The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize is the annual portrait competition sponsored by international law firm Taylor Wessing that runs at The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) from November to February of each year.
The competition attracts entries from around the world. This year there were 4,303 images submitted from 1,842 photographers across 61 countries. Just 57 are selected for the exhibition at the NPG with one overall winner and two runners up. New for this year was allowing the use of different photographic processes (actually older mediums) such as tintypes and photogravures.
The Taylor Wessing competition has often drawn a fair amount of criticism for being “too conservative”, “lacking ambition” or “not being edgy enough”. Personally I think this is unfair. As consumers of photographic portraits we are often seduced by what we are continuously bombarded with in the media which is to say portraits of the rich and famous. Taylor Wessing, by and large, focusses on pictures of the ordinary and everyday folk who inhabit the real world. Apart from the shock of Nigel Farage’s irksome smile jumping out at you and the contemplative portrait of Simon Callow there are no other images of well known people. Instead we get to see people going about their day to day lives and being captured doing what most of us do, most of the time. Indeed the first prize winner, Claudio Rasano’s South African school boy in his uniform, is certainly not earth-shattering and could be any of our own children (in fact I have a very similar picture of my son at the same age in a lookalike green blazer).
As with many of the pictures in Taylor Wessing it is often the back story that makes them interesting and I wonder therefore if without this we would consider them as being significant or worthy of merit. I’m struck by the words of Henri Carter-Bresson in this interview where he says: “I think photographs should have no caption, just location and date. Date is important because things change.”
Regardless of this, for me the stand out portraits were not the actual winning trio but Cécile Birt’s picture of her daughter Zazie in her highchair at the family kitchen table (see below), Ebony Finck‘s picture of her grandfather, Len in the palliative care room weeks before his death and David Cantor’s portrait of Abdel in a bold red hat ‘snapped’ outside a shoe shop in Shoreditch, London (header image). What’s interesting about the last portrait is that the photographer is one of the few born before 1960 (actually 1941), was self-taught rather than having attended art school and spent his career working in multi-national companies.
As Sean O’Hagan, photography critic for The Observer (and a previous judge of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize) says in this piece “We live in digital world where photography has become a more democratised vision and I think that should somehow be reflected, even in a portrait show.” In previous years I don’t think this has been the case however for the 2016 show I see more of that democratisation taking place with portraits like that of Cécile Birt being a rightful part of the exhibition.
In the end of course the selected images and winners of this, like any photographic competition, come down to the personal tastes and even prejudices of the judges who get just two days to sift through the over four thousand submitted photographs. As I’m sure we all know, from curating and editing our own images, our thoughts and feelings about what we shoot changes over time. What can appear a bad image one day, which we may even think of deleting, could become something we cherish and value a few weeks later when looked at from a different perspective.
To get an idea of how hard the judges task is you only need to look at Portrait Salon, an exhibition of works rejected from the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. Viewing the images on this site you can’t help think you recognise, or could at least visualise, some of these pictures adorning the walls of the NPG between November and February. Who’d be an art competition judge?
This years selected images can be viewed at the NPG until 26th February, 2017. After that the show will tour a few locations in the UK.
All images in this post have been used with kind permission of the photographers.