Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review: Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011

Jooney Woodward has won the £12,000 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011 with her portrait Harriet and Gentleman Jack.

Harriet and Gentleman Jack, 2010 by Jooney Woodward
© Jooney Woodward
The portrait winning first prize is of 13-year-old Harriet Power.  It was taken in the guinea pig judging area at the Royal Welsh Show where she was stewarding.  It's part of a series of photographs developed since this photo relating to Cary (Guinea Pig) Shows around the UK!
‘I found her image immediately striking with her long, red hair and white stewarding coat. She is holding her own guinea pig called Gentleman Jack, named after the Jack Daniel’s whisky box in which he was given to her. Using natural light from a skylight above, I took just three frames and this image was the first.’
Jooney Woodward
I recommend you visit this exhibition if you are interested in any way in portraiture - whether you are a photographer or a portrait artist.  I saw the exhibition yesterday and thought it excellent.  It also provoked some thoughts about why it is better in my view than this year's BP Portrait Exhibition - which I explain in my detailed review below.

The exhibition associated with the Prize opened to the public today at the National Portrait Gallery and continues until 12 February.  Admission is £2.

You can NOT see all he images in the exhibition online but you can see selected images on the NPG microsite for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize 2011.

The Prizewinning Photographers

I had a chance to speak with Jooney Woodward who won the first prize of £12,000 yesterday about how she came to shoot the winning portrait and her approach to photography.

I'm sure the techies will be interested to know that the first prize portrait was shot on film with a Mamiya RZ medium format camera and using a tripod.  There was no pre-planning - it was an opportunistic shot which worked and this was the first of the photos she took.
I prefer the quality and depth you get from using film; unfortunately it’s a dying art. I don’t mess around with Photoshop so what you see is what you get. Enhanced images can portray a false sense of reality, whereas my work celebrates the people and places as they appear every day.
In terms of background, she was born in London in 1979, grew up in Dorset and studied Graphic Design at Camberwell College of Arts, specialising in photography in her final year.

Her degree show portraits of her parents were highly commended in The Observer Hodge Photographic Award in 2001 which gave me an immediate connection with Jooney given that David was a very near neighbour of mine prior to his death and he used to teach me about taking a good photo!  We both lamented the end of the The Observer Hodge Photographic Award as it was such a valuable way of highlighting emerging photographers

Woodward's first job after graduation was with the Vogue Photographic Archive of Condé Nast Publications. Just under two years ago she set up as a freelance photographer and her series Unhidden: Documentary Photographs of Contemporary Wales was exhibited at MOMA Wales, Machynlleth, in 2010.
My landscapes are generally devoid of people, but are full of signs of life. I try to capture the little things and it’s the same with my portraiture. The more you look at the portrait of Harriet, the more you notice the small details: her nail polish and mascara, the scratch on her hand.
The following artists have also been commended and received prizes from the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011
Read on to:
  • see the images by the other prizewinners 
  • read more of my comments on the exhibition
  • get tips for photographers entering the exhibition
Other Prizewinners

Of Lili, 2011 by Jill Wooster
© Jill Wooster
£2,500 Second Prize: Jill Wooster - Of Lili

Jill Wooster (b 1977) comes from New Haven, Connecticut, studied as an artist at Bard College, New York and currently lives in London.

Her portrait is of her friend, Lili Ledbetter and was taken at Wooster’s flat in Peckham.
Lili is a complicated character. I like the way her androgyny makes her appearance seem both guarded and relaxed at the same time, capturing both her confidence and vulnerability.
The portrait is part of a series portraying women in their forties and fifties at pivotal stages of their lives.  In the shortlisted portrait the only retouching was some selective blemish removal - and represents a marked contrast to her usual work as a freelance photographer specialising in highly stylised and manipulated fashion portraits.

