Photo finish: judging the Taylor Wessing portrait prize
Last year, I was critical of the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize. This year I helped judge it – and now realise how tough it is to pick a winner
guardian.co.uk, Friday 7 September 2012 18.25 BST
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Taylor Wessing portrait prize 2012: The Ventriloquists by Alma Haser View larger picture
The Ventriloquists by Alma Haser Photograph: Alma Haser
Last November, I wrote a not altogether positive review of the 2011 Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize headlined Another animal, another girl with red hair. It described my bafflement at the judging process and the general “dullness of the selection”. It was a surprise, then, to be asked to be one of this year’s judges. I jumped at the chance.
Now it’s done, I have to say I will think twice about knocking the judges in future. The two days I spent looking at 5,340 photographs submitted by 2,352 photographers (a maximum of six prints per entrant is allowed) was a crash course in the discipline and the sheer doggedness involved in judging an open competition which, as the National Portrait Gallery brief put it, showcases “the work of some of the most talented emerging young photographers, alongside that of established professionals, photography students and gifted amateurs.”
Taylor Wessing prize: Lynne Brighton, shot by Jennifer Pattison Lynne Brighton, shot by Jennifer Pattison in the bedroom of a derelict house Photograph: Lynne Brighton
For the record, the other judges were: Emma Hardy, photographer; Lauren Heinz, director of Foto8; Glyn Morgan, a partner at Taylor Wessing LLP; ; Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery and Terence Pepper, curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. There were opinions. There were agendas. There were disagreements. It was tough. It was exasperating. It was emotionally and physically draining but, despite many moments of disappointment as favourite images were rejected, it was utterly rewarding. And, of course, I anticipate much scorn/derision/dismissal by the online photographic community and the general public alike. It goes with the turf and I am thickening my skin as we speak.
Here are a few observations on the prize and the process. On day one, a team of helpers paraded the prints before us, photographer by photographer. As the first 1,000 whizzed by, we seemed to be consigning an awful lot to the rejected pile: baby portraits, family portraits, pet portraits, portraits that looked like holiday snapshots, portraits that were bad imitations of famous portraits, even portraits with no people – or animals – in them. (Memo to all entrants: show your photographs to someone else first, and preferably not a family member. It may save you a lot of money and disappointment.)
Much sooner than I expected, we were down to 600 photographs. But, as Sandy Nairne pointed out, that still meant 540 had to go. That’s when it started getting interesting. And slightly tense. By lunchtime on the second day, we had filleted the 600 down to just over 100. Then it went from tense to intense.
I don’t think I was the only one of the judges to find this part of the task emotionally draining. Put it this way: I firmly believe that most of that final 100 could have been in the show alongside the final selection. Really great portraits had to be rejected and, as Nairne kept reminding us, it was down not just to consensus but individual enthusiasm. A few portraits I was really enthusiastic about, though, still went into the back room not to be seen again. The same applied to nearly all the judges.
In the end, we were left with, I think around 18 or 19 great images that then had to be voted on in order of individual preference. It was as close as could be when it came to deciding the winner. My lips are of course sealed, though I can tell you that my choice was pipped at the post. I was devastated, but democracy ruled.
As the weeks have gone by since the judging, I’ve been haunted by three images that are in the show, but not the shortlist. One is James Russell Cant‘s group portrait, Heather and Her Friends, which had a real intimacy to it. The others are Tomasz Gudzowaty’s strong black and white image, Katy With Sons (part of this series) , and (NSFW) Nadia Lee Cohen‘s very strange American Nightmare, both of which had an edginess that I think is missing elsewhere in the show – and was missing too in the submissions – for whatever reason. It makes me wonder if the prize is viewed by many photographers as a traditional, even conservative, one. How else to explain the lack of snatched street portraits or any kind of reflection of the recent political ferment – from the Arab spring to the Occupy Movement to the London riots? Whatever, there was a definite lack of edge that I found disappointing.
In the end, too, it comes down to taste. I was not so hung up on technical perfection or the sublimely beautiful as some of my fellow judges, perhaps because I now see so many strong photographs that no longer adhere to those definitions. Celebrity portraits tend to leave me cold, too, unless they are truly surprising or somehow honest in a way we seldom see. (Matthew Lloyd’s thoughtful portrait of Michael Stipe and Eamon McCabe’s portrait of Sarah Lucas are both in the show, and deservedly so.)
We live in digital world where photography has become a more democratised vision and I think that should somehow be reflected, even in a portrait show. It isn’t in this instance. And yet I can see why The National Portrait Gallery upholds the traditional art and craft of photographic portraiture. That’s what the place is all about. In conclusion, I think the shortlist is a strong one, though there is inevitably one portrait in there I would have passed over for something harder, edgier, more intimate or more confrontational … that’s all I’m saying.
Now see this
Ahead of the big William Klein-Daido Moriyama show at Tate Modern next month, Micahel Hoppen, London is showing Moriyama’s erotic series, Tights and Lips, which comprises close ups of legs in fishnet stockings and glossy lipsticked mouths. As always with Moriyama, the energy is raw and the images altogether more formal than first impressions suggest. A provocative taster for the big event.
Also in London, The Little Black Gallery is showing Vee Speers’ controversial series, The Birthday Party in which children are pictured wearing party outfits befitting their imagined alter egos. Strange and dreamily disturbing.