2018 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize
I had not intended to go, but finding myself in the NPG for other reasons, and priced at £1.25 with my grey hair and student art card discounts, why not?
Based on the reviews I had read and the conversations I had had about the 2018 Taylor Wessing Photographic show, I expected it to be heavy going. Reports suggested that most of the subjects were sad, morose and infectiously depressing.
The reports were borne out by the first few images on show, especially Greta and Guenda (fig. 1, Cuen Fiore, 2018), chosen for their melancholy with no explanation. Then Erin, 12 (fig. 2, Richard Ansett, 2018), who at least had a reason. But then the gloom was relieved.
Joan Jonas (fig. 3, Toby Coulson, 2017) and Melanesia (fig. 4, Aline Smithson, 2017) are two of the few (too few) playful images on show. Coulson photographed the "performance and video art pioneer" Joan Jonas wearing a translucent mask. Aline Smithson enjoys a complex post processing workflow, "the negative was … damaged in the darkroom with chemicals … scanned and further manipulated digitally". I have never understood the attraction of "damaging" a unique analogue negative, but the result here is striking.
First prize in the show went to Alice Mann for her documentary depiction of drum majorettes (the set being awarded the prize, not, as is usual, a single image). These are creditable, proficient and colourful but by no means the strongest photographs in the show.
Adjacent to the Mann series was another series of glum faces, relieved by a more relaxed Shantelle, pictured by Max Miechowski (2018)
In the same section was my winner of the silliest title award, Alejandra Carles-Tolra's Untitled (Charlotte, a member of the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society). Jerry L. Thompson (2016 pp.41-42) distinguishes between photographs that do and do not need titles. Those that do he regards as "journalistic", those that do not needs titles he calls "pictorialist". In journalistic photographs it is the information conveyed that is most important; for the pictorial, what matters is how they look. Those who know Thompson's work will not be surprised to learn that he prefers those who steer a middle course, between the two. The distinction is quite illuminating, but there is another consideration — some photographs need a caption to make them interesting, this being one such, a run-of -the-mill portrait only elevated from the mundane by a curious title.
In addition to the competition, the show "showcase[s] new work by acclaimed photographers", this year, Rinko Kawauchi, "one of the most celebrated photographers of her generation". These were a profound disappointment, being amateurish and inept, particularly the two featured.
Had I been judging the show, the clear winner would have been Bruun's Blonde Wig and Purple Beret. It is viscerally real image in stark contrast to the preponderance of indulgent and complacent photographs that litter the show. This was apparent from the first, distant glance, reinforced when one learns that this is Bruun's mother and reads of her medical conditions.
My second place goes to Postma's Perspective One. This is an admirably simple and intriguing shot (ignore the obtrusive reflections in the copy below). It would make a great book cover.
Third is Bashir's Olga, a beautiful evocation of Julia Margaret Cameron.