Friday, November 15, 2019

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2019 - less submissions, more series and fewer photographers

There are four significant differences in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2019 - which has had an enthusiastic following in the past - which has wavered this year.
  • LESS photos were submitted this year (3,700) compared to the two previous years. That's a 17% reduction compared to 2018. However it's 35% down on two years ago. One has to ask what has happened?
    • 2018:  4,462; 
    • 2017:  5,717 
  • MORE series were selected for exhibition (13) - compared to 4 in 2018 and just 18 photos in 2017.
  • As a direct result of showing more series, FEWER photographers have had the opportunity to raise their profile for their photography in this leading photographic portrait competition and exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.
    • 2019:  31 photographers - represents a reduction of 38%
    • 2018:  49 photographers
    • 2017:  50 photographers
  • the exhibition emphasises diversity - almost to the point where it dominates the exhibition
Finally, fewer photographic portraits were hung in the exhibition - just 55 compared to 57 in 2018 and 59 in 2017. This difference is less significant - but it is significant that artificial screens have had to be introduced into the Porter Gallery in order to hang the photographs properly. After all series require they are hung as a series!

However first the Prizes and then the Analysis.
The exhibition is on in the Porter Gallery at the National Portrait Gallery from 7 November 2019 – 16 February 2020. Unlike the BP Portrait Award this is not free entry and tickets are priced at
  • full price tickets from £6 with concessions from £5
  • £3 tickets for under 25s on Fridays
  • £3 tickets for concessions and over 60s Monday - Wednesday 10:00-11:00am
  • Free for members (that's me until the Gallery closes next year!)
at the press preview of the exhibition - with the photographers
Extra artificial walls in the Porter Gallery


This is a photography exhibition with a decent set of prizes - sponsored by Taylor Wessing.

First Prize (£15,000):
Gail and Beaux; Mom (our last one) from the series Goldie (Mother) by Pat Martin

It's always good to see an older person being the subject which has won a prize. I had a suspicion Pat Martin would be the winner of the First Prize when I saw he had two photos shortlisted for the prizes.

I loved the photo of Pat's mother wearing her chihuahua T shirt with her chihuahua Beaux - who now lives with Pat.

Pat Martin with Mom (our last one) and Gail and Beaux;  from the series Goldie (Mother)
This was a great series of photos (see below). Pat told me he finds he spends more time now photographing older people.

Pat Martin with his series Goldie (mother)
Pat Martin (10.07.1992) is an American photographer from Los Angeles, California. Martin uses photography to connect with personal memories, while also working to understand his own relationship with time. He sees the present as an opportunity to build upon an empty family album, while also finding new connections through portraiture. Martin’s shortlisted works intimately documents his late mother who struggled with addiction issues throughout her life. Martin says, ‘For most of my life, I misunderstood my mother and witnessed how the world misunderstood her. Photographing her became a way of looking into a mirror and finding details never noticed. There were always new ones to discover, and something new to hide.’

Second Prize (£3,000):
Neil from the series Love’s Fire Song by Enda Bowe

Neil  from the series Love’s Fire Song by Enda Bowe

I didn't get to meet Enda - I don't think he made it to the preview.
Enda Bowe (21.05.1972) is an Irish photographer based in London. Bowe’s work is concerned with storytelling and the search for light and beauty in the ordinary. He has had work exhibited at Red Hook Gallery, New York, The V&A Museum, London, Fotohof, Salzburg, Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, and VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art, Ireland. Bowe’s shortlisted work portrays Neil, a young man photographed as part of Bowe’s series on the Belfast Conway estate. Bowe says, ‘l concentrated on the ordinary, the everyday. The photographs use a saturated colour palette with only subtle symbolisms, and without reference to the specific locations they were taken. Free from political and geographical context, the photographs speak of longing, yearning, aspirations and vulnerabilities of young people in Belfast today.’

Third Prize (£2,000):
The Hubbucks from the series England by Garrod Kirkwood

The Hubbucks from the series England by Garrod Kirkwood

I have to say I absolutely LOVED this one. It's a really great "feel good" photo which made me smile the first time I saw it on my computer screen and my smile just got broader when I saw it in the gallery. It will make a lot of people who are older smile with memories of days out in summer - and lilos and picnic baskets and blow up dolphins on the top of the car and hanging out the car windows in the back!  (That's a Ford Cortina for the vintage car fans!)

Go to his website if you'd like to see a much bigger version

I also very much enjoyed talking to Garrod who told me the story behind the photo and how it went from spotting a vintage car at a garage which looked absolutely spotless to being invited to the family home to arranging to meet them next time they went to the beach!
Garrod Kirkwood (29.05.1979) is a British photographer based on the North East coast of England. His work is driven by environment and the people that inhabit it. Kirkwood’s shortlisted photograph shows a family of individual personalities, on the cusp of a holiday adventure. Kirkwood says, ‘this is a magical moment and portrait of a family and group of individuals that we all can relate to.’ Kirkwood describes the photograph, taken in Whitley Bay, England as ‘a cinematic scene from real life.’

The metrics - on a downward slide?

I never think a falling number of submissions is a sign of a healthy competition - particularly when there is no particular other context which might influence the number of submissions.

There can be any number of reasons why this happens. Maybe the competition is not held in the same regard by the sort of photographer who typically enters - or maybe the marketing was less good than in previous years

See the numbers at the bottom of this post for the metrics relating to the last 3 years - which demonstrates that, like the NPG's visitor numbers, this competition's key performance indicators are going the wrong way.

The Series

I guess whether you have singletons or series hung in an exhibition depends on what you think the purpose of the prize is.

I know most photography competitions I go to see are series based - but then that it is made explicit in the terms of entry and everybody is on a level playing field.

In previous years this could have been 8 photographers getting their work highlighted rather than just one

What I dislike seeing is a change in the intention or criteria for selecting what will get hung AFTER the call for entries. That, to my mind, does not speak of "fair dealing" with those handing over their entry fees along with their digital entry.
  • Bottom line it's just not good practice - and it really doesn't help the image or reputation of the competition. 
  • It's also on a completely different scale to going from "really liking twins" to "really liking gingers" which is what I've written about in the past in relation to this competition
Bottom line a reduction in 38% in the number of photographers whose work has been hung in the exhibition speaks volumes to those thinking about an entry in future.  It does not bode well for increasing entries.....

However given the closure of the National Portrait Gallery at the end of June 2020, this exhibition will very probably need to find a new venue for 2020 - or maybe just have a long hard think about what it's trying to do for the future - and how it can recapture the numbers of entries it has enjoyed in the past.

I suggest greater clarity about the scope and purpose of the competition - and absolute clarity re. series vs singletons in future.

From Delta Hill Riders by Rory Doyle

This series by Rory Doyle is about the long-established African-American cowboy community in Mississippi. Apparently one in four cowboys after the civil war were/are African-Americans but they have been greatly underrepresented in popular accounts of cowboy history.

You'll be seeing his photos on the underground and on buses around London.


It's great when any portrait exhibition reflects real life in every aspect - including the diverse range of individuals who make up any community - in relation to race, religion, disability and sexual orientation etc.  I'm all for it.

However in attempting to remedy any deficiencies in the past in relation to diversity you can go too far in the other direction. 

When diversity issues begin to become the single theme which dominates an exhibition one begins to wonder what the agenda is - and was everybody told.

I'm not doubting the good intentions. I am wondering why it's taken so long for this issue to be addressed within the NPG. I am also raising an eyebrow about the unintended consequences.

  • The way to make people feel part of a community is not to indulge in symbolic singling out. 
  • Diversity is working when you don't need to make every other photo about some diversity group. 

Or alternatively, why not just have an exhibition about "being queer" or whatever (such as the Stonewall one I recently visited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (on my way out of my mission to see Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" - from when work by feminist artists was regarded as part of the diversity debate!)

This was one diversity photo which was I thought was great. It was also lovely meeting the two teenagers and listening to their take on the process and purpose of being photographed.

Elio and Luci with Trans(ition) Love: Elio and Luci by Reme Campos
part of a series called Trans(ition): Portraits of Transgender Teenagers

Metrics (Part 2)

These numbers relate to the three years of digital entry

Number of submissions: 

  • 2019:  3,700
  • 2018:  4,462
  • 2017:  5,717

Number of photographers entering the competition

  • 2019:  1,611
  • 2018:  1,973
  • 2017:  2,423

Number of countries

  • 2019:  70
  • 2018:  70
  • 2017:  66

Number of photographs hung in the exhibition

  • 2019:  55
  • 2018:  57
  • 2017:  59

Number of photographers with work in the exhibition

  • 2019:  31
  • 2018:  49
  • 2017:  50

Number of series in the exhibition

  • 2019:  13 series
  • 2018:  4 series
  • 2017:  18 photos were part of a series (equates to approx. 3-4 series)
The photographers are:
  • Evelyn Natalia Bencicova
  • Enda Bowe
  • Maria Konstanse Bruun
  • Reme Campos
  • Rory Doyle
  • Jermaine Francis
  • Amy Friend
  • Chris Hoare
  • Catherine Hyland
  • Marcin Jozefiak
  • Piotr Karpinski
  • Garrod Kirkwood
  • Kovi Konowiecki
  • Vikram Kushwah
  • Jenny Lewis
  • Alex Llopis Cardona
  • Pat Martin
  • Mark McEvoy
  • Rebecca Naen
  • Jouk Oosterhof
  • Sirli Raitma
  • Seamus Ryan
  • Phil Sharp
  • Dominick Sheldon
  • Aline Smithson
  • Cheryle St. Onge
  • Tristan Still
  • Jack Taylor Gotch
  • Amy Touchette
  • Snezhana von Buedingen
  • Oded Wagenstein


To be honest I am completely uninterested in an exhibit - included in the exhibition - by somebody who was not part of the competition.

If the NPG wants to highlight a photographer fine - but go and do it some place else and let those who are trying to make it as a photographer have a bit more space and a bit more exposure.

Which is why it doesn't get a mention from me - and never ever will.

More about the Taylor Wessing Prize

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