What Makes a Winning Photographic Portrait? : The Taylor Wessing Prize at The National Portrait Gallery, London.

The introduction to this year’s prestigious Taylor Wessing Prize exhibition, held at the National Portrait Gallery, astutely comments on the highly subjective nature of portrait photography whilst discussing the difficulty of ‘judging’ such work.  For a viewer to appreciate a portrait, we perhaps have to identify in some way with the sitter or situation, and this will of course differ dramatically depending on each individual’s outlook.  The panel of five judges must have had an exceedingly hard time whittling down 60 portraits from the 6,033 submissions and I am certain there were some heated discussions, in which each judge was obliged to fight the corner of their chosen pieces.

With this in mind I can say with sound conviction, that ‘Harriet and Gentleman Jack’, the winning portrait by Jooney Woodward left me untouched.  However across the whole exhibition – which showcases a hugely diverse range of photographic styles from formal posed portraits, through tender and spontaneous captured moments and right up to the downright controversial and outrageous- I found plenty of images to tip my cap to.

The Taylor Wessing competition awards cash prizes to the five top entries; therefore I will attempt to justify my favourite five from the exhibition as, given that the genre is so subjective, each person that visits will most likely have their own preferences.  In no particular order I should like to commend ‘Anna’ by Paolo Patrizi, ‘Gianni, Hermit for Love’ by Carlo Bevilacque, ‘Old Truman Brewery, Claudia’ by Darren Hall, ‘Abenther, Ari Boy with Toy Car’ by Harry Hook and ‘Anna and Roberto at home, Italy # 6153’ by Claudia Burlotti.

Anna from the series, Migration linked to prostitution, 2010 by Paolo Patrizi © Paolo Patrizi

I am not normally fanatical about overtly symbolic, motif based photography but love ‘Anna’ as it is a journalistic shot of a real situation – Nigerian prostitutes lining roadsides on their mattresses have apparently become a notorious fact of life in Italy – and yet its aesthetic seems to heighten our understanding of the portrait’s meaning, to the extent of becoming symbolic of Anna’s suffering. The mattress skewed and adrift in a grey and hostile environment and the fact that we see only her long sexualized legs and not her face, speaks tenderly of her heartbreaking lifestyle.

Old Truman Brewery/Claudia, 2011 by Darren Hall © Darren Hall

Hall’s simple shot of a girl moving through a crowd, bathed in golden light, conjures ideas about what makes you notice someone in the midst of so many and also conversely made me think of ‘the flaneur’ moving through a multitude – the photographer has singled her out, but no-one else has.

Anna and Roberto at home, Italy #6153 from the series Eighty Five, 2010 by Claudia Burlotti © Claudia Burlotti

A singular portrait can sometimes look sterile and forced; we are, after all defined by our relations to those around us. Burlotti’s portrait of Anna and Roberto is as natural a portrayal of love – wrinkles and all- as they come. I found Roberto’s radiant smile and Anna’s chubby arm pressed tight in his embrace, exceptionally touching.

Gianni, Hermit for Love from the series, Into The Silence 2010 by Carlo Bevilacqua © Carlo Bevilacqua

From a portrait of true love, to one of love’s absence – to appreciate this photo, one needs the back story provided. Gianni lived a nomadic existence with his girlfriend Vali on the Amalfi Coast for 30 years and after her death, has chosen to remain with his animals in the hostile environment, in order to reflect on his memories. Writing on photography, Roland Barthes talked about ‘the puctum’ – “that accident which pricks me”, and reasons that it is so often located in the subjects eyes. Here Gianni gazes into a remote distance leaving the viewer to imagine what profound sorrow, loneliness or understanding we may find in the windows to his soul. In its place we have the inquisitive and searching stare of his dogs and the harsh terrain to inform us of his story. I find the overall effect both highly dramatic and melancholy, yet resoundingly beautiful.

Abenther, Ari Boy with toy car from the series Africa studio, 2011 by Harry Hook © Harry Hook

Hook’s arresting image of a street child, works so well due to the contrast of the formal setting of a shoot with its old fashioned, blacked out background which juxtaposes the poverty of his subject. Visually striking, I think the portrait is highly ambiguous – does Abenther exude a sense of pity or of pride?
Choosing just five images to touch upon from this exhibition was exceptionally difficult, as there really is some talented and innovative work on display here. The exhibition runs until the 12th of February, so go down and attempt to select your top five. What makes a winning portrait? That is for you to decide.

Kate Kelsall 2011

website: katekelsall.me ‘Possessed by Skies’.