Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2014 // Review

As a northerner it is easy to feel isolated and removed from the happenings of our capital city here in the UK. Particularly at the moment, there are many discussions and debates taking place about how London values the northern half of Britain, and how much of a priority and a say we really have in regards to our government. As someone who is passionate about art I feel very fortunate this year especially that we are never short of culture across all parts of our island, as the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2014 arrives in Sheffield. It is here from the 2nd of May to the 16th of August, and is the only place where you can see the 59 shortlisted photographs from the 4000 entries of the 2014 Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, outside of the National Portrait Gallery in London. 

The exhibition is taking place in the Millennium Gallery, which is at the heart of Sheffield and has a reputation for being Sheffield's premier destination in displaying art, craft and design, and houses work reflective of Sheffield's heritage, particularly in metalwork as well as art and design exhibitions showing contemporary works of art. 

The prize itself has become an annual fixture in the National Portrait Gallery's calendar, and has built a reputation for reflecting and featuring some of today's brilliant and emerging photographic talent. The images shortlisted cover a wide range of traditional and contemporary approaches to portrait photography. The exhibition includes highly conceptual pieces of work, revealing images of famous faces, intimate photographs of friends, family and much more. What I particularly loved about the exhibition was the vast range of styles of portrait photography that really reinforced my appreciation for the discipline, and I also left feeling incredibly inspired in terms of my own personal photographic pursuits. 

Konrad Lars Hastings By David Titlow
From reading reviews and talking to other people about the exhibition, I found a common theme of criticism if you will for the judge's take on what exactly a portrait photograph is. The winning photograph by David Titlow could easily be challenged for not necessarily meeting the definition of portraiture, in it's including of three adults, a baby and a dog. On this alone some would argue, and I am inclined to agree, that this image has more of a documentary nature to it with its narrative of the morning after a large party with this intimate scene we are witnessing, of Titlow's wife and child along with friends. 

However it is hard to dispute this image's incredible quality and presence with the dreamy lighting and tones similar to that of the Golden Age of Dutch Painting. I personally find it very emotive and heartwarming in how the lighting gives the child such an angelic quality, which you can imagine is exactly how the photographer perceives their child. This quality conveys a real sense of preciousness that the couple see in their child which we all would do, which is reinforced by the mother's locked gaze on the animal that is being held incredibly close to her child. The photographer you can imagine is distracted by this playful scene between the animal and their child which they are intent on capturing, and this is very uplifting of course. Whereas the mother juxtaposes this completely with her alarmed expression and the way she is holding the child, very much prepared to quickly move them away should this peaceful scene be shattered by any aggression from the dog. 

As beautiful an image as this is, again it can very much be questioned on it's place in a portraiture exhibition and competition. However I do think the judge's are intending to play on the definition of portraiture to create a certain impact and really make you think. Prizes as big as this can be used as a platform to convey messages and ideas about a discipline, to impact very much how artists approach their subject matter and what is considered appropriate to that genre. In this situation I believe that the judging panel are twisting this idea of portraiture, in it being solely about representing a single person's likeness and personality in an image of them, and is instead referring to this idea that portraiture is in fact a way of representing the photographer rather then the subject. Through this image by David Titlow we can see very much what is definitive of him as a person. We can see his loved ones including his child and wife, with her old school friends back in Sweden where she is from. The image was taken on a camera that is very personal to the photographer as he has been using it to capture personal shots for years. From this we could argue that this photo is in fact a representation and therefore a portrait of David Titlow, rather than the subject matter I've commented on previously. 

Overall the exhibition felt more of a celebration than a commiseration to those who were shortlisted, with the winners by their side. There is a real sense of achievement in every image displayed that is there for us to appreciate, for their unique take on the discipline. I could spend a hours taking you through the entirety of the 59 pieces of work displayed, but instead I want to draw on some of the key themes I picked up on in terms of the curation of the exhibition, as each corner I turned seemed to reveal a new layer to the types of portraiture shortlisted. 

Boy With Stick Gun Playing World War III (Russia Versus Ukraine) By Margaret Mitchell
The Unsettling 
Some of the earlier images I came across in the exhibition were very haunting in communicating a wider narrative outside of the image itself. One of my personal favourites is the photograph above by Margaret Mitchell, which shows a young Russian boy out of a number she found playing with sticks. When she asked what they were playing they replied with the title of the image shown above. This is very emotive in reflecting these events that are happening in their society that are being fictionalised into the children's games. I think this is so powerful because violence and war is something that no one would want their child to grow up around, and as much as you may try and shelter your child from this kind of thing, children still know what is happening. 

