Taylor Wessing Prize 2012 – National Portrait Gallery

The Photographic Portrait Prize was in danger of turning into something of a joke. The winning shot conformed to such a standard you could probably have come up with a bingo card and was never really reflective of the diversity of the exhibition – even though within that selection you would find the red-head, the freckled, the faded glamour and the “I really wanted to a be a painter but can’t draw”. This year something’s changed. The winning shot isn’t quirky, it’s intriguing, and the exhibition packs a huge amount into its enclosed space that you can forgive the occasional detour into stereotype. In my humble opinion it’s the best show there has been for this award since … well, since I started attending over a decade ago.

The winning shot (above) is by Jordi Ruiz Cirera. The story has done the rounds. He had only two frames to capture this woman, Margarita, who is part of a Mennonite sect in Bolivia that spurns modernity and believes photography to be somehow wrong. For me, where the photo draws its power is initially in her setting within the frame – two blown out sections either side – and the shape she makes of powerless defiance. Then you are drawn to her expression which seems to look to you for understanding. It’s incredible how direct it feels given how much of the frame is occupied by things other than the sitter. A more than worthy first prize.

As ever, the main exhibition is a mix of pictures of everyday people and portraits of the famous. Of the latter type, Robin Friend’s image of Gillian Wearing is the one that sticks with me the most. It’s a rare example of a work that uses props and an unusual foregrounding – Wearing is behind one of those thick transluscent divides you find in supermarkets that separates store room from sales floor holding some artifical flowers – to add rather than detract. To get to Wearing you’ll pass Ai Weiwei, Victoria Pendleton and Mo Farah amongst others.

My favourite amongst the non-famous is Laura Cooper’s of “Christopher and Harriet” (link). I love the three way connection – man to girl to us – and the way they feel lower in the frame than they are, as if overwhelmed by the room they are in. In terms of expression and pose it’s possibly quite similar to the prize winner so maybe I’m in danger of becoming as fixed in my views as the prize winners were. It’s well worth checking out Laura Cooper’s work though – she makes tremendous use of surroundings and expression throughout.

I won’t draw out any other examples though there are many I could use. The exhibition costs £2 which is an annoying amount being neither free nor a proper exhibition charge so you almost wonder why they bother. The catalogue which is, as ever, bobbins is now £15. I have to find something to moan about so if all I’m doing is whinging about the catalogue you can be pretty sure this is an excellent exhibition.

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