Reviewing big group photography shows without resorting to crass generalisations isn’t easy. It’s tricker still when they come with as baggage and controversy as the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize often does (see last year’s review for more on that). All the same I have been looking forward to seeing what the prize had to offer this year, because with the departure of the National Portrait Gallery’s long standing curator of photographs it seemed like an opportunity for the judging panel to perhaps make a break with the past and to focus on the type of portraits we are not used to seeing in the prize’s often rather conservative selection. To some extent I got what I hoped for, and while the aesthetic and subjective-objectivity of August Sander and the neue sachlichkeit still hang heavy, there are small signs of change.
That change is most obvious in the choice of winner, a photograph by David Titlow which couldn’t really stand in starker contrast to last year’s winner (Spencer Murphy’s portrait of the jockey Katie Walsh) or for that matter any of the other winners over the last decade. Titlow’s photograph (some will contest whether it is even a portrait) shows a scene in the aftermath of a mid-summer party, with three adults watching on as the photographer’s infant son tentatively encounters a dog for the first time. The combination of darkness, the light cresting on the edges of the figures and the child’s outreached hand give the scene a feeling of renaissance religiosity that contrasts sharply with the reality of the scene, a tranquil moment left in hedonism’s wake.
On first glance the composition appears uncontrolled and spontaneous, perhaps even a little messy, but on closer inspection the positioning and timing is quite perfect, with the disparate elements of the photograph resting on and supporting one another in a way which is beautiful and has a great sense of fragility. In contrast to past winners the photograph is notably grainy, dark and somewhat desaturated. It looks indeed almost as if it could have been taken on a high end mobile phone, a far cry from the painterly, almost liquid large format film photographs that often claim the top prizes each year.
There are a number of other photographs in the gallery which have a similar feeling of spontaneity. A greater number than usual also derive from larger documentary projects, rather than being the result of commissions or one off shoots with a subject as is often the case with submissions. Robert Timothy’s photograph of BBC newsreader Martine Croxall was one that caught my eye, part of larger series called One Minute To Go which shows newsreaders in the moments before they go on air. Surrounded by the luminous colour of a studio green screen, Croxall is looking down at a monitor buried in her desk, but appears to be staring vacantly off into space as if waiting to be snapped out of a waking dream by her cue.
Certainly for the many detractors of the prize the same tropes that draw criticism are still here to be found, for example in Birgit Puve’s third prize winning portrait of two Estonian twin boys, one holding a rooster, and perhaps also in Laura Panack’s portrait of a young Jewish girl, which won the John Kobal prize. Whether you agree with them or not, I don’t think these criticisms are really worth dwelling on. For me the problem with Taylor Wessing remains not so much the ‘what’ of the photographs, but much more the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of them. For all the technical and emotional skill on display here there’s a lack of ambition, particularly in the short list, which I find frustrating and disappointing. An absence of photographs that significantly question or challenge what portraiture is and how we use it to represent people and ideas.
This feeling is all the more inescapable because in the gallery next door is a small two room display of portraits by Lord Snowdon. These are photographs made as long as fifty years ago which show as much wit and daring as those in the Taylor Wessing prize, and in some cases rather more (for example in his brilliant portrait of art historian and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt). Photography at large has changed beyond all recognition over the last fifty years, indeed it has over the last ten, but the Taylor Wessing prize still seems to largely feature photographs that appear to have fallen out of an earlier era of photography, one which has more to do with the age of pictorialism than the age of Instagram. Titlow’s victory is a promising sign that the prize is opening itself up to less conventional portraiture, and a less rigid approach to technique, but there remains still some considerable way still to go.
The Taylor Wessing Prize 2014 is at the National Portrait Gallery from 26th November 2014 – 22nd February 2015