Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011

I’ve been to see the Taylor Wessing a few times but I have never really understood the exhibition. The portraits weren’t always interesting and needed at least more detail than appeared in the captions. The photographers were fairly unanimous in being qualified professionals according to their biographies. The images were quite dull and uniformly deadpan which is not my preferred portrait style. The winners tended to be unremarkable.  There was always a percentage of naked people who were not particularly attractive. There were a token selection of disabled people, and a few of artists. Ginger-haired young girls seemed to regular subjects.

I wasn’t going to attend this year but went in the last week when the space was a crush of people, making it difficult to see the whole of any photo let alone find time to examine it in detail, so I broke my usual habit and bought the catalog, and I actually understood more about the images through a more leisurely reading at home. Of course I didn’t have the actual prints in front of me, but I had seen them close up if not always seeing the whole image.

This year’s winner was a photo of a thirteen year old ginger haired girl holding a guinea pig  at an agricultural show. I thought the common hair colour of girl and guinea pig was of some interest, and I noted the girl had a scratch on her hand, was wearing a white stewards coat, and was otherwise unremarkable. The catalog caption repeated my observations and then featured a longer interview with the photographer, Jooney Woodward. I still don’t understand why this image won the competition, and the catalog presents no insight other than saying the whole process is subjective, so my assumption might be that this is a “beauty contest” in reverse where the duller the image the more favourably it is judged. The judges may be deliberately trying to create controversy and thus publicity for the sponsors, a law firm I believe. Last year one of the winners showed the photographer’s wife with her large labia exposed and sitting next to the remains of a meal. This wasn’t a constructed photo of any kind, the photographer took a snap of his half naked wife, and it wasn’t pretty.

This year’s judges spoke of “a considered conversation between artist and subject”, and while I will hold those words for future use on this course I don’t see how that applies to any of these photos.

“Warts and all” seems to have specifically coined for this exhibition, as was demonstrated in the second prize winner, a photo of an androgynous and fairly threatening woman. At the same time as “warts and all” this photo was actually retouched to remove some actual warts. The photos are all presented to the judges as prints so perhaps actual warts are a step too far, although that’s difficult to consider when last year’s labia is referenced.  This photo reminded me of the work of August Sander with its deadpan expression against a plain backdrop. The photo is part of a series on middle-aged women at difficult stages in the lives, and I would like to see it as part of the whole series rather than in isolation.

Third prize studied a couple of empty-nested parents in the bedroom of a daughter who’s gone off to college. Again it ‘s part of a series and I empathised since my own three children left home several years ago although two have since returned because of the current economic climate. At some point I hope to return to being an empty-nester myself. My daughter is in the best room in the house and I want it for a photo studio/study/playroom.

Fourth prize is the artist, another series; fifth is the disabled person, also part of a series; and then we have the rest- the weird, the lost, the lonely, the dregs of society, the rites of passage, the elderly in their underwear; sex workers; poor people; fat people; Julian Assange (odd choice in this company); the ethnics; Dolly Parton looking a bit lost on a hotel bed; fannies; Peter Crouch the footballer; penises; amputees; deformities; and a child in a transparent coat naked in a shower who had this done to him as the lucky prize winner in a competition to have your portrait taken.

So do any of these portraits enable a conversation between photography and subject, or display any insights beyond what an amateur photographer could produce.  If they do I have yet to see it, but I will keep studying and trying to understand. Maybe the the point is that an amateur cannot understand?

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About watlvry

Flaneur for my own ailments; government and corporate hypocrisy; guitar stuff; the music business; home made videos featuring home made tunes played at home; a bit of golf; and of course photography. Specifically "art" photography (doesn't exist) and contemporary photography ( sadly does exist in all its grotesque reality).
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3 Responses to Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011

  1. vickimartine says:

    Brian
    I really enjoyed this post because the points you raised echoed so many of my own thoughts on the exhibition, except that you explained it far more succinctly and eloquently than I could have done! My only misgiving about the catalogue, which I also purchased, was the fact that it did not contain all the information about the portraits as shown alongised the prints at the actual exhibition!

    And like you, there were so many whose merit I did not understand! Maybe that will come in time, but maybe never!

    • watlvry says:

      There was some discussion on the OCA forum about the Landscape Photography of the Year and one tutor commented that the event may be more about making money than photography. Taylor Wessing is obviously about publicity for the sponsors and seems to be slanted towards controversial photos, that is, they are controversial to those not trained to understand. My current People & Place tutor recommends seeing T-W so I’m sticking with it in the hopes that one day I might understand too. What I do understand is that art is art only because an artist or critic or curator says it is, so the definition of good photography may also lie within relatively few people’s dictat, or in fact anyone’s dictat. At last year’s Arles festival one theme was the everyone is a photographer now, and and it may be valid to put your own labels onto any particular photo. The more I get into this course the more I’m thinking about photography, which may seem a bit obvious, but I’m moving beyond labelling a photo as “good” or “poor”. Now I look at them and try and analyse their structure and content, and then try and feel the photo rather than pigeon-hole it.
      (Hope you got the discount on the catalog 🙂 )

  2. Helen says:

    I had the same misgivings all the exhibition from afar and haven’t made it in there so can’t comment specifically but thanks for your really interesting thoughts on this. H

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