Painted portraits or photographic portraits – is one medium better than the other for capturing a person, is there more skill in the painting or the photograph? I was pondering these questions as I approached the National Portrait Gallery to view the annual Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. Earlier in the year I had enjoyed their exhibition of painted portraits and here’s my blog about it so you can compare the two: BP Portrait Award. I had really enjoyed many of those pieces still remembered them so was slightly apprehensive that I would not be as impressed, a little unfair I know, but there it is!
It was preview morning and the place was buzzing with journalists, bloggers and artists. The Gallery’s Curator of Photographs Sabine Jaskot-Gill gave us an enthusiastic overview of the works and an insight into why the judges had awarded the top three prizes.
The prize started back in 1993 and this year had attracted 4462 entries from nearly 2000 photographers in 70 countries. All entries are viewed anonymously to ensure no favouritism or bias. It’s quite a task for the judging panel to whittle this down to the 57 portraits we saw but apparently, it was harmonious and they agreed on the top 4 which is why the 3rd prize is shared, as I guess they couldn’t force that last decision. The broad themes this year included a move away from studio and celebrity to more street-based and candid photos, with personal and family projects. Events of the past year were reflected with Grenfell, Brexit and Manchester bombing featuring.
I’ll give you a small peek into the exhibition, the prize winners and a couple of other pieces that caught my eye.
The first prize was awarded to a series of works, the first time this has happened. Alice Mann’s four large photographs come from a larger series of photographs of girls from across South Africa who are taking part in drum majorette competitions. The girls come from very disadvantaged communities and these uniforms are a mark of success and the girls’ faces show confidence and pride through their captivating gaze. The bright and elaborate uniforms shine against the dreary, rundown backgrounds.
The second prize is by Enda Bowe for his photograph of a London mother holding her baby. This is part of an ongoing collaborative project with Gillian O’Brien called Clapton Blossom which focuses on the residents of a housing estate in Clapton, east London. He searches for the light and beauty in the ordinary. You can see the classical mother and child composition in this contemporary picture and yet there is a sense of sadness as well.
The joint 3rd prize could not be more different. This photo by Max Barstow is of a pair of shoppers taken on Regent Street, London. He has isolated them from the hustle and bustle of this busy shopping street, giving it a studio aesthetic. It is an arresting shot, with glamour and an air of mystery as we cannot place them in time or geographically.
The second 3rd prize winner is another arresting shot but from a completely different world. Joey Lawrence was sponsored by Water Aid to make a study of a Tombohuaun community in Sierra Leone to highlight the dangers of dirty water. This portrait is of ‘Strong’ Joe Smart features the grass headdress that Joe had made with his friends and decided he wanted to use it for his portrait. In between takes he was laughing but for the shot his pose was serious and beyond his years.
Joey Lawrence set up an improvised studio for many of his shots in the Water Aid series and in this wonderful family portrait we see the village midwife and women’s leader with the community’s money box and the two children she looks after by her side. The studio is made of banana and palm leaves and form a wonderful backdrop. Lawrence wanted to highlight the resilience of the community, its fraternity, its organised structure and work ethic rather than the struggles that are often focused on.
Tragedies affecting young people feature this year with these two strong photographs by Richard Ansett. The boy, Danel aged 7, is a Grenfell Tower survivor and the girl, Erin aged 12, survived the Manchester arena bomb attack.
Strong emotions were captured in this photograph entitled Runner-Up as Sam Wright shows us the rawness of defeat and the broken spirit of a boxer who has given his all against a stronger opponent. This boxing club offers a sanctuary to young people at risk from gang violence and an outlet for anger and passion.
As a frequent visitor to rural Africa, this shot caught my attention as it is such a common sight there and it was good to see it make its way onto the walls of the National Portrait Gallery. In most sub-Saharan African countries many hours a day are spent fetching water and those yellow jerrycans are everywhere. This photograph by Dan Nelken was described “Sarah, aged 13, who carries a 5-gallon jerry can of water home three times a day”. It is from a series about women in Uganda and Sarah, like many of his sitters, embodies grace, self-assurance and power. I loved her direct gaze, enquiring and outward looking. I wonder what she was thinking…
In addition to the prize winners and competition entries, there is a feature by Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi as part of the Gallery’s In Focus display. This is in its 4th year and is a showcase of new work by an internationally renowned photographer. Rinko has focused on her family, showing us the poetic beauty in small everyday life across a series of photos.
The Taylor Wessing Prize exhibition runs until 27th January and is well worth a visit. More about the National Portrait Gallery and about visiting this exhibition can be found on their website: https://www.npg.org.uk/
Full disclosure: as is customary in the travel industry I was invited by the National Portrait Gallery to review this event. This has not influenced my views but it is important to mention.