Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011

The reaction to the prize winner sums up the problem the Taylor Wessing now faces. When even Sean O’Hagan in the Guardian is lamenting the appearance of yet another female redhead and looking for any works in the prize shortlist that deviate from the standard template that art photography appears to have defaulted to then we are looking at a prize stuck in something of a trough. Nobody should dispute the quality or technical skill of the top five but it’s quite legitimate to question why these shortlisted for the prize are all from the same stylistic pool and why what should be a showcase of diverse professional and amateur photographers now seems to only want to show off its high art credentials. The fear is that the exhibition itself will be equally focused on one specific style but, oddly, it isn’t. Instead it’s a strong, broad and invigorating show which leaves you with only one complaint: how come my favourites aren’t winning the awards?

Let’s take the shortlist first (see it here) to get it out of the way. Washed out colours, awkward poses, enigmatic faces and the prosaic reimagined as quirky (pink dress in a wheelchair, woman in male-type trousers, old people in a child’s bedroom, wrinkled person in a tight vest and jeans, child with adult expression and lab-coat), this is generic art-portraiture and whilst none of it is bad none of it cries out as exceptional. I can’t understand how these five were chosen mainly because I would have thought the selection process would seek to bring forward several distinct elements within the exhibition rather than making a statement that any photograph fitting this archetype will be placed ahead of any other entrant. Away from this shortlist there aren’t that many that match. As for the winner (pictured): I am afraid I fall in to the camp of just not getting it.

But away from this disappointing group the exhibition is rather good and well worth your £2 entry fee (I’m sure it used to be free with charging only brought in to cover a lack of sponsorship one year). I’ll talk briefly about a few of my personal favourites:

Spencer Murphy’s photo of Peter Crouch is the first thing you see when walking in. Superficially I could be damned as a hypocrite here because it relies on a washed-out pallette and “Crouchy” looks wistfully off into the distance like so many artistic muses. But it works via its technical strength and the way that narrow pallette comes together throughout the image – the eyes, shirt and background blend. It also manages to feel both staged – in that sense of that fixed pose – but also spontaneous in that the subject looks unprepared.

Tony is from Dylan Collard’s series “Up my street” and it shows a man, seen through a shopfront window with fluorescent light caught on the glass, repairing a sewing machine, surrounded by dozens of other sewing machines. It’s a lovely slice of life whose ‘as is’ set up asks many more questions than it answers. The series itself shows a variety of north London independent shopowners and there’s a bit about that here.

The Embrace by Jonathan May is a remarkably tender image showing two heavily tattooed men of advancing years locked in an awkward, yet obviously loving, embrace. The setting is domestic, a cramped kitchen, and the lighting is such that commentators on photography forums would suggest binning it. The overall impact is remarkable.

Colin Hampden-White’s Normio and Miss HK is another striking shot of two people but from a completely perspective. Two women, quite similar looking, engage with the camera and almost mimic each other’s pose. The caption reveals that they aren’t, as you might think, sisters but rather a model and a photographer who had come together for an event. Did I mention that one of the women is naked and the other holding a camera? There’s something going on here about bonds and trust – as well as a good and dramatic shot – and it left me a little confused as to my emotions towards it. I liked it a lot though.

Finally, Antonio Olmos’s image of teenagers at the impromptu memorial to a young victim of London street crime. The flowers are left wrapped around a suburban lamppost and they sit and stand in a row on the wall in front of the adjacent terraced houses. Some look at the flowers, some at each other, some away … if it was brighter and more amusing you’d call it Parr-esque, as it is it’s a well-caught shot of people unsure how to behave and of grief and emotion out of place.

I note that I’ve just listed a bunch of male photographers. I’m not going to go back and change that for balance but looking round I did not a very healthy number of strong works from women photographers and the reach of the prize seems impressively global. There are men guarding Kabul and middle class bloggers from the leafier parts of London; Parisian spinster sisters and Cuban geriatrics. And it is all, mostly, impressive and engaging.

My annual gripe about the catalogue still stands though. It’s nice to walk away with the photos in portable format but for £15 I don’t understand why the little bios of both photographer and subject that enlighten within the exhibition cannot be reprinted in the catalogue alongside the reproductions. I’d even be happy to pay a slight premium for this version to sit alongside the catalogue as its currently produced.

There’s a pleasing lack of celebrity images – apart from Peter Crouch only one sticks in the mind and it’s of Keira Knightley. It toning it reminds me of the spooky computer enhanced schoolgirl shot that graced the underground posters a few years ago and Keira is similarly being used to draw the tourists in. Which is a bit of a shame. Rather like the shortlist such an image isn’t representative of the range of interesting work on display. Basically, ignore everything you might see or read about this beforehand and go along. It’s a surprising triumph.

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