Taylor Wessing Portrait Award 2012

Posted on March 8, 2013


I have been to the Taylor Wessing Portrait Award Exhibition each year from the last five years and have always found the experience interesting and intriguing. I believe that my decision to work in the genre of portraiture for my OCA Advanced course may well have been influenced by my enjoyment of this event. This year my pilgrimage to the National Portrait Gallery was going to be particularly relevant given my own work in portraiture.

I went to the exhibition on four separate occasions and have decided to wait to post my response to the exhibition on this blog to allow time for my thoughts to settle. Curiously this year I found the exhibition somewhat overwhelming and a little confusing. This is strange given that I should have been able to approach it from a position of greater knowledge. Why was this?

The exhibition shows some 60 portraits each made by a different photographers. In past years I believe that my response to the exhibition has been on a largely aesthetic and emotional level. This year I found myself wanting to know more about the conceptual basis and ‘backstories’ of the portraits which I found interesting. I have also grown accustomed to reviewing a photographer’s work within the context of a series. As I have said elsewhere in this blog I usually find that the whole of a series adds up to much more than the sum of the parts, and it most definitely adds up to more than a single part! Very limited information is provided about the photographers and their portraits at the exhibition itself and the exhibition book/catalogue does not add much to this. All of these factors lead to my sense of being overwhelmed and lost.

Each year some 5000 portraits (in the form of original prints) are entered for the award, out of which the top four are awarded a prize and some 60 portraits are selected for the annual exhibition. This year the competition was judged by: Emma Hardy, Photographer; Lauren Heinz,Director, Foto8; Glyn Morgan, Partner, Taylor Wessing LLP; Sandy Nairne, Director, National Portrait Gallery, London (Chair); Sean O’Hagan, Writer on Photography for The Observer and the Guardian; Terence Pepper, Curator of Photographs, National Portrait Gallery, London. This is a very well qualified group, but I can’t help but feel that their task is an impossible one. For my review I have concentrated on just the prize winning photographs. Jennifer Pattison, Spencer Murphy and Alma Haser have all given me permission to show their work on my blog. My thanks to them all for this.

The winner this year was Jordi Ruiz Cirera for his portrait of Margarita Teichroeb, a Mennonite from the Swift Current Colony in Bolivia. The portrait comes from his long term project portraying the daily life of this community. The portrait can be viewed here and the broader series here. The series as whole comprises of a set of images in reportage style and a set of portraits. The reportage set is in a style which reminded me of William Allard’s work with the Hutterite communities. It is humanistic and shows people going about their daily lives in their homes and at work. What struck me most about the photographs was the way that the adults generally do not engage the viewer whereas the children often address the camera head on. This emphasises the point that photography is forbidden amongst the Mennonite community. The same pattern is followed in the portrait series, in which each of the subjects is placed in a similar position, seated at a table indoors with natural lighting. The portrait of Margarita is the most compelling within the series. It is a sensitive portrait. Margarita appears uncertain but still engages the viewer head on. Given the prior knowledge that the community forbids photography, one looks at the portrait in a different light. Rather than seeing her as a shy young woman, I now see her as someone with a sense of independence. This interpretation is strengthened when one compares her portrait with the other portraits of adults in the series who are almost all averting their gaze.

Second prize went to Jennifer Pattison for her portrait of her friend Lynne and was taken in the empty bedroom of a derelict house in Brighton. It is part of a series of naked portraits and landscapes.

Lynne, Brighton by Jennifer Pattison ©Jennifer Pattison

Lynne, Brighton by Jennifer Pattison ©Jennifer Pattison

Looking at this portrait in isolation one is left with wondering why the subject is naked. This is not a nude study. As John Berger says, ‘‘To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.’ (Berger 2008, pp 48) Lynne is most definitely represented as herself. She addresses the viewer unselfconsciously standing square on. The background is neutral, giving no additional information. She holds a chipped cup in her hand which leaps out and grabs attention. It is like its saying I am just a ‘normal’ person, not an ‘idealised’ image. Looking at Pattison’s website gives more insight into her project. In a sense she is exploring the question of self consciousness of the portrait subject. Pattison says that when making the portraits of people naked she observes a shift in the consciousness that occurs when a sitter poses without clothes, ‘a moment in the quiet where they become unaware that they are naked. I capture them as they drift to another place’ (National Portrait Gallery 2012, pp 9). She goes on to explain that the landscapes that accompany the portraits reflect these moments. The full series which she calls In sight of my skin can be seen here. In my opinion this is excellent work both conceptually and aesthetically and all the more so when one sees the series as a whole and one has a fuller understanding of the photographer’s intent.

Third prize went to Spencer Murphy for his portrait of actor Mark Rylance which was commissioned by the Sunday Telegraph Magazine. The portrait is a headshot showing Rylance looking down to his right.

