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Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2011 Exhibition

Martin Jordan went along to the National Portrait Gallery to view this year's Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize winner's work.

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Article by Martin Jordan.

It’s November, it must be the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In case you’re wondering who the heck is Taylor Wessing? He or I should say they, are a firm of International Lawyers. Nope, I’d never heard of them either, but if I ever need representation from an international law firm, I’ll know who to call.

The five short listed entries were flagged up weeks ago to almost universal scorn and indifference, if the forums are any sort of barometer. I have to say I also found them bland and unexciting with little to hold my interest. At least last year there was a bit of controversy (Don’t click if you are offended by some rather ripe genitallia).

Harriet and Gentleman Jack, 2010 by Jooney Woodward
Harriet and Gentleman Jack, 2010 by Jooney Woodward.

The winner from the shortlist taking the £12,000 top prize was British photographer Jooney Woodward, 32, for her portrait, Harriet and Gentleman Jack. Was this really the crème de la crème of 6000 entries? It strikes me the big selling point of this picture is that the guinea pig has the same colouring as the girl and that’s about all it has to recommend it. Edgy it’s not. Now, if it had been Richard Gere holding the guinea... (I read that comment on a forum).

What I find bizarre is that a po-faced teenage girl of the ginger persuasion, posing with an animal won top prize last year. What were they thinking? A new set of judges came to the same conclusion, ginger, teenage, girl, animal, sullen: ticks all the boxes. Did no one pipe up and say, hang on this combo won last year!

So I really started wondering about the judging process by which they came to this rather extraordinary decision. I have a rough idea of the judging process, but I asked the press officer for all the gory details. You can read about the selection procedure at the end of this article. Oh to be a fly-on-the-wall at the judging sessions.

The judges aren’t told the photographers names, the title, or the ‘X factor’ style back-story (so many photos seem to have), until the winner is chosen. I always had a suspicion talking a good photo could sway judges, so I was pleased to find this wasn’t the case.

One thing that did occur to me as odd, a lawyer from Talyor Wessing was on the panel of judges, amongst all the photographic worthies. Does Santander ask McLaren if one of their bank managers can have a drive?

A reason why the same style of pictures seem to keep on winning even though the judges change, maybe because photographers see what wins one year and submit similar the next. If judges receive 6000 photos of surly-faced teenagers, you know what’s going to win.

I want to ask Mr. Taylor Wessing, why so many the glums? Why does every one look like they have just been presented with one of your bills? (£475 per hour, in case you’re interested) Mustn’t grumble too much though, thanks to their lovely sponsorship it’s only two quid to get in.

Portraiture can depict a range of emotions, give insight, and really connect with the viewer. The best portraiture is subtle, never obvious. This is an odd concept that a serious portrait has to be melancholy.

Next year I’m going to enter some big cheesy toothy smiley shots, obviously in a knowing, ironic post-modern sort of way. They will stand out at the walk-by amongst all the glums, therefore guaranteeing the judges attention and my rightful place in the top sixty.

As I wandered around the gallery I did see some fantastic portraits. Work that could thrill you, make you wish you’d taken it, and inspire you to try. I looked forward to chatting to some of the photographers, all winners in my book. How fabulous to have your work hanging on the wall, in one of the world’s most prestigious galleries.

Problem was, in what I thought was a rather glaring omission on the PR front, none of them had name tags. So frustratingly I couldn’t tell journalist from artist, I had to rely on photographers approaching me, only the brave ones then.

Rebecca Martinez by Martin Jordan
Rebecca Martinez taken by Martin Jordan.

Rebecca Martinez an American lady of a certain age was the first photographer to boldly introduce herself. Rebecca’s picture of a mother and baby had an interesting angle. The pretty young mother photographed had a freckled face and so did the baby, ahh cute, lovely... Screech! (needle scratching across a record) Babies don’t have freckles!

 Photo by Rebecca Martinez - Zoila with freckles
 Photo by Rebecca Martinez - Zoila with freckles.

Rebecca informed me that it was a ‘reborn baby’, now I had never heard of this. She went on to say they are incredibly realistic dolls. The ‘mother’ cared for it like a real baby, but had allowed Rebecca to paint the freckles on. This was a brilliant move and I’m sure got her into the top flight. The press officer informed me that the judges had not realised the baby was made from silicone, and who can blame them. Google (other search engines are available) ‘reborn babies’ and the cult surrounding them - OMG! as the kids would say, they are creepy.