I also found instantly when coming across this image that the context wasn't necessary to trigger an emotional response, and this is what I found with many images in the first part of the exhibition and that is why they clearly deserve to be shortlisted. As the real skill with creating visual art is being able to communicate something specific and trigger a certain response in a person, without needing anything else and for viewers not needing to ask too many questions in order to understand and interpret a piece of art.

Lenny Henry By Sarah Lee
Famous Faces
As you would expect with any major portraiture competition, there is a fair share of recognisable faces. However those that are shortlisted have a fundamental quality, in that they reveal something new or show the person in a way we are not used to seeing them. The image above of Lenny Henry was not actually placed with the other portraits of famous people and this is because it has a different purpose and is more conceptual, in that it was commissioned by the Guardian to accompany an article about the under representation of black and ethnic minorities on British television. Because of this the photograph is not so much to show this more vulnerable side of Lenny Henry as it may seem, but to in fact communicate this concern and worrying issue that Henry clearly feels very strongly about. 

Stella By Michele Aboud + Natalie Angel Miranda By Viviana Peretti
The Elegant
With many portraiture exhibitions you can expect an array of very pleasing images to look at in terms of showing the beauty and elegance in their subject matter. My personal favourite among these very graceful images of couples, drag artists and more is Stella by Michele Aboud. Which is a very simple but gorgeous image by Aboud taken of her neighbour Stella. I think the incredible use of tone and lighting is what makes this very simple image of this obviously very pretty woman, such a stunning portrait.

One Minute to Go By Robert Timothy + The Inheritance Project By Hayley Benoit

The Conceptual
Some of my favourite images among those shortlisted were those that were more conceptual or part of a larger series of work. One Minute to Go for example by Robert Timothy is part of a series that records newsreaders through portrait images in the last moments before they go live on air. Another image among these more conceptual pieces was a portrait photograph taken from a series called the Inheritance Project by Hayley Benoit. This series shows people styled to resemble old photographs of their parents. I find this series really intriguing and really recommend taking it a look at it, as the use of fashion really blurs the lines between generations and offers a fresh perspective on the act of children dressing up in their parent's clothes.

Drying Off By Chris Frazer Smith + Unexpected by Lenka Rayn H.
Many of the brilliant photographs in this exhibition include children. Some as you would expect offer a more lighthearted and silly perspective on childhood, whilst others including the two images above have a more serious tone which the photographer has managed to capture in the children. Which is what I think makes these two images in particular so special. The image on the right is entitled Unexpected and is one of my favourite photographs from the exhibition. The photographer as they have shown through the title of the image, managed to capture something very surprising in this one of the two children they photographed. Many photographs of young girls as you'll know, don't come close to achieving the seriousness of expression that this subject has, and personally I think this emotion and even the slight pain we can see through this girl's face is really quite moving.

Arvi By Sami Parkkinen + Dog and Boy By Lawrence Cartwright
The Chucklesome
Many of my favourite photographs in the exhibition were some of the most witty. Two of my favourites of these images are above and play in particular on what being a child is and make a comparison between children, adults and animals. I went around the exhibition clockwise so I finished with these more heartwarming and uplifting photographs and they really rounded off what otherwise was quite a serious collection of photographic images. The winning photograph by David Titlow was also among these more youthful and soul lifting pieces of work.

Felix By Tracey Howl
Before I finish this review I just wanted to share my personal favourite photograph from the exhibition which is Felix by Tracey Howl. Aside from the rich tonal quality and the exquisite framing of the boy and his horse, what makes this image so special for me is this very special relationship we can see between the two subjects. I think the way Felix makes what is a very powerful creature seem so gentle and modest is very special, and to see this obvious affection and strength in this young boy is very uplifting to see. Both the horse and Felix are so striking with their beauty but what I really find the most powerful in this image is the contact we can see between the nose of the horse and the boy's hand, and also the way Felix doesn't feel he needs to keep an eye on the horse showing the strong amount of trust this boy has in this creature. I think I find this image so touching because it represents something that I think a lot of us desired as a child. Whether it's a close relationship with a pet or a mythical creature, I think as a child for me personally this kind of relationship with a creature was something I could only imagine or only experience through films and books.

Overall this exhibition of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2014 in Sheffield offers a well rounded but complex exhibition, which explores an abundance of approaches to contemporary portraiture photography. I really recommend a visit if you happen to be in the South Yorkshire area. To leave you with a thought that this exhibition creates, I want to draw on just how common it is in a lot of the work displayed to feature someone close to the photographer and who is therefore more comfortable a subject to use, and also to consider just how many of these photographs are very carefully staged rather than being spontaneous in nature. Considering that many portrait images that seem to be of this nature have been shortlisted, do you think these components are important in creating a successful portraiture photograph?