Stood in the middle of the National Portrait Gallery’s ground floor Porter Gallery, I feel as though I’m being stared at by hundreds of pairs of eyes, each begging to tell a story more captivating than the last. The walls of the gallery are adorned with some of the most exciting photographic portraits the world has to offer and, as I move from image to image, I can feel the tales of the subjects and sitters near leaping out of their frames as their gazes follow me around the room. This, of course, is the potential of a great photographic portrait, and is precisely what the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize does so well.
The prize is the National Portrait Gallery’s own annual photographic competition ,and was established in 2003 as a means of displaying and rewarding great portrait photography. Open to photographers the world over, the competition readily encourages submissions from both amateurs and professionals alike, and attracts a wide gambit of practitioners, both from the UK and much further afield. Judged anonymously, the prize aims to reward those submitting for the quality of their work alone and makes a point of doing so in a way which disregards any previous work or existing prestige, displaying first time entrants next to the greats. Thanks to this openness, the prize attracts a rich variety of submissions year on year and 2019’s cohort is no different.
From Rory Doyle’s insightful and eye opening depictions of African-American cowboys in rural Mississippi, to third prize winner Garrod Kirkwood’s vibrant portrait of a British family on their holidays, crammed into a retro Ford Cortina, each submission and image offers something so distinct from the one hanging next to it. And, along with this distinction in subject and subject matter, a similarly copious mix of practice, form, technique and media creates an emblematic representation of the rich tapestry of contemporary photography. Be it second place awardee Enda Bowe’s use of a muted colour palette, lending a quiet and pensive air to his youthful Belfastian subject, or Marcin Jozefiak’s use of a mirror to symbolise the divide between his sitter’s past and present, and self perception and how others see her, one can find countless iterations of the consideration and reimagination of what portrait photography can be and mean.
Yet despite the diversity and uniqueness of both the images exhibited and the techniques used to create them, there runs a consistent theme throughout each of the submissions gracing the gallery’s walls: each image addresses an issue prevalent within contemporary society. The aforementioned series by Rory Doyle which turns the lens on an African-American community of cowboys in Mississippi, does so to reframe and recenter the representation of the All-American Cowboy who, despite 1/4 of the cowboy community during the period after the American Civil War being Black, has fallen victim to a monumental white washing in popular media. In a similar vein, Reme Campo’ series Trans(ition) depicts self-directed, intimate and tender moments shared by teenage transgender couples, offering an honest and open representation of the nuances of love and identity in the 21st Century; sentiments which are often lost in the overtly politicised, sensationalised and oft- dehumanising debate around contemporary gender and self-identification.
This theme of representation runs true and deep throughout the competition’s blood and, alongside official submissions, each year of the prize offers a separate array of images through its In Focus display. This year, In Focus turns our eyes to New York based fashion photographer Ethan James Green, who’s impressive portfolio of commercial projects for the likes of i-D, Vogue and Vanity Fair is complemented by his long running personal project shot between 2014 and 2018, Young New York. Displayed proudly on its own wall at the rear of the gallery, Young New York depicts the photographer’s friends, many of whom identify as LGBTQ+, with their romantic partners, giving audiences an honest and gentle depiction of love, relationships and the diversity that runs through them in the five boroughs of modern day New York.
And yet, though pertinent throughout the exhibition, it isn’t only societal and community-wide issues on display and addressed through these portraits. As important, and indeed as stunning, are the images offering us insight into the more individual and personal. Jenny Lewis’ Rosy and Herb portrays a mother holding her newborn child the day before starting chemotherapy, affording audiences an intimate glimpse into the connection between mother and child, as well as an insight into the disruptive natural forces which can work to undo the idylls of family life. Likewise, Enda Bowe’s second portrait on display, this one of his elderly, widowed subject from the series Clapton Blossom, tells of the sadness of loss and loneliness; his subject’s contemplative window gazing evoking an empathy for both memories cherished and relationships mourned.
This year’s winner is no different and is equally unwavering in its raw display of the intimacy of both photographer and subject. Exhibiting a series of portraits of his mother, alongside other members of his family, photographer Pat Martin explores relationships and the effect that time and ageing has upon them. His portraits depict his family shortly after his mother was diagnosed with a medical condition and tell the story of illness, familial ties and strained relationships. Sitting as a subject in Pat’s images, his mother presents as upset, bearing the marks of an ill woman. Though despite their pairing with this solemn theme, Martin’s images show an honest depiction of family and, through a clear technical prowess and eye for colour, he deals with his grave subject matter in a gentle and caring way, creating beautiful, captivating family portraits in the process. In Martin’s own words, the portrait series became a means to repair his relationship with his mother, which had been fraught since a turbulent childhood, and the uplifting theme of redemption is discernible from first glance, despite the underlying theme of ill health and mortality in the series.
This is the power, the power to invoke such raw, powerful and often ambivalent emotions, is the power which a photographic portrait can wield and thrust upon its audiences. The extent of this power, as with many phenomena in the art world, is the subject of innumerable debates among theorists, photographers and curators alike. In an interview with Lens Culture, the National Portrait Gallery’s former director of photographs, Phillip Prodger, declared that he doesn’t believe a portrait photograph can give as much of an insight into the identities of sitters as the medium is often credited for, instead arguing that what’s captured in images are depictions of a specific moment in time in that person’s life, not their life as a whole. Instead, he notes, to see and understand these moments in time still holds immeasurable weight and, in his words, can be the best way to connect with person and place.
From a cancer-suffering mother cherishing her last moments of health with her newborn baby, to a late-flourishing and redemptive relationship with a dying family member, the work exhibited in this year’s prize unequivocally shows that however this power manifests, it exists in spades across a vastly divergent and global cohort of photographers. I compel anybody to allow themselves to be captivated by their works and the stories they tell.
The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2019 is showing at the National Portrait Gallery until 16 February 2020.
Words, Edward John
Images, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London