The Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2016

by on February 15, 2017 in Arts Reviews

Taylor Wessing LLP is an international law firm with offices in 33 countries around the world. Since 2008 they have been sponsoring a major portrait competition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Taylor Wessing specialises in several fields of law. These include: energy, financial institutions, healthcare, life sciences and private wealth.

Out of 4,303 images submitted (from 1,842 photographers) for the 2016 prize, 57 were selected for the exhibition. Three winners are declared.

The winner of the 2016 Taylor Wessing prize (who receives £15,000.00) this year was Claudio Rasano. His image is of a South African schoolboy in uniform. The image was captured with a medium format film camera, [1] outdoors in natural light, against a plain background. It is a compelling image. Certainly it was a good choice for the first prize. It is difficult to say how a photo – which is essentially a school photo – should work so well. It helps that the subject has a frank, sympathetic, and somewhat submissive look. And that he is quite good looking. The composition is pretty simple; just boy and tie. The tie is set off to one side, and the edge of the tie forms a line with the boy’s pronounced cheek-bone. Had the tie been in place, in the centre of his shirt, underneath his jacket, the image would have lacked this strong line. (Was this placed, or a happy accident? Only Claudio Rasano knows). This is a strong and simple composition of an attractive subject with the added allure of his submissiveness. His submissiveness makes us feel good, and safe. No threats here. Even a slight hint of erortic availability.

The second prize went to Joni Sternbach for her image of a surfing couple. The image was captured with a view camera onto a wet collodion plate. This is a process where a positive of the image is formed directly onto a chemical coated plate inserted into the camera. The image is developed directly on the same plate – and at the same time as it is taken. (Which means that the developing chemicals and tank have to be present at the scene of the shooting). Personally this critic has a strong reaction against the image. The young woman’s pose seems to speak of a kind of self-absorption which he finds extremely unattractive. The image has a dated quality. It could have been taken in the 1970s. Quite possibly the use of the wet collodion process, naturally associated with old photographs – and a toned black and white tonal range – subtracts from the image that element of location in time which is typically deducible from the kind of camera and film used. The male in the image has a strong animalistic presence. Perhaps this critic’s dislike for the image is down to the fact that he really can’t see any intellectual qualities in the subjects with which he could engage. That said; it is certainly a professional piece of work; and this is just a personal reaction. Others may well like this image.

Third prize went to Kovi Konowiecki for two images of a Jewish settler at home in the West Bank. One is an image of the father and the other of his two daughters. The image was taken “at their home in an Israeli settlement about 10km south of Jerusalem in the mountains of the West Bank”. This map of the occupied West Bank seems to suggest that this is a West Bank settlement. In 1979 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 446 which stated that:

the policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East [2]

More recently, the UN Security Council has passed Resolution 2334 which re-affirms this position. The UN Press Release concerning this Resolution declares:

The Security Council reaffirmed this afternoon that Israel’s establishment of settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, had no legal validity, constituting a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the vision of two States living side-by-side in peace and security, within internationally recognized borders. [3]

The images – and more to the point, their selection in a prestigious international photo competition, seems to be one in the eye for the Palestinians and for UN Resolution 2334 and its predecessors. Slightly strange one might think from an international law firm. (The catalogue information is reticent about the name of the settlement. The sitter’s name is given as Shimi Beitar Illit. Beitar Ilit is the name of an illegal settlement in occupied Palestinian land 10km south of Jerusalem). [4]

The images were taken with a full-frame 35mm format digital camera using natural light. A large window on one side of the sitters seems to provide most of the illumination. The background is a highly decorated floral wall-paper. The window light is flattering to the man but not so flattering for the two young girls – whose faces on the side away from the window are cast into shadow. (Except the shadow slightly complements the frown that one of them is wearing). The sitters are well-dressed and look characterful. But the lighting could have been better handled. The judges comment that they were “immediately drawn to Konowiecki’s striking and ornate portraits, which provide a glimpse into an otherwise inaccessible community”. One suspects that it is the difference that appeals to them; though a Jewish settlement 10km from Jerusalem is hardly “inaccessible”. As we continue to review a selection of other images we can see that the judges are, in general, drawn to images of subjects who are not usually photographed; the very old, those with extreme special needs, those in extremes of hardship, older people exploring their bodies, and so on.

The three winning images (taking the last two as a single entry) can be seen on the National Portrait Gallery web site.

Following are some comments about some of the other images; which strike this author particularly.

