Sponsored by National Portrait Gallery

World’s largest and most controversial portrait competition goes digital

Katie Walsh by Spencer Murphy

National Portrait Gallery’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize innovates again by opening up the world-famous competition - with a £15,000 prize - to digital entries, as previous winners discuss how their careers took off despite the award’s ongoing controversial reputation.

The National Portrait Gallery’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize manages to divide opinion, inspire debate and even provoke controversy like virtually no other global photographic award.

For its detractors, the joke is  that the Taylor Wessing competition so often awards prizes to photographers who have taken pictures of girls and women, usually with red hair, holding animals – something that makes the prize it look repetitive and conservative. For its supporters, the Taylor Wessing portrait prize has a thematic coherence and identity most other photography competitions  lack.

In fact both viewpoints are a little unfair, because in recent years the prize has started to award a far more diverse range of portraits. Take for the example the 2014 winner David Titlow; a fashion photographer who won with his image of his infant son being introduced to a dog, surrounded by friends the morning after an idyllic midsummer party.

Konrad Lars Hastings Titlow – David Titlow

And more recently Claudio Rasano, who won in 2016 for his image of a young schoolboy in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Now, the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, one of the most revered and competitive photography awards in the world, is going digital. The prize will now accept images uploaded via the competition’s new digital portal, from anyone with an internet connection, anywhere in the world, even accepting images taken on mobile.

Katlehong Matsenen by Claudio Rasano

“By inviting digital submissions for the first time, we hope even more photographers throughout the world will enter the competition, says Dr Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery and a key member of this year’s judging panel.

Tim Eyles, managing partner at Taylor Wessing, who sponsor the prize, says: “This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize and it’s apt that this incredibly exciting milestone coincides with the launch of digital entries. Many entries challenge our assumed perspective of the world – which is exactly what we need to keep us thinking in new and original ways.”

The prize, launched in 2003 and sponsored by Taylor Wessing since 2008, has a long record of launching the careers of fine art, portraitist and editorial photographers. One overall winner takes home £15,000, allowing them to develop their photography practice free from economic concerns.

For Rasano, the prize was a game-changer. He says, “Winning the Taylor Wessing prize in 2016 was a huge honour for me. It opened doors I did not even know existed. And it still does.”

Huntress with buck – David Chancellor

This experience has been echoed time and again. Take the example of David Chancellor, whose photography series Hunters is now an iconic contemporary photography series. Yet, when the British photographer submitted his work to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2010, few people had heard of him.

Chancellor submitted his photograph titled Huntress with Buck, a picture of 14-year-old Josie Slaughter, from Alabama, USA, during her first hunting trip to South Africa. Chancellor says of the image: “Josie had hunted her buck earlier in the day and was returning to camp. As we arrived, the sun set below the cloud cover and I had almost unreal light for around a minute. The contrast between the peace and tranquillity of the location, plus Josie’s ethereal beauty and the dead buck, was what I wanted to explore. Here was a vulnerability and yet also a strength.”

“I have always studied the portraiture in the National Portrait Gallery, not just the photography, but the work of the great masters,” Chancellor adds, “It has always been a source of great reference when considering my own work and projects. The work of Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873) had a huge impact on my working practice when documenting Hunters, from which Huntress with Buck was presented to the larger world via the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. It originated from a very difficult and complex body of work. Receiving this award presented the project as whole to the entire world. It is difficult to underestimate the importance of that when working on a project such as this.”

Harriet and Gentleman Jack – Jooney Woodward

In 2011, the then 32-year-old Jooney Woodward won the prize for her portrait, Harriet and Gentleman Jack, of 13-year-old Harriet Power in the guinea pig judging area at the Royal Welsh Show, amongst the sheepdog trials, livestock competitions and regimental bands at the agricultural show in Builth Wells, Powys. Woodward says of the image: “I found Harriet’s long, red hair and white stewarding coat immediately striking. She was holding her own guinea pig called Gentleman Jack, named after the Jack Daniel’s whisky box in which he was given to her.”

Winning the award changed the course of Woodward’s career. She says: “The exposure that came with winning the prize opened up my photography to a much wider audience and in turn I started receiving a lot more commissions from publications outside of the UK,” she says. “I’m still very passionate about documenting communities in rural areas and as a result of winning the prize, I often receive commissions which allow me to do that.”

In 2012, Jordi Ruiz Cirera, a London-based Spanish photographer, won the prize for her image of Margarita Teichroeb, a 26-year-old Mennonite woman seated at a kitchen table. The image was part of the series Menonos, Ruiz Cirera’s long-term project to document the daily life of a religious community – one which forbids images.

Margarita Teichroeb by Jordi Ruiz Cirera

Ruiz Cirera says: “Winning the Taylor-Wessing back in 2012 was definitely a tipping point in my career as a photographer. At the time I had just finished my studies and was only starting to have some assignments. Winning the award was a stepping stone which allowed me to meet with editors and prospective clients, as well as giving me the confidence that things were on the right path, something not easy for a starting freelancer. The award enabled me to exhibit and eventually publish that body of work in the form of a book, as well as giving me economic means to pursue other personal projects abroad.”

David Stewart won the prize in 2015 for his image, Five Girls 2014, showing the photographer’s daughter with four close friends. It mirrors a photograph he took of them seven years ago, which was displayed in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2008.

Five Girls 2014 by David Stewart

In the original photograph, the friends were about to start their GCSEs. In the updated version, which won the Taylor Wessing prize, they have just graduated from university.

Stewart says: “I have always had a fascination with the way people interact – or, in this case, fail to interact, which inspired the photograph of this group of girls. While the girls are physically very close and their style and clothing highlight their membership of the same peer group, there is an element of distance between them.”

“Winning the prize enabled me to get my work out to a much wider audience, especially as the content of the image Five Girls 2014 followed on from my previous project Teenage Pre-occupation,” Stewart adds.  “After being accepted into the prize 16 times previously, the win marked a point which enabled me to confidently move on to new areas of work with different content.”

Katie Walsh by Spencer Murphy

Maybe Spencer Murphy puts it best. He won the prize in 2013 for his portrait of female jockey Katie Walsh, taken at Kempton Park Racecourse. “I wanted to show both her femininity and the toughness of spirit she requires to compete against the best riders in one of the most demanding disciplines in horse racing,” Murphy says.

“Winning the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize has been one of the largest highlights of my career, if not the largest. The exposure my work got as a result was unprecedented.”

Last chance to submit!
Entries for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 will be accepted until 23:59 Thursday 29 June 2017. Find out how to enter here.

Sponsored by National Portrait Gallery: This article was made possible with the support of National Portrait Gallery. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.