The Taylor-Wessing portrait prize generally manages to divide opinion like no other photographic award, something which is perhaps all the more surprising when you consider the relatively inoffensive subject matter. This may be because it’s a prize with a remarkably distinct vision of the type of work it wants, a coherency that other competition shortlists often seem to lack. Equally though that vision and that coherency can easily tip over into a selection of portraits which is self-referential, repetitive, and unambitious.
This year’s winner is Spencer Murphy’s portrait of the jockey Katie Walsh, photographed straight from the track at Kempton. Her face is splashed with mud and on first glance a dark line on her chin almost implies a cut lip. Just visible on the collar of her shirt is the word ‘easy’, a nice contrast with the far from easy event she has just finished. It’s not particularly difficult to see why this photograph won, it’s an alluring portrait which combines multiple contrasts; strength and sensitivity, poise and exhaustion. I’m not keen on the washed out, almost monochromatic palette in use on this and many other photographs in the show, it feels like a refusal to commit to either monochrome or colour. This is however a rather personal complaint.
Perhaps as important as discussing what did win, is what didn’t. In the four photograph shortlist there are several others of interest, the one that grabbed me most probably being Anoush Abrar’s portrait of former UN secretary general Kofi Anan, which bagged third prize. Anan’s eyes are shut, resting perhaps after the labours of his former post, but also he looks older than in the photographs we are maybe more used to seeing of him, and something of the face and texture of his skin reminds me, perhaps rather morbidly, of a death mask. It also in part stands out because it’s one of only a handful of black and white photographs in the show.
Also in the short list is Giles Price’s Mamta Dubey and Infant, taken during the Kumbh Mela Festival in Allahabad, India. There’s a rather obvious but still nice contrast between the woman’s traditional looking robes and the child’s rather hideous modern outfit, complete with pink teddy bears. While the child gazes off out of shot at something more interesting, the woman’s rather adversarial, and at the same time uncertain gaze is directed at the camera. It’s a gaze that is repeated throughout the show, as is the pattern of female subject and male photographer. A quick count revealed that only a third of the work on show has a male subject, including those photographs that show both men and women. Equally I couldn’t help noticing that every winner since 2007 has been a portrait of a woman, in most cases taken by a man and again in each case showing that same direct and yet rather demure gaze. Perhaps a relevant observation, or perhaps not.
This, and a few other repetitive tropes in the longlist will provide the usual critics of the prize with all the ammunition they need to trot out the same equally repetitive criticisms. In the process they may fail to notice some of the excellent photographs on show that don’t conform to type. To highlight two, Ji Yeo’s Beauty Recovery Room #1 shows a young woman recovering from plastic surgery, looking painfully swollen and unhappy, an interesting alternative view of the conventional or unconventional beauty that is the subject of many of the photographs on display. Along similar lines is Nestor Diaz’s Sofia, a photograph of a bare chested woman who has undergone a mastectomy, an image that for some reason instantly reminded me of the 2009 winning photograph by Paul Floyd Blake of paralympian Rosie Bancroft, although in that case her disfigurement is much less noticeable, indeed almost hidden.
I suppose what lingered most on leaving the exhibition was a sense of slight disappointment at how traditional the selection was. I didn’t see a single photograph which challenged my idea of what a portrait should or could be, and this feels like a shame. Instead I saw a lot of technically perfect, quite formal, and as noted rather monochromatic portraits. As has been remarked by others, this may just reflect the pool of work that is submitted, and the referential nature of the longlist may be as much down to what contestants think the prize expects (and therefore submit), as what the jury actually consider to be interesting portraiture. It’s perhaps also worth noting that one of the jury members, the NPG’s curator of photographs Terence Pepper, is due to retire at the end of this year. Whether this will have any bearing on the shape of future longlists will remain to be seen. The Taylor Wessing Prize is on at the National Portrait Gallery until February 9th 2014.