Lauria Griffiths and Jonty Tacon offer a nice image of two boys in Lithuania posing with, apparently, a shared bicycle. This is a well-composed image, with a strong central line (a tree placed between the two subjects) creating an even symmetry. A piece of children’s playground apparatus off to one side, the same colour as the bike, balances the composition and also breaks the symmetry, which would otherwise be oppressive. The red of the bicycle complements the autumn colours of the trees. This is a nice evocative image of the trust and friendship between the two boys. It also gives a bit of flavour of life in this corner of Lithuania. It was shot with a full-frame digital camera using natural light.

Another duet, Karl Ohiri ad Riikka Kassinen, shot a boy-scout in Lagos, Nigeria. The photograph was taken in the street using a plain yellow backdrop. This image was also captured with a full-frame digital camera and with natural light. The colours of the boy’s uniform, yellow trousers and a green shirt, create an image which is composed of strong, simple, colours. It is a nice, clean image. The accompanying text in the catalogue refers to the frayed neckerchief and “uniform too large for his small frame” as evidence of the subject’s “vulnerability”. Some people of course want to see “vulnerability” everywhere (except perhaps where it needs to be seen, see below). – Possibly the subject does look a tiny bit “vulnerable” (if you look hard); but then he is a young boy taken off the street for an impromptu photo, so it is hardly surprising.

Matt Hamon has taken two images of people in the US State of Montana who are part of a group practising primitive living skills. The images were taken with a medium format camera and the photographer used a mix of flash and natural light. It may be a matter of taste but the use of flash, while well executed, is not altogether appealing for this writer. The majority of the portraits in the exhibition, perhaps surprisingly, use only natural light and this perhaps makes these ‘flashed’ images stand out. The colours and the settings in these images are interesting. One can get a sense of the natural and outdoor’s based life which is being depicted. The image of the man with his axe, who is engaged in chopping wood, is particularly strong. But, somehow, in an exhibition full of images shot only with natural light, they jar just a little bit. It may be a matter of taste, and in any event, they are striking images.

Another strong image is the portrait of UK politician Nigel Farage by Charlie Clift.  Charlie Clift shoots editorial and commercial work. His studio lit shot of Nigel Farage shows the influence of both genres. It is a stylish picture but also authentic. It gives an impression of Mr Farage’s character. (The author of the catalogue text accompanying this images chokes a little over Nigel Farage and has to qualify the subject as someone “who divides opinion – celebrated and criticised for his politics and opinions in equal measure”. They can’t just say ‘Nigel Farage’ without some kind of arms-length qualification). The image is shot with a full-frame digital camera. It looks like quite a simple lighting setup. Possibly just one large softbox or umbrella in front of and just off-centre to the subject. The simple background (with the turquoise colour matching the table which Farage is leaning on) supports the image well. Cigar in hand Farage steals the show. A well-executed piece of work.

One of this reviewer’s favourite images is the monochrome image of a shipping company chairman sitting in his office with 3 staff. The image was taken in London by Hania Farrell also using a full-frame digital camera. However; despite being shot indoors only natural light is used. (A slow shutter speed and wide aperture have allowed a low ISO so as to preserve detail. The wide angle has meant that a reasonable depth of field has been maintained despite the use of the wide aperture). The chairman is seated, and looking down. His three staff members are all looking at him. One perhaps as an equal but the other two, perhaps more junior members of staff, stand, as if waiting for instructions. The sense of waiting creates a palpable sense of expectancy. The viewer is, almost painfully, left waiting for something to happen. But what? The composition has been aided by certain structures in the room; such as a triangular alcove, which is used to frame the staff members. This image is a great piece of work because it generates a whole sense of enigma and mystery out of a single print. Wonderful.

Tom Merilion offers two images of street children in Tanzania taken in a studio using natural light. The camera used was a full-frame mirrorless digital model. (The Sony A7R II). The first image is a tinker photographed with his bag over his shoulder. The second shows a young woman called Anastazia, in  a red dress. There is no indication of how Anastazia makes her living on the streets. The practice of taking street urchins off the street and photographing them in a studio was a practice not uncommon in Victorian times. As the catalogue text says this “disconnects” them from their environment. The catalogue attempts to persuade us that this allows the focus to shift to small details. The burnt arm of the young girl. The Chelsea football glove which the boy “proudly” wears. On the other hand this “disconnect” has the effect of trying to make a fashion shoot out of abject poverty and desperation. Seeing the young people in their environment might send a political message. Photographing them in a studio where their “expressions and poses” become the subject of attention hides the social and economic context from sight and invites us to admire the individuals. While we are informed that the photographer took the images for a charity which works with “vulnerable children in Tanzania” the young people themselves are not described as vulnerable. On the contrary we are told that “their expressions and poses suggest strength and quiet dignity in the face of intensely difficult lives”. There is no sense that the author of the catalogue text considers that it might be better if such opportunities to demonstrate “quiet dignity” did not exist. The author of the catalogue text can consider a boy “vulnerable” because his Scout uniform is too big. But desperate street children are praised for their endurance. We have to accept that the charity which commissioned this work was acting in good faith. We also have to assume that the photographer was acting in good faith. It is, however, a disturbing piece of work.

