The Taylor Wessing Photography Prize at the National Portrait Gallery, London
At present, autumnal London is overwhelmed by photography exhibitions, which vary immeasurably in their poignancy. As a result of digital innovation, we also face the bittersweet reality of our newfound passion for bombarding each other with images on websites like Facebook and Tumblr. Although social media has some positive implications for visual culture, the sharing of millions of profoundly unexceptional images makes it increasingly challenging to sift through the good, the bad and the downright offensive. Though, all is not lost, because we can seek salvation in the annual Taylor Wessing Photography Prize, which never fails to rescue us from the depths of mediocrity. This November the panel included revered judges such as Robin Muir, contributing editor to Vogue, the artist Bettina von Zwehl and Phillip Prodger, Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. The team were faced with the immense challenge of sifting through 4, 193 original prints to select only 60 beauties from around the world.
David Titlow’s portrait of his son Konrad Lars Hastings Titlow was declared to be this year’s winning photograph. The composition is reminiscent of a Rembrandtian group portrait as he captures the hazy morning after Midsummer celebrations in Rataryd, Sweden. Indeed, Testino probably wouldn’t have chosen to juxtapose a baby with beer cans, but that’s what makes the photograph so honest in its depiction of everyday life. There is something intensely intriguing about the subject matter, which is timeless in its representation of the simplicity of the bond between man and his dog. Titlow’s talent is unsurprising given his extensive experience shooting for Vanity Fair, Vice and the Guardian, but it’s the intimacy of the scene rather than his notoriety, which makes it so captivating. I always feel torn between monochrome and polychromatic photography and found that this subdued colour palette with pallid flesh tones and dark clothing offered the perfect balance.
Buki Koshoni's photography Embrace is one of the sincerest displays of human emotion that I have ever had the pleasure of viewing. Defining his Ace and Marianna series, it captures the artist’s wife in the moments after giving birth to their first child. Despite Buki’s reluctance, his defiant wife had declared that she wished him to photograph the birth in its entirety and to her he owes the world, because amongst a plethora of evocative works, I would declare this to be a veritable beacon of love. Like a modern Pieta, she protects the son delivered from her womb. We not only contemplate the classical symbolism behind mother and child establishing their initial bond, but also the admiration of the man behind the lens who is capturing the moment when his life changes forever. Although it is a rather gruesome image at face value, if you take a little time to indulge in delicate features like the fragility of her wedding ring and the perfect pastel manicure, it is all the more beautiful.
Given that anyone can submit their portraiture, the shortlist immerses us in the joy and suffering of real people across a broad spectrum of different cultures. Many of the portraits are somewhat gruesome and far from aesthetically pleasing, but we’re drawn in by the honesty of the photographs, which never fail to embody Keats’ mantra, “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Rather than selecting images with high profile subjects or recognisable locations, the majority of works illuminate the wonders of an unseen world. The relative obscurity and anonymity of the subject matter ironically makes the portraits all the more hypnotic. Given that we live in a time when we are far more likely to be bombarded with images of empty celebrity culture than we are our own loved ones, it’s lovely to be liberated from mass media.
Birgit Puve's particularly poignant image of childhood friendship captures a moment of curiosity between two blonde brothers Braian and Ryan. Taken from the Double Matters series, Puve was working on a photography book, which captured the lives of twins in rural Estonia. The naturalistic composition is set at the boys’ grandmother’s house where they were photographed playing with a chicken in the surrounding countryside. Their confrontational gazes place the audience within the role of the voyeur, thus making it all the more penetrating.
As with many of our fellow visitors, I was immediately drawn to Sami Parkkinen's photograph of Arvi wrapped in his father’s winter coat. It comes from Parkkinen’s on-going series about father-son relationships, which captures the innocence of those early stages of friendship. Throughout the exhibition, there’s no doubt that paternity and childhood seem to be prevalent themes within the most poignant images. Aesthetically, it was the cobalt blue of the coat juxtaposing the child’s azure irises, which I found so appealing. It was one of the rare portraits of a stranger that you can actually imagine hanging in your home.
Each image captures its own narrative, which inevitably evokes varying reactions from the audience. Depending on our own experiences, we can relate to some portraits, but not to others and so we find our own unique path through the exhibition. You can’t help, but notice how instead of the usual steady progression alongside the paintings at a blockbuster exhibition, everybody dedicates different lengths of time to different portraits. Perhaps you have a particular alignment with a foreign country or are enduring your own personal battle, which could lure you into the brevity of a photograph’s narrative. Maybe you have a weakness for beige and were drawn in by Jon Tonks' photograph of Marcus Henry holding a vast balloon outside a meteorological station. Whatever your reasons, it doesn’t matter, because there is such a broad spectrum of work to be appreciated that you are guaranteed to find a favourite.
Karan Kumar Sachdev's photograph of Vijay Rudanlalji Banspal is utterly enchanting, because of its luminous colour palette and the jubilation of the subject. As a result of the increasing brevity of contemporary photography and photojournalism, it is refreshing to be startled by such an image of untainted gaiety. Resembling a Steve McCurry portrait, the elderly man is captured in his joy, which is reflected in the draped ochre robes that complement his canary yellow throne. Despite the fact that it is most likely set at twilight, I would like to think that the atmosphere of hazy celebration conjures an image of celebrations continuing until dawn.
The National Portrait Gallery (£3/£2)
13th November - 22nd February 2015
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com