Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Review: Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012

Jordi Ruiz Cirera
Margarita Teichroeb in the background
Spanish reportage photographer Jordi Ruiz Cirera (Found on the Roadhas won the £12,000 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012 with his  photograph of Margarita Teichroeb.

28 year old Jorge is Spanish and has been based in London ever since he came here to do his MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication.

His photograph is one of a series (Menonos) of photographic portraits of the Mennonite community in Bolivia. This series was developed as a reportage project for his MA degree.  The photo was taken on a digital 35mm Canon 5D mkII, using only available light.

I asked him why he chose this particular photograph of Margarita and he told me because it was his favourite photograph of all the ones he had taken (some 30 or so).  He took her picture at the home she shares with her mother and sister in the Swift Current Colony in Bolivia.As a community, the Menonites live with no cars, telephones, electricity or modern utilities and consequently photography is not a normal part of their lives, is usually forbidden and hence most were very awkward and often looked away from the camera.  In this photograph, she sits centre stage and looks directly at the camera - although her shyness comes across with the hand across her mouth and through the expression in her eyes.

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012
First Prize: Margarita Teichroeb
© Jordi Ruiz Cirera
The reason I like the photograph is that for me it tells a story of a person just in that look.  There is both context and character and a backstory plus an overwhelming sense of a real person rather than just an interesting image.

Jorge is currently employed as Photographer in Residence on a year long commission for Historic Royal Palaces.  This year he also won a Deutsche Bank Award in Photography with the University of the Arts London this year.  He plans to continue his career in documentary and reportage photography.

The Prizewinning Photographers

Prizewinning photographs by shortlisted photographers
The main prizes were awarded as follows:

  • 1st prize (£12,000) - Margarita Teichroeb by Jordi Ruiz Cirera
  • 2nd Prize (£3,000) - Lynne, Brighton by Jennifer Pattison (far left above)
  • 3rd Prize (£2,000) - Mark Rylance by Spencer Murphy (far right above)
  • 4th Prize - The Ventriloquist by Alma Haser (second from left above)

You can see larger versions in Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012 - Shortlist announced

The judging of all the selected works was done from anonymous prints with just the name of the work.

The inaugural John Kobal New Work Award

The John Kobal New Work Award is a NEW prize worth £4,000 (including a commission) and is awarded to a photographer under the age of 30 who is selected for the exhibition.

The Nine Lives of Ai Weiwei
© Matthew Niederhauser 

It has been won by Matthew Niederhauser (16.01.1982) (Blog), for his portrait The Nine Lives of Ai Weiwei - which has a classic peacock blue / Holbein blue background.  It has massive impact and is the first photographic portrait you see on entering the exhibition.  Here's some background to the photo....
Matthew Niederhauser’s fascination with China was forged during his high-school studies in Mandarin, and the American photographer now lives in Beijing, where he documents aspects of Chinese life for a range of publications including the New Yorker and Time. Artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, the subject of Niederhauser’s entry, has crossed those lines on many occasions. At the time the portrait was taken, as a commission for Foreign Policy magazine, Ai was being held under virtual house arrest and forbidden to leave China following his three-month detention a year earlier. Wanting to capture Ai with one of the many cats that hang around his compound, Niederhauser persuaded him to pose with a ginger stray, its colouring setting off the teal-blue gates of the studio. ‘There was a tense moment when I didn’t think the cat was going to cooperate, but it finally glanced back, allowing me to get a few frames with everything melding together.’
(Note: I confess I'm struggling with that age.  Age limits are normally determined by the deadline for submission.  If somebody is under the age of 30 surely they're 29 or less - whereas Matthew was 30 in January 2012 BEFORE the Call for Entries went out.  If they mean 30 or less than I think that's what the rules needs to say explicitly - not "under 30" which is what I've got noted down in my overview of the Call for Entries.)

Impressions of the Exhibition

The exhibition opens to the public tomorrow (8th November) and continues until 17 February.

There's an interesting article Photo finish: judging the Taylor Wessing portrait prize by Sean O'Hagen in the Guardian.  He was asked to be one of the judges after writing a piece last year which confessed to bafflement with the selection made.  He comments on the process - and it's a recommended read for all those who enter open visual art competitions irrespective of whether or not they are a photographer.
Now it's done, I have to say I will think twice about knocking the judges in future. The two days I spent looking at 5,340 photographs submitted by 2,352 photographers (a maximum of six prints per entrant is allowed) was a crash course in the discipline and the sheer doggedness involved in judging an open competition

I'm not sure why but I didn't enjoy this exhibition as much as last year's. I'm still trying to work out why.  I'm also wondering about the timing of some of the selections relative to other events outside the Gallery.

