There were over 4000 photos submitted for the prize this year. Those that were selected for the exhibition currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery give some idea of the type of portrait that appears to be currently out of favour. There are very few street portraits, very few studio-lit portraits, very few portraits that come from the world of beauty and fashion, and no what-I-would-call stagey and costumed portraits.
Although not one of the cash prize winners – as chosen by the judges (chaired by Sandy Nairne, the gallery director, and otherwise consisting of Robin Muir ex-picture-editor at Vogue, Phillip Prodger head of photographs at NPG, Bettina Von Zwehl a German photographer working in London, and Miri Shan Head of the Media & Entertainment Law Group at Taylor Wessing) – I dare say photographer Gorm Shackelford is well pleased with the hanging of his portrait. It is the imposing image that greets visitors as they enter the exhibition, a large and striking picture of a cane sugar worker in a blue overall torn at the shoulder.
As soon as you turn left into the exhibition you are greeted by a much less imposing but very charming portrait of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy dressed in an adult overcoat – the subject is photographer Sami Parkkinem‘s son and the coat is the father’s.
According to the captions many of the other portraits are similarly of friends or family.
There are just a few notable portraits of people in the public eye. The best of these is a splendidly large ,colour, eyes-straight-at-you portrait of film director Steve McQueen, wearing a blue V-neck sweater over a white T-shirt, (a cropped version of which was used for the cover of Guardian Weekend last January). Here in the exhibition in fullsize, it’s a stunner. The photographer is Giles Price.
Sarah Lee‘s portrait of Lenny Henry sitting in a dark interior by an open sash window is one of the more artfully, carefully staged shots in the exhibition.
A headshot of Italian politician Berlusconi by Paul Stuart is anything but flattering.
There is a group portrait of David and Samantha Cameron with their daughter Florence, which manages to be both tender and edgy. Dad has his arms around daughter and his face is leaning down close to hers. Florence is looking out to the left of frame, not looking at all relaxed – her eyes are wide open and she is sucking a finger. Samantha’s expression is more relaxed but somehow detached from the awkward dynamic that is going on between father and daughter. It’s not an altogether comfortable portrait – taken by Tom Stoddart, a regular photographer of Prime Ministers.
One of my favourites was Dog & Boy by Laurence Cartwright (a Brighton-based portrait and wedding photographer), a gloriously sunny riverside scene with both the subjects in the photograph perched on a rock having an on-your-marks-get-set-GO pose, their eyes focusing on the same target.
You will probably already have seen the photo that was selected as the 1st prize winner (by fashion photographer David Titlow), an informal scene of a baby surrounded by family members touching a dog’s nose. I liked it better in its large exhibition format than when I had seen it in a magazine, but looking at it with a photographer’s eyes I find myself bothered by the blown highlights on the child’s head, by the intrusive knees and beer cans at the bottom of the frame (though I can see how in some people’s eyes these add a homely ambience) and by the peculiarly positioned middle adult. It’s a nice photo, but for me a nearly-splendid one rather than an outright winner.
2nd and 3rd prize winners were both from series, as indeed were so many other photos selected for the exhibition that you wonder whether the judges are not so inclined to be impressed by stand-alone works. The 2nd prize went to a portrait from The Skate Girls of Kabul sequence by Jessica Fulford-Dobson (pictured here beside it – the photo is from her blog)…
and 3rd prize went to Braian and Ryan, from a series of portraits of identical twins by Birgit Püve
I loved Lenka Rayn H‘s ‘Unexpected’ – a beautifully processed black-and-White portrait of a freckle faced young girl (the image below doesn’t do it justice).
Another traditional portrait I liked a lot was Stella by Australian, Michele Aboud – a colour portrait this time, but a subtly lit natural one of a teenage girl without make-up.
Apart from that huge portrait that greets visitors to the exhibition on arrival there are not many portraits of people at work. One exception is Angel Nieto by Ben Stockley, a portrait of a girl busy working in a caterers in downtown Mexico City.
When I first set eyes on the photo of Marcus Henry (by Jon Tonks) my initial reaction was, “At last, a playful, surreally inventive portrait! There he is, in a ridiculous looking trench style coat, wearing strange headgear, with big unlaced clownlike boots on his feet and holding a truly massive balloon. It looks so wonderfully mad and eccentric that I was somewhat disappointed when I read the caption to see that it turns out to be a portrait of a man at work at a weather station, releasing a weather balloon into the atmosphere as he does routinely every day at 11:15.
Let me end by mentioning another personal favourite. It’s a fabulously jolly, life-affirming portrait of Vijay Rudanlalji Banspal, an Indian guru who photo bombed Karan Kumar Sachdev‘s series of Yellow Chair Portraits by sitting himself on the chair, stretching his arms out, and laughing back at the camera. You’d forgive photo bombing any day if that were the result.
I am now looking forward more than ever to the Edward Steichen exhibition at the Photographers Gallery, to enjoy a style of portraiture entirely unrepresented in this exhibition, but even if you are, like me, not exactly sympatico with the plain and style-free photography currently favoured by the judges, I would still recommend a visit. Indeed, as exhibitions go these days it’s cheap enough to be able to afford to go more than once (as indeed I probably shall) to see which photos still do or do not stand out on a second visit.