Rachel Molina has taken a photograph of an elderly woman in care home. The hand of the carer is visible in the shot and rests on the main subject’s shoulder. Once again we are invited to consider the subject as “vulnerable”. No “quiet dignity” here. It is a good portrait; which gives us insight into the life of the sitter. The composition is aided by the contrasting colours; the red of the main sitter’s top, and the blue on the sleeve of the carer. Depth of field and framing/cropping are handled well. The image was shot indoors with a full-frame digital camera using natural light. The catalogue text assures us that the subject is “attentively cared for”. That may well be. It may be reading too much into the image but for this viewer the care looks quite professional. Not as “intimate” as the catalogue text suggests. Questions about institutionalised v. family care which could be raised by such an image are thus not addressed. We are invited to accept that institutional care is “intimate” and “attentive”. A message which would be welcomed by one of the private companies which make their profits out of running care homes in the UK.

Fabio Forin has provided an image of his boyfriend posing on a common in South-East London. The catalogue text gushes about the “gracefully lifted arm” and the “carefree reverie” of the pose. This is reading too much into the image. The pose is affected and hardly the unconscious “reverie” advertised. Nonetheless the composition is well-constructed with (as the catalogue text observes) the body of the subject positioned so as to balance the “waistline” of the subject against the line of the edge of the hill on which he is standing. The monochrome image was taken with a cropped sensor DSLR. It is a good image. But it is not as described in the catalogue text. Precisely; the subject is not in unconscious reverie and this in turn is inevitably linked to the sexual orientation of the subject. To claim that some look is there which is not is the result of an ideological treatment which prioritises a “correct” vision over seeing reality.

Paul Stuart has taken an image of John Harrison, who is over 100 years old. And who looks bright and alive. The image was taken with a medium format digital camera in the subject’s home. Studio lighting seems to have been used though no information about lighting is supplied by the photographer. The subject, shot half-turned away from the camera, head and shoulders only, looks intently into the middle-distance. The pure black background brings attention to his face. Careful control of depth of field, and the very high resolution of the camera help to produce a striking image of very high quality. The expression of the subject indicates that the photographer had managed to build up a good rapport with him. Taking good portraits is more than just owning an expensive camera and knowing how to use it.

An image which is definitely that of a vulnerable sitter is the portrait of a special needs teenage girl taken in Mongolia by photographer Jon Prosser. The subject was born blind and has additional severe learning difficulties. She is photographed from the waist up, seated on a chair in her home. The subject is presented in profile. As the catalogue text remarks, the carefully arranged bow on the girl’s hair speaks of a “doting” mother. The sitter has an expression as if she is searching the air, trying to read her surroundings. This is perhaps how she navigates her world. The portrait thus does a good job, of giving us insight into the character of the sitter. The photographer has used just natural light, perhaps a window behind the photographer. As with Paul Stuart’s image of a centenarian we can sense that the photographer had made a real connection with his subject. The image was shot using just natural light with a cropped sensor mirrorless camera.

Karsten Thormaehlen has taken an image of a US lady who reached the age of 116. Susannah Mushatt Jones was the daughter of sharecroppers. Her grandparents have been slaves (or “had lived in slavery” as the catalogue text tactfully puts it).  Sadly, Susannah Mushatt Jones died in May 2016. This is a great portrait. In this author’s view it could have been a contender for the main prizes. Technically it is far better than the two images which won third prize.  It is a tightly cropped head and shoulders shot, lit by (apparent) window light to one side. The subject is wearing slightly dated clothing but which nonetheless aids in creating a sense of her character; a head-scarf and a blouse with an elaborate bow. (Again), a simple (dark) background helps to bring our attention to the face. The subject’s eyes are closed as if she is looking back at her memories. This device helps bring us into the picture and helps to convey a sense of the subject’s long life full of experience. It is a simple portrait but manages to convey a real feeling for the subject and to connect us to her as we contemplate her looking inwards. It was shot with a full-frame DSLR.

The cover picture on the exhibition catalogue is a profile head and shoulders shot of a man photographed in Shoreditch High Street in London. The subject, originally from Guinea-Bissau, is wearing a smart jacket, natty shirt and crimson red hat. He is shot against a simple white background. (We aren’t told how the photographer managed to find this studio like background to hand in Shoreditch High Street). Shot in profile, we learn less about the subject than we do about some of the other subjects in the exhibition. Perhaps this in turn tells us that part of taking a good portrait is a period of getting to know the subject and establishing a rapport. In this case we are told that the meeting between photographer and subject was a brief encounter. That being so a profile shot, making the most of the subject’s dress was perhaps the best approach. It is a nice shot, though lacking in the depth of character portrayal that we see in many of the other portraits in this exhibition. The photographer, David Cantor, used a cropped sensor mirrorless camera.