What I did work out at the time was there were some sub-themes to the show which I don't think I've ever noticed before.

Michael Stipe © Matthew Lloyd and Sarah Lucas ©  Eamon McCabe
First there were "the Creative Arts celebrities" - namely "Young British Artists" Gillian Wearing and Sarah Lucas, one of Britain's best ever photographers David Bailey CBE (looking very old and rather grumpy!), musician Michael Stipe (of the late great REM), actor and Artistic Director Mark Rylance and author Hilary Mantel who is the first woman to win the Booker Prize twice (2009 and 2012).  The latter is something of a coup for the Selectors as the Prize was announced after they'd made their selection.

(Left to right) Faces of 2012: Victoria Pendleton, Hilary Mantel and Mo Farrah
Then there were "the Olympic celebrities" - Victoria Pendleton (not sporting lycra!) and Mo Farrah - which I guess were understandable this year.

The two groups together made me think this exhibition looked rather a lot like the rest of the National Portrait Gallery - and I guess that might be one reason I like it less.

I very much prefer this exhibition to be fresh eyes on how to take a portrait - and for subjects to be people we don't know rather than people we do. It also makes me think that those photographers who manage to get access to the famous 'whoever' also stand a much better chance of getting selected if they come up with a decent photograph.  If I compared it to the BP Portrait, one of the strengths of that exhibition in my eyes are that the sitters are very rarely people we know.  Thus the judgement of the artwork is rarely in any way swayed by who is the sitter for the the portrait. If there are going to be celebrity sitters alongside ordinary people then to my mind there should be two prizes - just to make the competition a tad fairer.  Or maybe the fact that the main prize went to a photograph of somebody who has rarely if ever had her photograph taken before is the only comment that is needed.

The third theme related to the various groups of teenagers - which to me only served to reinforce the notion that teenagers look pretty similar the world over whether they're living on Tristan da Cunha or anywhere else in the world.

There were a couple of very strong photographs of people with disabilities - who had suffered severe injuries.  I'm a strong advocate and supporter of the notion that those with disabilities should also be seen in open portraiture competitions and other exhibitions.  It's only by seeing people being treated the same as everybody else that attitudes change.

David Rathband 
© Justin Sutcliffe
I found the portrait of PC David Rathband to be very, very sad. He was shot in the face at point blank range by Raoul Moat in July 2012 and subsequently committed suicide in March 2012.

Justin Sutcliffe (Cover) who took the photograph for an interview for the Independent on Sunday said he talked candidly about the nightmares he suffered.  I absolutely agree with his comment that Rathband's piercing blue eyes were deceptively expressive.  They were, of course, artificial as his own eyes had been destroyed in the attack.

By way of contrast, the self-portrait of British documentary photojournalist Giles Duley is unabashed and assertive.  Here is a tetraplegic survivor of really terrible injuries suffered when he stepped on an IED while on foot patrol with 75th Cavalry Regiment (United States) in Afghanistan.

He comments that he didn't want to show himself as a victim, he didn't want to hide his injuries and he wanted to photograph himself in exactly the same way as he might have photographed others while covering humanitarian projects.  With a right hand and eyes he can carry on working as a photographer.

Giles Duley - self portrait
© Giles Duley
One further theme left me somewhat more perturbed.  In general there was more nudity than usual and, in particular, there are two photographs of naked children in the exhibition.  Within the current content of recent events these are bound to cause comment.

I know from personal experience of attending a workshop which involved children that the NPG's Education Department takes an extremely strict line on matters relating to child protection, the use of images of children in public and the issue of consent relating to the public viewing of images of children.

My personal view is that the images selected for this exhibition are very much at variance with the NPG's corporate approach adopted elsewhere within the Gallery.

To my mind further consideration should be given to the rules of the competition.  I'd strongly urge the competition organisers to consider that it would be no great loss to the competition if images of naked children were no longer allowed - even if they have been taken by family members.

If it were up to me, I'd also personally remove at least one of the images before it opens to the public.

Technical Details

Like artists, photographers always like to know"how did you do that?".  So this year, for the very first time, the NPG have supplied the tecnical details - Download the technical details here

Sponsorship of the Exhibition

The Exhibition is sponsored by Taylor Wessing as part of their corporate responsibility activities.  This is the fifth year that Taylor Wessing has sponsored the Prize.


National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE. 
Opening hours Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday: 10am – 6pm (Gallery closure commences at 5.50pm) 
Late Opening: Thursday, Friday: 10am – 9pm (Gallery closure commences at 8.50pm) 
Nearest Underground: Leicester Square/Charing Cross 
Recorded information: 020 7312 2463 
General information: 020 7306 0055 Website:

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