David Cameron’s glimpse of fatherhood, an infant’s first encounter with a dog, Silvio Berlusconi, a mother embracing her new-born. All of them and many more can be found under the same roof as a bunch of old friends who have just met to discuss life. The National Portrait Gallery presents this year’s winners of Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize.
This year, the commission received over 4,000 images, whittling them down to 59 exhibits of portraits from all around the world. All of them mingled together regardless of their size, message, religious background or the country of origin. By the time the viewer gets to the winning portraits, he’s encountered a variety of silhouettes. Many of them hardly meet the portraiture criteria. One of such examples would be Blerim Racaj’s photograph of teenage Kosovars who are sitting in the town’s remote area, pouring cheap alcohol down their glasses.
The exhibition is full of original material which drags us back to the Da Vinci’s times of portraiture classic. One of them would be Hayley Benoit’s simplistic photograph of a young African-American girl Jamelia who dressed herself in retro clothes of her mother Olivia. This portrait happens to have its own, accidental pair in the exhibition, which is the one of Sami Parkkinen.
If the portraits at this exhibition had to be aligned just like books in the library, “the genre of ageing” would be the most crowded shelf. Almost every second portrait features either children, seniors, or one of them piercing the age-bracket of the other one. Tim Andrews, who since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2005, had been photographed by over 300 photographers. A Bohemian posture of Tim pretentiously lying on the couch, almost reminds us the notoriously known scene from Titanic.
Two curators, couple of surprises and just a few steps away from the winning portraits, one recognizes faces of whom there’s no need to read the caption about. The over-contrasted portrait of Berlusconi shares the same wall with Tom Stoddart’s family portrait of delighted Camerons holding their daughter Florence. The joyous expression of their faces is sharply attacked by the photographer’s choice of black-and-white filter, as if it was a replacement for all the Camerons’ future family portraits that will always remain incomplete.
Every year, the exhibition’s ‘fame hall’ features well-known public figures such as last year’s portraits of Vanessa Redgrave, Kofi Annan or Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. This year the fame hall has been joined by Lenny Henry and Silvio Berlusconi who are both cast in new light. Lenny in meditative mood, and Berlusconi in the close up with his melancholic look.
The last room of the exhibition follows the traditional “save the best for last”, with the warmest touch of humanity. The most captivating portrait for me was ‘Embrace’ by artist Buki Koshoni, who took a photo of his wife holding her new-born son Ace, who is still attached to her by the umbilical cord. From one miraculous image to another, the viewer’s eyes get finally dazzled by a glare of the winner. The last year’s Spencer Murphy’s portrait of a jockey Katie Walsh, covered with mud from her just finished race received criticism for being too plain. But this year, the simplicity of the exhausted jockey is overcome by a more complex photo story that has improved the reputation of Taylor Wessing Awards’ judges.
The winner of this year’s photo contest is a fashion photographer David Titlow’s portrait of his son Konrad. Titlow’s photograph captures the scene in the aftermath of a mid-summer party, with few adults watching an infant’s first encounter with a dog. The combination of a mystic darkness, the light falling on the edges of the figures’ faces and the boy’s hand reaching for the dog’s calm face put the finishing touches to the almost biblical scene, reminding us of the Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.
The simplicity and theme of the following two winners aren’t any surprise, as the subject of children does not leave the winners’ pedestal. The second prize went to Jessica Fullford-Dobson for her portrait of a seven-year-old Afghan girl at the skate school in Kabul, and the third prize was awarded to Birgit Püve for ‘Braian and Ryan’, from her book featuring more than 80 sets of identical twins and triplets in Estonia.
As the viewer leaves the exhibition, some of the most powerful portraits appear in front of his eyes, as if they were trying to burn into his memory and make him come back the next year again. Despite the thematic repetition at this year’s Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, a compliment of a gratifying improvement must be made to the judges whose job seems to be getting harder with every other competition.
Most of the winning portraits are no longer stabbing us with the blade of the suffering, but rather give us our own time and space to re-read the visualized pages of their life. Taylor Wessing exhibition is a celebration of humanity and that’s why I would advise everyone to go and meet all the faces who got to the shortlist of winners. They will make you think, smile and feel human.