A special prize for new work was awarded to photographer Josh Redman for a striking and powerful image of a nude 83 year old woman. The subject is photographed against a black background. In  a disconcerting way we cannot tell if she is lying on her back or standing up. This creates an effect where she seems to be floating in space. Studio lighting has been used very effectively to add drama to the image. In a way, though, we learn less about the subject herself and more about a type of woman: “a mature woman who has spent a lifetime caring for others” in the words of the photographer. No information was provided by Mr Redman about the camera equipment he used.

For this reviewer the least appealing images in the exhibition are the two of a group of Devon teenagers. These are two photographs by photographer Sian Davey of her teenage daughter and her group of friends in Devon from (heaven help us) an entire series dedicated to this subject. Unlike the other images in the exhibition these are not considered portraits. They are unposed or semi-posed group shots taken in situ as people are going about their lives. In this case teenagers chilling in a field. The backgrounds are not, as with most of the other images in this exhibition, controlled; they are the backgrounds as we find them; a clutter of trees and shrubbery. The two images are shot in a park or wooded area. In both cases the frames crop though subject’s heads or bodies. It is difficult to see why these images were included in the final 57 images unless they were included to balance out the overall trend in favour of very simple, uncluttered backgrounds. The virtue of the first image is that the central figure in the group, the daughter herself, has quite a strong presence. (Children of photographers are often highly photogenic as they have been trained to the art from a young age). The second image shows a group of teenagers in shorts and swimwear and belongs to the genre of image which gains its effect by showing a lot of uncovered skin on young subjects. However; the real problem with these photographs is not in their technical execution. Indeed, both images show good colour control, exposure and depth of field management. The problem is that what they portray is the utterly vacuous and hedonistic lives of this group of teenagers who stare from the (first) image with a singular lack of intelligence, as they roll their roll-ups, and play with an expensive digital camera. Rather than “Martha” these images could be re-titled “Vacuity in the age of capitalism”. The juxtaposition between these images of a group of vacuous British teenagers and the very serious expressions on the faces of the two Tanzanian street children shot, in the studio, by Tom Merilion could not be greater.

 

The Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2016 is a political project. It is political propaganda. It is pushing the one message that Big Brother is constantly pushing these days. The main themes are all here: an exaggerated respect for sexual deviancy, a tendency to identify and over-prioritise “vulnerability” everywhere, in the old and in the young, except in those whose vulnerability is the direct result of economic exploitation, who are, instead, praised for their tenacity (“resilience” in some narratives). A blending of the modern and progressive politics of the self (gay rights, the sexuality of older women) together with a completely unreconstructed Victorian outlook (street children photographed in the studio) and corporate politics: the Israeli occupation is accepted de facto and this does not need to be discussed because the Palestinians are a non-people. Whether or not it was the aim of the Partners of Taylor Wessing to produce an installation of political propaganda for power, or whether this message is something solely to do with whoever wrote the text in the catalogue and for the message boards accompanying the pictures in the exhibition it is not possible to say. At any event all 6 judges, 2 from the National Portrait Gallery, a museum curator, a magazine editor, a photographer and a partner from Taylor Wessing seem to have been unaware that promoting a portrait of a Jewish family from the settlement movement at home in the West Bank without mentioning the political context was a contentious thing to do.

All the photographers whose work appears in the exhibition are being used. Of course they are being used to promote the corporate sponsor of the project. But, more insidiously, they are being used to promote the agenda of power – with its over-focus on the politics of the self as it continues, unabashed, its Victorian and imperialistic politics of the ruled and the rulers.

The quality of the work in the exhibition is (with one or two exceptions) exceptional. Most of the images are high-class portraiture. A simple background. Uncomplicated lighting. Attention to detail in the framing and cropping. Absolute technical control of depth of field and color balance. Simple compositions. An expression on the subject which allows something about their character to come out in the photograph. In most cases the lighting is expertly handled. In many cases, and the best images, are those where it is evident that the photographer took the trouble, or had the time to, to get to know her subject(s). These images especially work because they convey a real sense of the character of the subject. Which is what portraiture is about. It is worth visiting the exhibition or, at least buying the catalogue.

Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2016

National Portrait Gallery, London until 26th February 2017.

 

 

Notes

1. The National Portrait gallery has, helpfully, published technical information for the images in the exhibition.

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Security_Council_Resolution_446

3. https://www.un.org/press/en/2016/sc12657.doc.htm

4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beitar_Illit

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