Christina and Mark, 14 months, 2011 by Dona Schwartz 
© Dona Schwartz
£1,500 Third Prize: Dona Schwartz for Christina and Mark, 14 months from the series On the Nest

Dr Dona Schwartz (b.1955) is an Associate Professor specialising in Visual Communication at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. Her shortlisted portrait is of Christina and Mark Bigelow from Minnesota in their son’s vacated bedroom. The image is from her current series, On the Nest, documenting moments of change in parents’ lives.
The transition to life as an empty nester lacks formal ritual observance. In this case there is no finite gestation period and the new beginning it heralds may be more sobering.
Last year, Schwartz’s portrait depicting expectant parents Andrea and Brad, 16 days was chosen for the exhibition. Schwartz’s work has been the subject of five solo exhibitions and numerous international group shows.  An earlier series depicting the human dynamics of adolescence and merging families photographed the family "In the Kitchen"

Wen, 2011 by Jasper Clarke
© Jasper Clarke
£1,000 Fourth Prize PLUS Elle Commission: Jasper Clarke for Wen

Jasper Clarke (b. 1978, UK) studied at Edinburgh’s Napier University before moving to London to assist many high-profile photographers. His shortlisted portrait taken in Hackney is of Wen Wu, a Chinese artist and is from a personal project depicting artists, musicians and other creatives who live in their work spaces. 
The portraits are not intended to elicit sympathy for the cash-strapped artist; they are more a celebration of people’s dedication in following a path no matter what the obstacles.
Clarke left school without qualifications and began taking pictures with a camera given to him by his father. He work has included shooting fashion campaigns for Paul Smith, Converse and Umbro.

Andie, 2010 by David Knight
© David Knight
£500 Fifth Prize: David Knight for Andie

David Knight (b. 1971, Oxford) currently lives in Australia with his wife and twin boys. His portrait of 15-year-old Andie Poetschka was commissioned by Loud for the Cerebral Palsy Alliance to raise awareness of the condition throughout Australia. 
I wanted the portraits to be positive and to convey the kids in an uplifting way. You don’t immediately notice Andie is in a wheelchair; you just see a beautiful young woman. The image doesn’t demand you look at it, but gently draws you in.
This is the third year running that Knight’s work has been included in the exhibition and this is his first time on the shortlist. 

Review of the Exhibition

There's a number of reasons why I am so impressed with this exhibition and I'll do my best to summarise them below. However I emphasise these were my first impressions and I think when I go and visit again I'll find new things to like about it.

In the meantime my compliments to those who selected work for this exhibition - as they have managed to select  60 portraits from 6,033 submissions entered by 2,506 photographers from around the world.

The competition was judged anonymously from original prints by:
Composition, colour and tone

Three aspects of the images had a big impact on me - composition, colour and tone.  I've noticed time and again that photographers are often very impressive in capturing images which excel in these three areas.  The images in this exhibition are no exception.  In handling the design of the image, its colouration and tonal balance the photographers are demonstrating a much better awareness of what makes for a good picture than many painters - including portrait painters.

One of the images which caught my eye was the one below.  It has the quality of chiarascuro which I find is so very often lacking in contemporary portraiture.  Interestingly the portrait in the BP Award which won the  Visitors Choice Competition also demonstrated very clearly that people like portraits which demonstrate a range of tonal values.

For some reason the photo below also reminded me somewhat of dutch portraiture of people at their work but with a quality of stillness about it.  Vermeer like if you like!

Tony, from the series Up My Street, 2011 by Dylan Collard
© Dylan Collard
The series

Speaking personally, photographers give the impression of having a more articulated concept behind the images they create. They are very often creating work within the context of a series which has a clear rationale relating to the photographer's interests and/or areas they want to investigate.

As a result the image is more clearly grounded in a concept and that concept more clearly communicates itself to me.

By way of contrast so many exhibitions of painted portraiture include a lot of commissions.  Very often, there is no apparent concept related to that commission other than getting a likeness and creating a portrait which will be acceptable to the client.

As such the interest in portraiture in painting can revolve around the technique and method of painting rather than the portrait and the person.  I'll be looking at portrait exhibitions in future with a new perspective - to see whether there is more conceptual underpinning than I'm aware of.

Treating people as people

I'd been in the exhibition for maybe an hour when it struck me that on the whole the portraits were much more interesting than a number of those I saw in the BP Portrait Exhibition.  

Also the images spoke very clearly of the people.  The technique, while it may have existed, was essentially secondary to capturing the image which spoke of the person - and also the associated environments which also spoke of their lives.

Many of those captured for this exhibition are NOT the photographer's relative or friend as many are in the BP Portrait Exhibition.

We discussed whether this is because painters need to have easy access to people they are painting from life.  That's possible - and it's certainly an explanation.  However my own view is that such an explanation is only relevant so long as the subject is in fact being painted from life (and the rules of the BP Portrait does suggest that this should be the case).  However since it's also very evident (as in "blindingly obvious!") that a number are mainly being painted from reference photographs, it seems to me that a number of portrait painters could do with studying what portrait photographers manage to capture in their photographs - and then start using rather more interesting reference photographs! 

