wed 13/12/2017

First Person: Portrait of Britain | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Portrait of Britain

First Person: Portrait of Britain

Bill Knight on his prizewinning photograph and the competition that turns advertising screens into art galleries

'Vanessa and Vivian' by Bill Knight© Bill Knight All images courtesy of British Journal of Photography/JC Decaux

This exhibition includes one of my images, so I hesitated when I was asked to write about it – but I only hesitated for a moment. I have learned that if you are reluctant to promote your own work other people are even more inclined in that direction, so you should seize any chance you get.

My entry (main picture) shows the actor Vanessa Babiyre and her eldest sister Vivian (nearest the camera). The shot was taken at the Royal Court, where Vanessa has recently appeared, and is part of my forthcoming exhibition Where I Come From, about BAME graduates and their families. I have been a fan of Vanessa since I saw her as Topsy in Neighbors at the HighTide Festival – her dancing is electric. Vanessa’s family came from Uganda as refugees and their mother died in 2010. Vivian is a community support worker and Vanessa says that she is the happiest person you will ever meet.

Auguste and Poppy Parthenope  © Eliza TamoPortrait of Britain is the result of a competition run by the British Journal of Photography with advertising company JCDecaux. The winning entries will be shown throughout September on giant digital advertising screens. There are 100 winners and each screen will show the images in rotation (pictured right: Auguste and Poppy Parthenope by Eliza Tamo). It is an imaginative way to use the screens in the service of art.

The organisers say that the exhibition is for photographers who want their work to be "seen by the public and not just a bunch of gallerists and publishers in a metropolitan city." The public will certainly see it. The work will be at all major rail hubs including Euston, King's Cross, Liverpool Street, London Bridge, St. Pancras, Victoria and Waterloo in London as well as Brighton, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool Lime Street, Manchester Piccadilly, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and York. It will also be seen in major shopping centres throughout the country.

Beth Costerton photographed for 'This Is Me' an exhibition of 50 portraits of children who have Down's Syndrome © Andrew ShaylorThe images are diverse in their subject matter and in the style of their photography. Young, old, town and country, posh and not so posh. Plenty of ethnic diversity, a few family groups. There are headshots, and full length portraits, colour and black and white with a lot of natural light, but some formal, lit shots. We do come across as rather a serious lot. There is joy from the children, but not much from the adults (pictured left: Beth Costerton by Andrew Shaylor). Perhaps smiling for the camera isn’t art?

What will the commuters and shoppers make of it all? My guess is that they will be intrigued and will wait for the next image. Every shot is worth two or three looks and you ask yourself, "What is going on here?". There may be no art to finding the mind’s construction in the face, but that doesn’t stop us trying.

The human face has fascinated us ever since art began, and this 21st century exhibition shows its eternal power, and the power of photography and the depth of talent in Britain’s photographers – rather daunting for me, but there you are. I would say you shouldn’t miss it, but don’t worry – you really can’t.

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