations’. She points out that the camera did not supplant the sketch but added a different dimension to visual material that could be drawn upon, and were sometimes taken deliberately as study material for paintings.
The three following essays discuss ‘George Eastman and the Handheld Camera’, ‘The New truths of the Snapshot”, and ‘Amateur Photography in the Late Nineteenth Century’. From there, the book looks at the seven artists and their photographs. It really is an interesting book with many photographs and you can see how some of them were translated into actual paintings – many of them being portraits (to bring me back to the beginning of this post).
I know that I’ve viewed this Exhibition in terms of what appealed to me the most out of some excellent images. So then I had to ask myself what else was there in the images that made them ‘good’. And, furthermore, what makes a good portrait in general in this modern age?
John Berger has commented that in the past, portraits in oil were often used to represent the subject’s social status – therefore they were painted in a context which emphasized this. Renaissance portraits also used symbolism in portraits to represent the subject’s learning, wisdom, explorations and, by means of memento mori, the fact that we all die!
However, Graham Clarke (1997) writes, “From the inception of the portrait photograph photographers have been concerned to express in the single image an assumed ‘inner’ being. (p. 101). He goes on to state that the portrait photograph is, “…the site of a complex series of interactions – aesthetic, cultural, ideological, sociological and psychological” (p. 102) which rather contradicts this. The meaning and purpose of portraiture is a complex subject and so here I want to focus upon how do I read a portrait and what makes it good.
When I go back to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, I am reminded that the best 60 portraits (out of over 6,000 entries) were chosen by a judging panel who then agreed the 5 prize winners. The panel were not told the identity of the photographers – although one might guess that some were recognized, (Bibi Aisha, by Jodi Bieber for example). The judges saw prints right from the beginning. Sandy Nairne, Director of the national Portrait Gallery, writes in the Director’s Foreword of the accompanying book, “Only from prints can the richness and subtlety of the very best portraits be appreciated to the full” (p. 2, 2011). I’m going to assume as well that as the photographers were anonymous the members of the judging panel didn’t know the story behind each image, or that some were part of a series – information which can add further depth. What was it that made those 5 winners stand out from the 60 best?
I’ve already commented on the richness and colour of Harriet and Gentleman Jack and Woodward has said that she was most struck by the visual potential in the similarities of colouring. You can see how the soft flow of Harriet’s hair is mirrored in the silky softness of the guinea pig’s fur. There are a few small details such as the label on the guinea pig’s ear, Harriet’s nail varnish; the scratch on her hand and the safety pin near her lapel. The girl and guinea pig stand out against the hazy background.
Of Lili is very different. Jill Wooster specializes in creating fashion portraits, “that she characterizes as ‘over the top and slightly surreal’” (p. 9, 2011). However she describes her personal work, such as this portrait, as, “….more about an attempt to get under the skin of something” (ibid). She wanted to see if she could capture the balance between Lili’s confidence and vulnerability – the gentle persona with anger just beneath the surface. Wooster states that isn’t sure she succeeded but did get something else, which is Lili’s strength. Is this what came through to the judges? There is her sinewy body in heavily belted jeans and sleeveless tops which show of her slight musculature and whipcord arms. In softer opposition to this Lili has a lacey embellishment on her singlet, is wearing lipstick and her hair is softly arranged. I can see a hint of tension in her stance; her shoulders are slightly raised towards her ears and her face looks slightly frozen. There is a vulnerability about her bare neck. Of course, there are question I want to ask. Does Lili normally wear clothes like that? Does she usually wear lipstick, etc or has this portrait been stage-managed to fit the theme? There is also a greyness about the background/processing which seems to reinforce the tension.
With Erika E, born in 1910, (which didn’t win one of the 5 prizes) there are the small clues such as her collar brooch and rings. The softness of her top matches the colour and softness of her hair. I can’t see any obvious attempt to fade her wrinkles. There is an air of confidence and clarity which shines through. Maybe this is too ‘ordinary’ a portrait to win an actual prize. I don’t know anything about her other than her age at the time the portrait was taken. Is she still alive? I hope so. Did/does she have a clear mind – I hope so. Is this part of a ‘good’ portrait as well – the viewer wanting to know more and asking questions about the subject?
I seem to have been asking quite a few questions here which is good because it means I’ve opened my eyes more.
25th January 2012
Clarke, G, The Photograph, 1997, Oxford University press, Oxford.
Easton, E.W. (ed), Snapshot. Painters and Photography 1888-1915, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
National Portrait Gallery, Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011, 2011, National Portrait Gallery Publications, London