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Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012, National Portrait Gallery | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012, National Portrait Gallery

Outstanding images from eminent photographic masters and students alike

And the winner is... Jordi Ruiz Cirera's image of Margarita TeichroebJordi Ruiz Cirera

The Taylor Wessing Photographic… well, you get the drift. It's quite a long title for what is now one of the most fascinating and wide-ranging exhibitions of photographs mounted in London, and which goes out on tour nationally next year. It is described as a snapshot of contemporary portrait photography, and this is one of the strongest iterations yet, 60 photographs selected from an international submission of over 5,000 images from more than 2,000 photographers, all taken within the last year or so. 

Each has been chosen blind, as the photographer was not identified during the selection. In practice this means that the eminently accomplished and senior masters of the genre - two dozen photographs by the sexagenerian Eamonn McCabe are already in the NPG collection and here he is with an emotive portrait of the artist Sarah Lucas, simultaneously wiry, resilient and extraordinarily pale and rather scruffy, perched on the rim of a modest swimming pool in Suffolk – are on view, along with photographers who are still students or just emerging. 

Alma Haser is a German who graduated from Nottingham Trent two years ago, and her compelling offering is two eerily similar adolescent boys, friends, deadpan in identical haircuts, one clutching the other, called The Ventriloquist (pictured right), a title which makes the viewer wonder about the ties that bind. The image won fourth prize. First prize was awarded to the portrait by 28-year-old Barcelona-born London resident Jordi Ruiz Cirera of a young Bolivian woman, Margarita Teichroeb, clearly itchily uncomfortable in front of the camera. She is a Mennonite, descendant of a religiously exclusive German sect who rather improbably settled in Bolivia centuries ago, and still live in isolated subsistence farming communities, similar to the Amish of Pennsylvania. Simplicity and awkwardness combine to telling effect.

Some of the subjects are also eminently recognisable, although who realised that Mark Rylance has such startling greenish-blue eyes, as seen in his strikingly introverted portrait (pictured below) by Spencer Murphy (third prize). David Bailey looks like a cleaned-up tramp who happens to have lucked into a handsome interior in a photograph by Rick Morris Pushinsky, whom Bailey commended for quickness while demanding to know all the technical details. There is a huge portrait of Hilary Mantel, in a subtly charming hat, caught by Michael Birt standing on a Cornish beach in a moment between rainstorms. There is an extraordinary dignity and serenity in Sam Faulkner’s black and white photograph of Jane Goodall.

There is also many a tragic or disturbing portrait. Justin Sutcliffe photographs police constable David Rathband, who was randomly shot and blinded and would kill himself a few months later. He stares eerily out at the camera through his alarmingly convincing artificial eyes.

In Gujarat, Darran Rees photographs (from the inside of a lorry’s cab) a very young and rather beautiful Indian lorry driver, standing against a backdrop of speeding  lorries: one of the hardest jobs in the world and hardly attended by vigilant health and safety measures. Likewise the group of Delhi roadworkers, photographed at night by Jeremy Rata, one standing on a barrel almost like a plinth. Somehow, the mood conveyed in both is subtly heroic.

On view here is a chorus of life as it is being lived now, from council estates in London to high schools in Texas, with detours to Lima and Libya

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