If you want to get lots of hits on You Tube, make a film at a crowded beach, take a ‘reborn baby’ out of the pram, throw said baby into the sea for your dog to fetch... What?

Claudia Burlotti
Claudia Burlotti taken by Martin Jordan.

I literally bumped into another photographer, Italian Claudia Burlotti 28. Her portrait ‘Anna and Roberto at home’ Shows her grandma 85 cuddling her husband also 85, (they married in 2004 when they were only 78), is joyous and life affirming. Did no one mention to her the po-faced rule? Claudio had an unfair advantage; I think you had to be a family member to get such an intimate shot.

Photo by  Claudia Burlotti - Anna and Roberto at home.
Photo by Claudia Burlotti - Anna and Roberto at home.

She was keen to tell me her grandma and husband still enjoyed sex. Whoa Claudia! Too much information. Some things are better left unsaid. Anyway it was obvious from the photo, genuine emotion beautifully executed, and a good news story for anyone who’s getting older.

Carlo Bevilacqua
Carlo Bevilacqua taken by Martin Jordan.

Next up was another Italian Carlo Bevilacqua 50 his picture ‘Gianni, Hermit for Love’ was full of interest and detail showing a Hermit and his dogs. Carlo is making a book on hermits, and was keen to show me more hermits on his iPad (what a great tool for photographers). I came away reeling with more information about hermits than I’ll ever need. For instance did you know 60% are women, that they are mostly sane, that there is an online hermit community? (which is how Carlo finds them), and rather unsurprisingly they prefer warmer climes for that desirable cosy cave.

Photo by Carlo Bevilacqua - Gianni Hermit for Love.
Photo by Carlo Bevilacqua - Gianni Hermit for Love.

If I was being picky, I would argue that this shot is not really a portrait, If I passed by the hermit in Croydon High street I definitely wouldn’t recognise him, if I passed him on a mountain track with a herd of dogs I still wouldn’t recognise him.

Another shot I enjoyed which played fast and loose with the concept of a portrait, was ‘Anna’ by Paolo Patrizi. No face at all in this one. It stands alone as a powerful photograph but when you read the narrative it is even more compelling. Anna is a migrant Nigerian prostitute working in a field by the side of a road in Italy.

Photo by Paolo Patrizi - Anna
Photo by Paolo Patrizi - Anna.

A few days later I went back to the gallery paid my £2 and viewed the photos again. I wanted to see which photos had stuck in my memory and decide which photos would be in my top five.

Judging art is obviously very subjective and I guarantee your opinion will differ, so I put my list up with that caveat. If you go along, its fun to put yourself in the Judge’s shoes, and it certainly focuses your attention. It also makes you realize how difficult it is.

The Embrace by Jonathan May

I really liked the portrait by Claudia, but I couldn’t have two embracing couples, so I choose this one. A tender moment, even though it is probably totally set up, good lighting directing us to the action. The colour of the tats is striking, and I admire the faintly ridiculous sprit of having your breakfast half-naked with yer guts hanging out. They just don’t care...

The Embrace by Jonathan May
The Embrace by Jonathan May.

Erica E. Born In 1910. By Karsten Thormahlen

Clever the way the photographer has snuck this photograph’s back-story into the title. Yes she’s over a 100 years old and fit, as in healthy. Lots of character, great eyes, fills the frame. Oh dear I’m sounding like a camera club judge.

Erica E. Born In 1910. By Karsten Thormahlen
Erica E. Born In 1910. By Karsten Thormahlen.

Oliver by Kelvin Murray

Love the lighting and the quirkiness. The boy’s family won a raffle for Kelvin’s services given freely for charity. This shot was for the photographer- what goes around comes around.

Oliver by Kelvin Murray.

Kiera Knightly by Michael Birt

I’m a bit skeptical about portraits of famous people, as the viewer will connect so much easier; it always strikes me that they have a bit of an unfair advantage. However this picture is hanging on the far wall opposite the entrance, as soon as you walk in... bam this picture grabs you, I can’t resist it. Great composition, lovely colour palette, beautiful lighting. It won’t get top prize as it's Kiera Knightly...

Kiera knightly by Michael Birt.

Malega Surma Boy Ethiopa by Mario Marino

This picture is my winner of the five. See it once and it stays in the memory. Hard to define what makes a great portrait but for me, this is one. The boy has a confidence that just holds your attention. His dark skin on a dark background also gives the photo a very graphic look.

