Monday, 23 January 2012

Assignment Five related – Reflections on Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize Exhibition

Last Thursday, I was able to see the Exhibition of the 60 selected images in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, at the National Portrait Gallery - Link to Taylor Wessing Prize.  (Other exhibitions seen last week, as well, and further reflections will follow.)  I saw the same exhibition two years ago and observed that it seemed to be populated, mainly, with Djikstra-esque images of young, sickly-looking East European women – a bit unfair, but with a degree of truth!  There was more variety this time, I would say, and I enjoyed it more.  It was also certainly useful in the context of my Assignment Five brief to produce a series of portraits.

The presentation of the prints is worth mentioning.  It was simple, ‘unobtrusive’ and quite ‘traditional’.  Off-white mounts and slim, dark wood frames worked well and tied everything together successfully in an exhibition with 60 different artists.

The outstanding print, for me, was ‘Malega, Surma Boy, Ethiopia, April 2011’ from ‘Faces of Africa’ series by Mario Marino.  I later discovered that it is the front cover of the catalogue, too; though not a prize winner.  There is a beautiful honesty and dignity about the portrait – and indeed, the others in his series, now that I’ve had chance to look further -  And I particularly like the superb use of tones and textures – brown skin and a brown wall behind – sounds unexciting but looked really, really, good.

The winner has already had plenty of publicity – like last year, a red-haired girl with an animal, but guinea pig rather than horse!  It didn’t especially stand out, for me, but to be fair, it does make great use of the hair colours and there is a tiny ‘punctum’ (!) scratch on her right hand.  Of course, as acknowledged by the Director of the National Portrait Gallery in his Foreword to the exhibition catalogue: “The question of what makes a great photographic portrait is generally considered to be a subjective matter.”  I wouldn’t argue with that.

Overall, though, what do I take from this exhibition, particularly in light of my Assignment Five work?

·         Actually, some encouragement, first of all; I’m capable, I think, of making a decent shot at the portraits I have in mind for the assignment and the sort of subject matter and style that I’m planning could sit perfectly well within this group.  It’s just up to me to execute them to a decent standard.

·         Well over 50% of the 60 exhibited (from 6000+ entrants) are shot with the subject facing the camera and looking into the lens – many in a very simple, standing, frontal pose.  That collaborative, aware, posed-but-not-staged look is what I feel most keen on and most comfortable with for the assignment work.  So, I think I’ll stop worrying about trying to do anything too clever or more emotionally-charged/staged and just get on with it.

·         Many of the subjects are standing holding something – a concept that links directly to my own proposed approach.  Indeed, the winner is a portrait of someone standing, facing the camera, looking into the lens, holding something of significance!

So – glad I found the time to do this and it has encouraged me to follow the direction that seemed right in the first place.  Just need to get some sessions organised!  I’ve spoken to quite a few potential subjects now, but it all needs organising.


  1. Sounds like you got some good information from that visit Stan.

    Be very sure of your set up when you 'go live', but don't previsualise the subject too much, be ready to let something happen and react to it. Get somebody to assist if you can so you can concentrate on the subject and not have to faff about.

  2. Very interesting Stan, particularly your musings on Ass 5. Look forwards to seeing the photos! Dave