Writing on photography

The Taylor Wessing Prize 2015 Shortlist

Traditionally I’ve always done a write up of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize after the announcement of the winner and after I’ve attended the press preview. As an experiment I thought I’d do things differently this year, and consider the four photographs in the shortlist ahead of both of these events. The main reason is that while I have often criticised the Taylor Wessing prize for being very conservative (not to mention a corporate PR wheeze), I always do it in retrospect and with the asset of hindsight. For a change I thought it would be interesting to put my claims about the prize’s predictability to the test by laying them out my predictions long before the result has been announced. I’m also keen to do this because it offers an opportunity to consider the shortlisted photographs in more detail, and to consider some of the longlisted photographs separately once they go on public show in November.

First amongst the shortlisted portraits is Five Girls 2014 by David Stewart which shows the photographer’s daughter and four friends, and perfectly mirrors a photograph he took of the group seven years earlier shortly before they began studying for their GCSE’s. In the new photograph the girls sit at a table and each gazes in a different direction (some more self-consciously than others). It’s a nice example of the individuality and confidence that develops as you come of age, offset against the lingering importance of childhood friendship groups. The photograph makes the most sense though seen in relation to its predecessor, a comparison in which details like the girl’s choice of clothing, their posing and even the discarded sushi and salad containers on the table all gather some new meaning and significance.

Next, Anoush Abrar’s Hector depicts a nude child reclining against a black background, appearing almost to hover in mid-air. Abrar’s photograph was reportedly inspired by Carvaggio’s 1608 painting Sleeping Cupid, an ambiguous image to say the least, where cupid appears almost as if dead and surrounded by the damaged and broken tools of his trade. In Abrar’s photograph the child is awake and looking at the camera, which is probably just as well considering the sleeping cupid motif is often taken to darkly imply a dearth of love. Rather than the playful youthfulness of a cherub the child has an uncannily knowing expression reminiscent of the look rendered into the figure of the child Jesus in some artistic traditions, resulting in a child which appears more like a strange miniature adult. All in all I found it an oddly unsettling photograph, and it is difficult to untangle how much of that is by intent.

Nyaueth by Peter Zelewski is certainly the least conventional portrait in the shortlist, perhaps a concession to those who agitate for the prize to show a little more imagination in its selections, but which might equally just be an attempt to appeal to those interested in faddish Humans of New York style projects. The photograph was taken as part of a project called Beautiful Strangers, a series of street portraits of people who have caught Zelewski’s eye. The subject’s face is framed by her black hair which cascades down and out of the frame giving her face a powerful symmetry, albeit one which competes somewhat awkwardly with a wall on the left hand of the frame. This, the low angle, soft focus and indirect downward lighting all give the photograph a powerful intensity, but it remains like many other strong portraits taken as part of similar projects, basically just a picture of an interesting looking stranger in the street. In other words, I want to leave the photograph with something more to think about.

The final portrait in the shortlist is by Ivor Prickett and is titled Amira and her Children. In shows a Middle Eastern woman, sitting with her son and daughter in what appears to be a tent. Her headscarf is pulled back to reveal her hair, dark roots emerging from lighter, bleached looking hair, perhaps a hint at a rather more carefree life which has been left behind. She looks directly at the camera in a way which is tired, but in almost equal measure determined and steadfast. Amira’s daughter sits on her mother’s knee, her eyes downcast to her brother, on whose curly hair her hands play. Her brother’s head rests across his mother’s laps and his wide eyes are trained on the camera in a way which suggests a tired resignation to what is happening. The mother’s black dress and the military styling and epaulets on the children’s clothing offers an indirect hint at their origins; they are refugees from Mosul in northern Iraq, now in the hands of the Islamic State. The fate of the children’s father is unclear.

It is this photograph that I expect will win this year. In part because it resonates with many of the visual tropes and tendencies shared by the prize’s past winners but also because Prickett’s photograph resonates so powerfully with many of the terrible realities of the present. With the refugee influx into Europe and the seemingly inexorable spread of Islamic State high in the news and in people’s thoughts, it seems likely that the way this image subtlety touches on both themes will be rewarded. It’s a great portrait and would be a worthy winner from amongst the shortlist, although in respects still a somewhat disappointing one. Last year I rather optimistically predicted  that the prize was attempting to shed many of its old tendencies and recognise some of the ways that photographic portraiture has evolved beyond the pictorialism of the 1880’s and and the new objectivity of the 1930’s. However in terms of the shortlist at least it seems that the judges this year have held true to old tendencies and once again selected a series of technically skillful, but compositionally and conceptually conservative photographs of women, taken almost exclusively by men. Those of us who are waiting for the Taylor Wessing Prize to enter new photographic territory will, it seems, have to keep waiting.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography