The shortlist for this year’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize proves that the National Portrait Gallery’s open submission award has taken a turn for the better. Despite the obvious limitations on subject matter and medium, the judges manage to offer a diverse range of works that chart moving personal stories and global sociocultural shifts centred mainly around issues of gender, race and age. They also nominated artists who interrogate the photographic portrait itself, and in particular its oscillation between identification and distancing. Judy Gelles, Ettien Malapert and Ebony Finck, for example, were selected for their images that resourcefully conceal the sitter’s face while Alexia Sinlcair was chosen for her photograph of the V&A’s ‘Lover’s Eye’, a jewelled pendant set with a miniature eye of a Victorian’s secret love.
Cristina de Middel’s ongoing series ‘Gentlemen’s Club’, shown in a mini-display within the exhibition, has additionally raised the bar. Known for her deep interest in how historical consciousness is constructed through documentary photography, de Middel focuses here on prostitution in Brazil, offering an alternative to the way the industry is traditionally represented by portraying not the exploited sex workers but the male clients instead.
Yet the changing nature of the award is nowhere more evident than in the work of the first prize winner Claudio Rasano. In his winning image, a high school student is represented straightforwardly without much apparent intervention by the photographer. Standing against a white backdrop, the eighteen-year-old boy shows little activity other than gazing straight into the lens, focusing our attention on his clothing. Striped tie, collared shirt and embroidered blazer badge all form part of his school uniform. It inevitably opens up the debate on whether the use of obligatory attire in education is a tool for identity oppression or helps personality shine over appearance. Although allegedly anachronistic, the debate is reconfigured once we become aware that the photograph was taken in Johannesburg, a city where cultural background is key in determining the school to which a pupil will be sent. Therefore, the school’s logo transforms the uniform into a symbol of social distinction rather to a device employed to fight class discrimination. Deadpan yet challenging, the work’s selection hints to the jury’s preference for images with stories that question cultural and social struggles.
The award’s shift continues thanks to last year’s introduction of two new crucial rules. Firstly, the submission’s restriction on printing techniques has been lifted allowing the nomination of photographs such as Peter Moseley’s photogravure and Joni Sternbach’s tintype. In fact, it was the complex nineteenth-century process Sternbach used to capture her Californian surfers that set her apart from her peers and put her firmly in the path for her second prize award.
Secondly, series are now granted the freedom not only to be submitted for consideration but to go also on display. As a result, an image can for the first time be shown within its original context. It can appear visually more powerful, too. Such is precisely the case with Kovi Konowiecki’s portrait of an Orthodox Jewish man which is paired with a photograph of his two daughters from the same project. Although all sitters in the diptych are rendered with an ethnographic objectivity, the infamous stark white backdrop used for anthropological purposes during the nineteenth-century has been replaced by old-fashioned floral wallpaper. Overlooking this intriguing subversion and the very questioning of the conventional views on beauty, the caption partly attributes the picture’s third prize to its painterly qualities. Bizarrely such comment is not unique to Konowiecki’s work: Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro is summoned in the photograph taken by the Kobal award winner Josh Redman, Johannes Vermeer’s lighting in Tamara Dean’s portrait ‘Sabrina’ and the Pre-Raphaelite colour palette in Dean’s second image ‘Nakisha’. However, it is to the powerful compositions and the telling narratives, rather to the art historical references, that their work owes its great success.
While this observation together with the absence of artists working with cameraless techniques, found photography, photo-collages and installation pieces points to the fact that there are still a couple of boundaries to be pushed for the award to work at the forefront of contemporary photography, one thing is for sure: the Taylor Wessing Prize is no more the award featuring people with their pets. It has been revamped. And the gallery’s announcement of its forthcoming exhibition ‘Behind the Mask, Another Mask’ that will bring together Claude Cahun and Gillian Wearing’s work only serves to validate the fact that the museum is increasingly becoming a leading player in London’s photographic scene.