The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016 exhibition is currently at Sunderland Museum after opening at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition includes fifty seven portraits of very differing subjects from around the world including; young people on a riverbank in England, a tired worker in the UAE and young cyclist friends in Lithuania. The prize winning images are from South Africa, the USA and Israel. Some portraits are taken in the studio while others are taken in situ. Sometimes the subject is aware they are being photographed, sometimes not. The emotional range of the images moves from happy and carefree to harrowing and a cause for concern. The exhibition also includes differing photographic processes, such as photogravure and the wet plate collodion process or tintype. Something for everyone then.
The winner of the first prize in the exhibition has been described, perhaps with tongue in cheek, as the ‘ultimate school photo‘. The image is from a series by Claudio Rasano titled ‘Similar Uniforms: We Refuse to Compare’ which in the words of Rasano, as quoted by the British Journal of Photography, was focused on “preserving individuality in the context of school uniforms“. The subject of the photograph is Thembinkosi Fanwell Ngwenya, a student in Johannesburg. He poses in his school uniform against a neutral background. So far so much like a school photograph, albeit a very good one. But the photographer draws out his personality and you see him as an individual. As a result you want to know more about him; who are his friends, who are his family, what is he studying, what is his future. You are concerned for someone you’ve never met. The ‘ultimate school photo’? Well maybe but certainly an image that is skilfully taken, gives a connection to its subject and ultimately makes you want to know more about them.
Images of young people
The prize winning portrait is just one of quite a number of portraits of young people in the exhibition. For me the following are three of the most outstanding sets of images.
A pair of images by Sian Davey are of her daughter Martha, photographed at sixteen with her friends over two summers in what appears to be an idyllic rural spot. Beautifully taken there is an air of innocence in these honest images of Martha and her friends. At the same time they seem to show young people on the cusp of becoming adults and moving on from long summer days.
The strongly titled ‘Be Murdered’ by Judy Gelles creates a feeling of concern and worry for its subject. The image shows a young girl in a pose that is young, bright and confident. Her hands held as if she is skipping or dancing, one sock slightly higher than the other; she holds her body in a manner that suggests she won’t conform to how you expect her to pose for the camera. The image itself doesn’t conform to the accepted norm of a portrait either in that it doesn’t show the subjects face; it also includes text around its subject. The text on the image are the words of its subject and describe: her situation, her wishes and her fear for the future. Her fear for the future is where the title of the image comes from.
An image of a Boy Scout in Lagos, Nigeria is, with its handsome subject, and the mustard yellow and deep green of the scout uniform against a yellow backdrop, strikingly beautiful. It is of a young person who wears his uniform proudly and, as with so many of these images of young people, you can’t help but feel concerned for their future. Looking at the image of the Boy Scout you get the feeling it may not be the only uniform he will wear.
The People’s Pick
The ‘Boy Scout’ took third place in the People’s Pick with ‘John’, an image commissioned by the Cheka Sana Foundation in second place. The image of ‘John’ is a companion image to ‘Anastazia’. Both photographs are of young and perhaps vulnerable people in Tanzania. Photographed against a white background both images show young people who comport themselves with great dignity despite their incredibly difficult lives. Anastazia looks almost serene as she holds her hands to her chest exposing her bare arms, one of which is badly burned. First place in the People’s Pick went to ‘Frances’ an image by Josh Redman that also won the John Kobal New Work Award.
Caravaggio and Frances
It is quite easy to see why ‘Frances’ won the awards it did. The photograph is an image of Frances, a woman who at 83 was probably quite new to nude modelling. If so she looks absolutely comfortable in her skin. The photographer Josh Redman was apparently a sculptor for many years and this training may account for the use of chiaroscuro and side lighting to render the image so renaissance perfect. The beauty, the worldliness and serenity of Frances combined with the photographers choice of lighting makes the image look like a Caravaggio, albeit one with a beautiful subject.
Rules of engagement
Although the images are all portraits and moving through the exhibition you may expect to use the same aesthetics again and again, the images are so wide ranging in subject, presentation and gathered from so far across the world it’s difficult to be that lazy. You move from one image to the next adjusting your rules of engagement as you go; this one is like a renaissance painting, this one uses a different photographic process, consider this one with its text overlay, does the family relationship between artist and subject matter, does our European outlook change our point of view. The exhibition has similarities to the BP Portrait Awards which is also shown annually at the National Portrait Gallery. Different subjects, different methods, different relationships, but at the end it all leads to one absolutely fascinating exhibition of portraits that is so easy to connect with.
The Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize 2016 exhibition is currently on show at Sunderland Museum now until Sunday 4 June 2017.
Find out more about Sunderland Museum.
Find out more about the National Portrait Gallery.
Find out more about the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize.