Editor's choice: The best of this year's Taylor Wessing Prize, on show at the National Portrait Gallery
This year I think the jurors got it right. The winner of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2014 goes to David Titlow for his picture of his baby son. Shot on the morning after a midsummer party in Sweden, little Konrad was introduced to a young dog and some assembled friends, while held (I presume) by his adoring mother. Despite the clutter of empty beer cans, it captures a beautiful moment, brought into sharp focus by the dappled light and the fixed attention of the group within this Pre-Raphaelite scene. For some, it might be a bit of a stretch to call it a portrait. But I can’t agree. Without being at all mawkish or overly sentimental (not easy when you’re photographing a mother and child), the feelings of love and joy and pride are clearly translated in the photograph.
I also very much like Blerim Racaj’s Indecisive Moment, which along with Titlow’s picture and two others – Skate Girl by Jessica Fulford-Dobson, and Braian and Ryan by Birgit Püve – was shortlisted for the £12,000 prize. Taken from his series, Kosovars, it is painterly in its composition, and like the overall winning picture, there’s the contrast between the timeliness of the scene and the way the subjects dress, which places the photograph firmly in the present.
Fulford-Dobson’s picture did enough to pique my curiosity, and it turns out the unnamed girl is Afghan. She attends a school set up by Skateistan, an NGO that originally set up in a disused factory in Kabul and now provides education, confidence-building and leadership skills through skateboarding. Had Püve’s portrait won, I feel it would have been suicide for the Prize, whose good work promoting awareness of the many faces of portraiture has been hindered by the predominance of certain themes – and her red-headed, sallow youths (twins to boot) holding matching coloured animal, tick so many of the usual boxes.
But let’s keep it positive, because while this year’s 60-strong long list (on show at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 22 February) provides plenty of head-scratching moments, there are a dozen or so fine images that together represent the breadth and freedom of contemporary portraiture.
Paul Stuart‘s portrait of Silvio Berlusconi is extraordinary. His skin ravaged by age, the stare of a bullying mafioso, he presents himself as the scheming Lizard King, rather than the Peter Pan of Italian politics he usually projects. Images of celebrities, politicians, sportsmen or personalities – they have fared badly in the Portrait Prize over the years. And yet in a portrait as powerful as this, a photograph can seem to cut straight through the surface of a public figure in a manner that no amount of questioning enables. It also presents a stark contrast to the Prize’s obsession with youth.
Kelvin Murray and Ivan Maslarov achieve something similar – albeit evoking entirely different sentiments – with their portraits of ageing parents. Marcia Michael, whose previous works have addressed family photos and the representation of black people in photography, has photographed her mother in an entirely different way. Describing her as “the archetype of womanhood; she is full, buxom, beautiful and enduring”, she acknowledges the fetishisation of the black body, but aims to present a different view, one that commemorates her and her generation.
As much as I admire the capture of a moment in Titlow’s winning image, I like some of these more obviously staged photographs too, even when the choreographing amounts to little more than, ‘Hold on a minute, can I take your picture?’ Which is what I imagine David Harriman is saying to Truth and Faith, shot together with a dog named Kitty. The meeting may be casual, but it’s a formal portrait all the same, and yet it also captures a moment – a tiny one, the meeting of a photographer with two people and their pet somewhere on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Laura Pannack‘s Chayla in Shul Purity and Zed Nelson‘s ‘M’, ‘P’ & ‘JJ’ evoke something similar.
Maybe this year the winning picture will convince even the more hardened critics of the value of the Prize, because for the first time in its 11-year history, it includes a smile – three perhaps – the lack of which has caused particular anger among the amateur photographic press since the open competition began.
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