a blog about my developing understanding of photography in relation to people and place
Monday, September 20, 2010
view of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize by a judge
In Camera Lucida, an erudite but personal meditation on photography by Roland Barthes, the critic describes a shot of his mother, but admits that he can't print it in the book. "I cannot reproduce [it]," writes Barthes. "For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the 'ordinary'". "Ordinary" shots may be our most treasured possessions: the first thing we'd rescue in a fire and the last thing we'd keep after a nasty break-up. But we don't love them because they're great portraits. We love them because we love the people in them.
Nearly everyone in the west has a camera, and if they don't they almost certainly have one on their phone. Yet if such images are talismen, magically calling to mind people not around or gone forever, what makes a great portrait of someone you don't know? That's the question I had to ask myself over the two-day judging of the National Portrait GalleryTaylor Wessing Photographic Portrait prize, which will be awarded on 3 November 2009 and go on show two days later. I and six other judges looked at around 6,400 images, selecting 60 for the exhibition and five for special awards, including one for the £12,000 top prize.
We saw images from all over the world, taken inside and out, depicting the old and young, nude and clothed. I found the sheer variety fascinating. In real life we're surrounded by shots of young, conventionally attractive models, so it was genuinely touching to see something more likelife on show. Tom Stoddard's black-and-white shot of two factory workers gave an alternative, stronger vision of femininity, for example, while Liz Hingley's photograph of a dressed-up older woman captured something of the dignity of age. It's another manifestation of taste, I suppose; advertisers are after one kind of portrait, this prize something else.
What that something was, however, was curiously difficult to define. The portrait gallery recommended we choose "portraits with a stress on the individual" and left it at that; technical quality was a factor, but it wasn't the whole story. Photographs that have done well in other competitions didn't do well here – I recognised one shot that recently won gold in another prize, but it didn't make it to our longlist. It did divide the panel, however: one judge condemned it as "high street", leaving another judge and myself to explain that was exactly why we liked it. An image of four young people shot by a professional in a portrait studio, it was technically unimpeachable, but compared with many of the other entrants, aesthetically in another world – and, I'd venture, a world away in class terms. It was an interesting point of departure from the more familiar editorial gaze, and I was very sad to see it go. The sociologistPierre Bourdieu would have had a field day: he argued that taste is tied to class, and we police one to protect the other.
Whether that's true or not, the photographic portrait prize has been criticised for favouring one style above all others – unsmiling portraits of children and teenagers taken in their own environments. Such shots did well again this year, but to me that felt natural. Smiling models and people saying "cheese" are the province of ads and snapshots; we were free to look beyond that to something more real. Smiles weren't vetoed, but they only made it in if they looked genuine. Staged shots weren't outlawed either – most of the images we selected were probably posed to one degree or another – but we avoided subjects who were obviously acting. There's nothing wrong with roleplay in photography, but it didn't feel like portraiture.
In the end, I had to ask myself the question: what is a portrait? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it's "a likeness of a person", which sounds straightforward, but isn't. It's extremely hard to stop people acting for the camera, particularly when we're all so used to being photographed at weddings, birthdays, holidays and reunions. Perhaps that's why we, the judges, went for so many shots of teenagers. Self-conscious but not yet adept at disguise, adolescents reveal themselves to photographers, as Vanessa Winship's image shows. A documentary photographer with years of experience, Winship deservedly made it to the shortlist again, having won a prize for her shot of two young Turks in 2008. This year, she submitted a delicate study of a grave young Georgian girl, capturing the subject's poise, but also her awkwardly fidgeting fingers. Gentle, sympathetic yet astute, it was the pick of the bunch for me.