Malega Surma Boy Ethiopa by Mario Marino
Malega Surma Boy Ethiopa by Mario Marino.

I would urge you to go along to the gallery. Enjoy the work you like, wonder about the work you don’t. Be stimulated, be inspired.

The exhibition runs from the 10th November 2011 until the 12th February 2012.

Response from NPG press office clarifying the Judging process:
The six judges are seated as a panel with a white wall set up a few metres in front of them. A team of art handling technicians bring each photographer’s work around. This will be up to six prints at a time if the photographer has entered a series, but only one photographer’s work is seen at any time. The photographs are seen anonymously so that the photographer’s name is not revealed and the art handlers pause to give the judges time to view them. Judges engage in discussion about the photographs throughout the process. The judging is an open process whereby if one judge wishes to see a work in the next round, that work will be retained. Judges simply indicate clearly if they would like to see any work again.

The aims is to view as many of the total works received as possible on the first day of judging. It may be necessary to see a final 500 – 1,000 works on the morning of the second day. After this first round, the judges have usually retained up to 300 works.

The technicians resume walking by with the 300 works for the second round. Judges usually retain approximately 100 works after the second round of judging.

Once the selection has been reduced to about 100 works, these are laid out on tables around the room so that judges have the opportunity to spend more time looking at the prints closely. The judges must then reduce the selection down to 60 works. At a certain point the Chair of the judges will ask them to look at the works in a different way and begin thinking about the works that they would each select as potential prize-winners.

Judges initially select between them about 10-15 potentially prize-winning works and discuss their reasons for these choices. They will then indicate their preferences in order to reduce the selection to 5 works. Further discussion ensues and the judges then give their preferences a second time to decide on the prize winning works and the order.

Visit the National Portrait Gallery for more information.

Article by Martin Jordan.

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Photo_Lee 10 6 United Kingdom
15 Nov 2011 7:36PM
Great article. I find photography very subjective. I'm sure different people would favor different portraits, all seeing something appealing to their taste. I can't see why the winning photo won at all. Personally I think most of the others in the article were better............but what do I know Smile

derekt 13 United Kingdom
16 Nov 2011 2:00PM
Not sure I'd agree with the winner either but I can see what the judges saw. Why do others seem to miss it - Girl has a lab coat on, Guinea pig has a label... looks like a girl with a pet but...Guinea pig, they have to spell it out? Photographers are supposed to be good at observation...

I'd probably go for rebecca Martinez's freckles or Paolo Patrizi's shot, or the hermit, or the African boy -they're all pretty good, and varied too. I think there is a change from a few years ago when they were all sullen and wasted. Still like to see the boundaries pushed a bit further though. But lets leave grinning shots for camera clubs and high street photographers Wink
stix 17 924 87 United Kingdom
16 Nov 2011 4:12PM
Hi Derek
you have a point. The judges see no description or title until the winner is chosen.
Therefore they may have found the ambiguity of the picture disturbing and edgy, girl with pet or girl with shampoo tester?
However we are in the position of knowing that she is an exhibitor at a country show, the white coat is an exhibitor's coat and the label is to identify her pet.
There is no ambiguity.
The photographer herself on being interviewed about the picture makes no mention of her intention to make some point about animal testing.
Maybe we should view the pictures as the Judges do, without any blurb. That would leave us free to let our imaginations run riot.
16 Nov 2011 8:29PM
Think you are way off the mark with the guinea pig/lab coat idea. Judging by the cages behind her and the rest of the surroundings, i'd say she was exhibiting the guinea pig at a country show (i.e. royal welsh etc.). Sometimes people try to read to much into a photo instead of just admiring it for what it is.
16 Nov 2011 9:14PM
I suppose that all competitions/exhibitions provoke controversy. I went to a national portrait exhibition down here in Australia recently and had similar feelings about the prizewinners, still can't work out what was so good about the winning portrait, I would have thrown the print away if it was one of mine. One thing that does seem to be happening down here is that the prints are getting bigger and are shown unframed.
stix 17 924 87 United Kingdom
16 Nov 2011 10:08PM
@ Seymourlite. It was the Royal Welsh Show.
@ Ericinoz. I think they use the same frames every year. I havent noticed a trend in prints getting bigger. In this competition the maxium size allowed is 1015 x 760mm. which is pretty big. As a contestent I think its in your interests to print big to make more impaxt in that opening few seconds when the judges decide whether to put your photo through to the next round.

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