Friday, 24 December 2010

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2010, at the National Portrait Gallery

The more I go to photographic portraiture exhibitions, the more the boundary before me of portraiture and documentary photography is blurred. From a very good selection of photographs, five winners were highlighted, of which most had on analysis little more than an interesting story, or exciting location to reason their renown. Naturally, subjective as it is, I hardly ever agree that those awarded at prize exhibitions are the cream of the crop…

Thus, it has led me to consider what makes a good photograph? This has to be a distinct answer to what we ask of a painting. And as a medium of modernity, it is perhaps subject to more change. Subject to the treatment of a commodity. Photography represents the leisure of modern society, the accessibility of all to technology, and the blurring between art and the everyday. Therefore for photography to be a high art, it has to live up to increasing standards and regular jousts of criticism. That said its market is wide reaching, and its works potentially mass-produced. Photography is able to be a driving force of modern art, so it’s worth taking seriously.

My opinion is that, fairly formalistically, a photograph’s quality ought to be recognised in its materiality - That is the aesthetic properties in the design of the photograph. Not, for example then, for its exotic location or sob story, that is often true of much photojournalism, especially, as this is a portraiture exhibition.

Through some of my favourites from the exhibition, a visual delight and a mere £2 entry cost, I will define what I believe makes a memorable and praise worthy work of digital art.

The first, Haitian Woman by Ramin Talaie, is to prove I’m not anti-narrative. It would be hard to see a photograph entitled Haitian Woman and not consider the earthquake of early 2010 –therefore the narrative is silently present. The photographer can instead grip us with his oxymoronic model, who is bold yet fragile. To me it is an image of hope. The history of her very face, recalls the history of the natural disaster in our memories. The memory will not leave her; she cannot look at us to acknowledge that which is outside of the event. However her pose is reminiscent of the Greek gods sculpted into marble, held in contrapposto. She stands firm on neglected land, in a dress that carries a feministic and daring confidence. To me the depiction, the colours, the focus, and composition of this photograph are all fine-tuned perfection.

‘Unsafe Journey’ champions the exhibition. Again, it is not the exotic location that sells this picture to me. It is the undeniable technical skill of the photograph. We look down upon a Bangladeshi woman precariously clings to the back of a train in the packed Ramadan season, cradling herself in a wealth of sari material. Of course there is only one place in which to take this shot, from above, and so we imagine Amy Helene Johansson held to the top of this train unshaken and so taking a picture of her ‘sitter’ in crisp, ironic stillness, where the ground beneath blurs into zigzags and strips of earth colours. The lady seems confused to be photographed, but not anxious by her experience – a pictorially anecdotal image.

An example of well-rehearsed concept is The Solitude of Pygmalion by Steve Barrett, who has redressed the Greek myth of the sculptor he was so astounded by the beauty of his work, that he then fell in love with his creation.

Tony Blaire #1 is certainly my favourite headshot of the show. It embodies the characterization and individualization of a good portrait. As well as flaunting the fundamental benefits of the photographic medium – post shooting editing, there is a soberness of his role reflected in the dull tones, and a haggard effect honouring his hard work, in what I believe is a positive portrait of the politician. His eyes glisten, reminding us he is still alive with ideas, and fixed on a goal.

All these photographs speak for themselves. They are visibly mouthy.

Pictured: ‘Haitian Woman’ by Ramin Talaie

‘Unsafe Journey’ by Amy Helene Johannsson

Don’t miss The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portraiture Prize is at the National Portrait Gallery until 20th February 2011.

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