Having reviewed the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize pretty much every year since Disphotic’s creation, I decided to approach it in a different way this year. I’ve tended to criticise the prize in the past for being a public relations figleaf for corporate interests, and also for rewarding photographs which are technically fastidious but conceptually banal and predictable. When the shortlist was first announced back in September I offered a closer reading of the four photographs in it and to test the latter criticism I attempted to predict the winner, suggesting that it would be Ivor Prickett’s photograph Amira and Her Children which would ultimately triumph because of its combination of topical relevancy and visual tropes common to many other winners of the competition.
So first of all I should say, I was totally wrong (it’s been known to happen). The first prize went instead to David Stewart’s photograph Five Girls 2014, which shows the photographer’s daughter and four friends, and mirrors a photograph he took of the group seven years earlier shortly before they began studying for their GCSE’s, an image which was also long listed for the prize in 2008. Perhaps Prickett’s photograph was too obvious to win, or perhaps someone has been reading my blog (I live in hope). In either case it still says something about the prize’s tendency towards self-referentialism that the jury should select a winner which is a reshoot of a photograph exhibited in the prize seven years before. Stewart’s winning photograph would have gained much from being displayed in the gallery alongside its predecessor, but perhaps this would have said rather too much about how little the Taylor Wessing prize dares to reward innovation.
Onwards then to the real purpose of this post, which is to look at the wider long list, a selection of images which can shed a little more light on the direction the prize might be taking than the shortlist of four photographs. In recent years however there has been less a sense of movement or direction with the prize, and rather one of inertia and I regret to say that this remains the case. The smattering of celebrity portraits which one encounters very soon after entering the gallery rather sets the tone. Examples include portraits of the actor Peter Capaldi by Paul Stuart, and of Barack and Michelle Obama by Gillian Laub. In some respects I wish the prize excluded these sorts of images entirely, since celebrity portraits rarely seem penetrate beneath their subject’s well-rehearsed personas (I would say that Anoush Abrar’s portrait of Kofi Anan, shortlisted in 2013 is a notable exception to this).
This year I felt Tom Oldham’s photograph of the artists Gilbert and George was about the closest things got to an insightful celebrity portrait, but only by dint of photographing them from behind and hinting at the artists’s advancing age rather than doing battle with their carefully cultivated image. Another exception was Noriko Takasugi’s portrait of the artist Yayoi Kusama stands out for it’s boldness amongst the mostly drab colour palettes of other photographs on show (although perhaps a greater challenge for a photographer would be to take a drab portrait of Kusama). In this image the artist sits in front of a vibrant print emblazoned with a pumpkin, the vegetable’s shape a perfect match for Kusama’s pulsating bob of bright red hair. Judging by other portraits this pose is Kusama’s preferred one when being photographed, but the skilful composition means Takasugi manages to put her own mark on it.
The stronger photographs in the long list are perhaps inevitably those of ordinary, unrecognised people. Special mention should go to Kai Weidenhofer’s two photographs of children from his project Forty out of one million which explores the fate of those fleeing the Syrian Civil War. Bright eyed and looking curiously towards the camera, what pricks one is the realisation that they are all casualties, and two of them are missing limbs. One portraits shows two young girls, one of them a toddler, the fleshy skin of her upper leg pours over the top of the prosthetic, the foot of which is jammed into a tiny child’s wellington boot. The other girl, perhaps her sister, wears a pink leg brace which matches her hoodie. It’s a tragic image, but not one which is entirely devoid of hope. Birgit Püve’s portrait of Fagira D Morti from her project Estonian Documents was another strong and strange image which left me wanting to know much more, and this and Wiedenhofer’s photographs evidence a notable trend amongst this years longlist for images drawn from much larger documentary or artistic projects.
Despite the Evening Standard heralding a longlist of experimental ‘gems’, I found that in fact it disappointed once again because of the utter lack of experimentation or diversity. I’m a realist, I don’t expect the main prize to go to anything profoundly challenging, but as I’ve often said before it would be nice to see the longlist at least used to reflect a wider sense of what portraiture is. Rakesh Mohindra’s portrait tryptch Desmond is by far the most conceptual, combining a conventional portrait with a sheet of braille and a still life. Ines Dumig’s portrait, part of a series looking at the asylum process in Germany through the experiences of a young Somali woman, is another one which bucks the trend, turning the portrait on its head by masking her subject’s face in impenetrable shadow. These exceptions however are in a real minority, and there is nothing among them which is truly challenging in the way that I hope to see each year (for more on that see the end of 2013’s Taylor Wessing review).
The shocking shortage of innovation in the long list is absolutely not due to some inherent limitation of photography. Photography is transmuting itself out of all recognition at the moment, in ways which are variously terrifying and exciting, but the effects of which the Taylor Wessing prize seems either ignorant or indifferent to (or to be charitable to the jury, perhaps this is simply the only type of photography that gets submitted). Equally the idea that portraiture or the representation of the human form is as static a genre as these annual exhibitions would suggest is almost laughable when one looks at the way artists in other media have and continue to constantly reinvent both. Rather than visiting this exhibition and feeling that I am seeing the brightest and best of one strand of contemporary photography, my feeling instead is much the same as when I review some chapter in photography’s distant, historical past. Aha, that’s how they did this then. How charming…