I was recently invited to the opening evening of this year’s Taylor Wessing – Photographic Portrait Prize held at the National Portrait Gallery in London last Tuesday night. I was keen to see what pictures were selected for the show as myself and Luke entered the competition for the first time this year in the hope to win that big jackpot prize money! However, no such luck. Since then, throughout the week I have been thinking about what I saw and felt I had to comment. I always feel awards of such prestige should reward brilliance. Brilliance in mind, adventure and difference. They should be looking to the future and highlighting the direction portraiture is going in. You can probably see where I’m going with this, but I will hold it there for a second and talk about my recent new found love of portraiture.
It’s something since leaving University that I have found myself increasingly interested in, constantly asking what makes an interesting and thought provoking portrait? I’m not interested in what makes a good portrait because there are many of those around, but what is it that makes a portrait something special?
Above are two artists and portraits that I have been fond of since my early days of photographic study. I think it is important to say here that when I research and look at pictures by the above artists; Julian Germain (left) and Larry Sultan (right), I look at their work and draw from it points that help me to explore my own practice. I have always used these two artists as inspiration, whenever I embark on a new adventure, be it a portrait or another subject I always reflect on a few of my key influences and see how they may approach the subject. In both these pictures it’s the emotion and sentiment that lets me loose in their work, it allows me to explore and feel what I am looking at on another layer. It’s the composition and clear staging of the image that I love, why these positions? Why the flowers? Why is the Dad looking away? There are elements of curiousness that compliment the scenes that these characters are discovered in.
I find portraits from the above photographers; Vivian Sassen (bottom right), Brian Griffin (top right) & Seydou Keita (left) so compelling and I want my pictures to offer that same feeling of peculiarity. I want my work to create it’s own style. I draw from what I like about these artist’s work, but I differ because just like these artists, I would like to offer something different, something unique and lasting.
Getting back to the NPG awards, I didn’t respond to many of the portraits I saw, I found myself just gazing and thinking “yep thats nice” and moving on, a picture taken of a famous person or someone who has a disability cannot just rely on it’s subject, right? It needs to work and offer something that engages the image on another level. If you know how to use a 10×8 camera, then take a portrait that attempts something new, where are the double exposures? Where are the bleached out images, the post production madness? Where is the strange and provocative? Maybe this is simply the view of a UCA, Farnham graduate who has had his mind well educated in ways of considering different photographic methods and not just accepting what has gone before.
There is no doubt that the NPG has a prestigious past and undoubtedly a prestigious future. Maybe I am getting caught up in the lack of inspiration and innovation I was expecting to take home with me that night.
So i apologies if you have read all the way down to hear expecting a conclusion, I just started writing how i felt and there really isn’t a conclusion. However i do feel there is hope for change in the NPG awards, im just not sure when it will come. I have picked out my personal winner to share with you. I will continue my pursuit of the perfect portrait, which clearly doesn’t exist, but hey, isn’t that what makes photography the best medium, the never ending pursuit of making something that just feels right.
Photo taken by : Roberto Tondopo