Mark Rylance by Spencer Murphy ©Spencer Murphy

Mark Rylance by Spencer Murphy ©Spencer Murphy

Photographing an actor/celebrity cannot be easy. They are so accustomed to being photographed and so adept at adopting a role that getting to the ‘real’ person underneath is a challenge. This portrait of Rylance shows him unadorned. The lighting is quite plain and the background neutral. He is fairly unkept in appearance and looks like he is in  the ‘costume’ of Johnny “Rooster” Byron the character he playin Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, which opened at the Royal Court in 2009 and subsequently travelled to BroadwaySo who are we seeing here, Mark Rylance or Rooster Byron? Murphy says that he is generally a quiet director of his portrait subjects and tries to work with the subtleties of expression looking for that moment ‘when the guard drops and the mind wanders somewhere.’ (National Portrait Gallery 2012, pp 11) I think he has succeeded with this portrait. Rylance gives the appearance of being lost in thought and maybe, just maybe his guard is down.

Fourth prize went to Alma Haser for the double portrait called The Ventriloquist. This portrait has a unique and amusing quality. It shows two friends side by side. They are both turned to their right hand sides. The figure on the right is addressing the viewer the figure on the left is looking away. They both have the same ‘basin cut’ hair style. Both are wearing formal shirts and no ties. The figure on the left looks just like a ventriloquist’s dummy – hence the title. The photograph has a soft desaturated colour palette which Haser achieves through rephotographing digital prints of her images and by using ‘thin’ paper. 

The Ventriloquist by Alma Haser ©Alma Haser

The Ventriloquist by Alma Haser ©Alma Haser

Whilst Haser generally works in series, in this case the portrait, of Luke and James is an independent image. The ‘ventriloquist’ idea gives the picture a narrative feel, which closely links the two characters. This turns out to be the case in real life as they are best friends. Apparently the two are inseparable and are constantly playing off one another through their verbal banter. Haser captures this relationship in an interesting and amusing way. One question which comes to mind however is that their demeanour which is very serious seems at odds with their playful banter. This harks back to the question of whether a serious portrait should depict someone who is expressing an emotion, such as laughter. Only three of the sixty portraits in the exhibition show a subject smiling. One of the key issues here is the association of smiling with the family ‘snapshot’, which very often could be shown a ‘fictional’ representation of ‘happy families’. A smile might undermine the serious intent of the portrait and its claim to ‘reality’ and authenticity.

So what did I take from this year’s exhibition. First an foremost it confirmed my own passion for portraiture. I find looking at pictures of people fascinating – all the more so if there is an underlying idea/concept being explored. It confirmed my own preference for working in series but also demonstrated how an individual image can present a narrative and engage the viewer’s imagination. It also confirmed my own preference for portraits which are not overtly expressive. I guess that my own fascination lies in being able to project my own ideas/thoughts/experiences into an image. As I have stated many times before in this blog, I have great reservations about the capacity for a photographic portrait to show the ‘inner being’. of the subject. That said I do find that the surface appearance of a subject in a ‘great’ portrait (or subjects in a ‘great’ portrait series) trigger  all sorts of aesthetic, sensual, emotional, conceptual and imaginative responses in me. It is this which I find fascinating about photographic portraiture.

I plan this year to enter at least one photographic portrait for the Taylor Wessing Prize. I hold out very little hope of success but feel it is time I made a move to get my work seen more widely. I have been earmarking certain images as possibles for this ‘adventure’. Here are the ones I am considering at the moment.I will need to narrow down this list of contenders a lot. I plan to get high quality prints made of these images and make my final judgement from these prints. I will need prints in any event for my OCA course assessment.

Gwen (from 'Rotarians after Hill and Adamson' series) by Keith Greenough ©Keith Greenough

Gwen (from ‘Rotarians after Hill and Adamson’ series) by Keith Greenough ©Keith Greenough

Taylor Wessing Contender 10th March 2013-4

Chorus (from ‘Rotarians after Hill and Adamson’ series) by Keith Greenough ©Keith Greenough

Taylor Wessing Contender 10th March 2013-3

I am an Ironman by Keith Greenough (digital image created by merging 30 separate self portraits) ©Keith Greenough

Mary, W60-64, Retired Nurse Practitioner

Mary, 8 time ironman finisher (from the series ‘Ironman Family’ by Keith Greenough) ©Keith Greenough

Chris, M40-44. Archeologist

Chris, 12 time ironman finisher from the series ‘Ironman Family’ by Keith Greenough) ©Keith Greenough

Robin, Laide February 2013  (from the 'Landscape in Mind' series by Keith Greenough) ©Keith Greenough

Robin, Laide February 2013 (from the ‘Landscape in Mind’ series by Keith Greenough) ©Keith Greenough


Berger J. (2008) Ways of Seeing London: Penguin Classics

National Portrait Gallery Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012 London: National Portrait Gallery Publications