Hence my suggestion that this exhibition is of relevance to both portrait photographers and portrait artists!

Treatment of disfigurement, disability and age

People who are NOT young and beautiful are treated in this exhibition as people we meet every day - and that's exactly how it should be.  The exhibition includes some wonderful photographs of older people by photographers who are making a point of photographing older people.

I particularly liked the fact that the exhibition includes four photographs of people with serious disfigurement or disability - indeed one of the photographs won fifth prize for demonstrating how it's not that difficult to focus on the person rather than their disability.

Some may find it surprising that none of the disabilities in the photographs are "in your face".  In fact, it takes a little while to pick up on the particular nature of the disfigurement or disability.  I'd not be in the least bit surprised to hear that people come out without realising quite how many portraits of people with a disfigurement or disability there are.

Below is the portrait of Leo Gormley by Mark Johnson.  When passing the photo I recognised he was older than most and that there was something else going on and I needed to come back and take another look.  Later I was fortunate in being able stand next to the photo and talk to Leo and Mark Johnson (the photographer) about it - and about the issues which arise when looking at and photographing people who have a facial disfigurement.  Leo is now in his early 60s (I was right about the age!) however, age 14, he was burned very badly and subsequently underwent 120 operations in 15 years.  The photograph was commissioned for a Channel 4 series about plastic surgery.  It was very pleasing to find out that there was a very positive impact on young people of displaying his facial disfigurement on television.  Leo told me about the work he does with young people and schools for the Charity Changing Faces.

Leo Gormley from the series The Ugly Face of Beauty 2010 by Mark Johnson
© Mark Johnson
Treatment of the harshness of everyday life

The exhibition certainly does not shy away from including images which reflect the harshness of everyday life whether that's an image of young people after a shooting of one of their friends in the street or the nature of the environment where young nigerian girls have to prostitute themselves (image of a girl lying on a mattress in a swamp surrounded by tall reeds).

Prizewinning photographs - the top three
The female photographer

I've had a moan on more than one occasion about how the field of portraiture in painting seems to be very much dominated by men with the female portrait artist being the exception rather than the rule.

It therefore gives me great pleasure to note that the first, second and third prizes were all won by female photographers!

In the photograph on the right, from left to right are the photographs awarded the third prize, first prize and second prize respectively.

Tips for photographers entering the exhibition

It's always worth looking at the numbers!  For the 2011 Exhibition, 60 portraits from 6,033 submissions were entered by 2,506 photographers.  This means:
  • 1% chance of getting your work into the exhibition
  • each photographer submits on average 2.4 photographs.  It would be interesting to know whether those selected had a higher average submission rate and whether seeing more photos by the same artist was more likely to generate a selection.  (I shall ask!)
Then there are the practical issues
  • prints submitted are not especially large - you can a sense of size from the photo below
  • no distinction is made on the label for the work between film and digital - although I have a feeling the selectors are told.  Both the first and third prizes were film photos.
  • all photographic prints need to be submitted flat - but do not need to be framed
  • prints are matted and framed by the exhibition organisers which means that the "look" of the exhibition is very uniform and we're not distracted by differences in framing.  All work is matted in white and framed with a black wood frame.  (See image below for an example of what the exhibition looks like)
  • If you visit the exhibition you should note that the glazing used for the framed prints seems to darken and subdue the colours in the prints.  I'm not sure why this is and whether or not it is intentional.  It did seem to be that it would be best to display the images as the photographer intended.  I'll be following up on this with the NPG to see why this glazing was chosen.
View of part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize
Note:  All images in this post ( apart from the gallery shots) have been supplied by the National Portrait Gallery and have been used with permission.  You may NOT copy these images to other websites or blogs.  Contact the NPG Press Team for permission to post any images from this exhibition.


  1. What a thoughtful and informed article, thank you! I agree that this exhibition does seem much more interesting than the BP Portrait Award. This year I felt that there were far too many portraits of famous people, for my liking. I find "normal" people far more interesting, personally!! The first prize winner was definitely the stand out image for me, the young girl looks far older than her years - which intrigues me!

    Katherine, did you notice the link between the this prize and the BP Portrait Prize? The fourth place prize winner's portrait of "Wen" features her successful BP Portrait prize entry "Venus as a boy" - which is very interesting!

    Kindest regards
    Ka Gray

  2. Yes I did notice - interesting crossover between the two prizes!


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