What kind of photographs win the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize? Well the jury are happy to skirt controversy, with 2nd place going last year to Panayiotis Lamprou for his Portrait of my British Wife (who is casually displaying her ladygarden beneath her vest, as is of course the way with British wives), and 3rd to Jeffrey Stockbridge’s photo of the drug addicted prostitute sisters, Tic Tac and Tootsie. The winner though, was a haunting shot of a young girl riding with the body of a hunted springbok. Not unprintable in the press, or even unpalatable – though perhaps of dubious moral stance to the League Against Cruel Sports.
It would be churlish and perhaps irrelevant to say that the TWPP is unprepared to take risks – winners in recent years have all presented brilliant and thoughtful windows on humanity. In 2008 it was Hendrik Kersten’s clever iteration of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, replacing the Dutch painter’s flowing headpiece with a plastic bag. In 2009, the £12,000 prize went to Paul Floyd Blake for his portrait of a 13 year-old Paralympic hopeful missing her right foot. Also in the runnings that year was a fantastic and confrontational photograph by James Stroud of a nude and tattooed amputee fetish model fixing her hair (we gave a fuller rundown of the 2008 prize here).
Anyway, that’s all in the past. What about this year’s shortlist? Well, first up we have Wen, the appropriately painterly portrait of Wen Wu (see above), a Chinese artist from Hackney, taken at her live-in studio. The series is based around artists who can’t afford separate work spaces, though photographer Jasper Clarke insists “the portraits are not intended to elicit sympathy for the cash-strapped artist; they are more a celebration of people’s dedication in following a path no matter what the obstacles”. I don’t think the politics of arts funding cuts are why this shot has been chosen however – it speaks simply of the relation between art and artist, the slight desaturation and muted tones creating a bridge between Ms Wu and her canvases.
Next is David Knight, who presents a portrait of 15-year-old Andie Poetschka, originally commissioned by Loud for the Cerebral Palsy Alliance to raise awareness of the condition throughout Australia (where the photographer is based). I wouldn’t want to seem so cynical and reductionist as to suggest that another portrait of a disabled woman who doesn’t initially appear to be so will be out of the runnings, but I wonder if it would go without consideration.
Dona Schwartz’s photo, Christina and Mark, 14 months, is taken from the series On the Nest, depicting transitional periods in parenthood. This particular image is about children leaving home – emptying ‘the nest’. It’s an original portrait, but perhaps too ‘homely’ for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. As an aside, a group portrait hasn’t won since 2005 (Shara Henderson for Girl with Baby – Poland).
This photo might be my tip for the winner – cleanly shot, exceedingly well-lit, uncluttered composition but with a singularly weird focus. Jooney Woodward‘s Harriet and Gentleman Jack shows a 13 year-old girl holding her pet guinea pig, which she is presenting for a guinea pig prize. Who knew such a thing even existed? And her hair matches the wee beast’s coat, while she’s wearing an oddly clinical stewarding jacket.
Lastly there’s Jill Wooster’s portrait, Of Lili, which works on many levels. The veins on her arms pop out in shadow, contrasting sharply with her plain white vest. It’s a great shot because her gender ambiguity is not easy to read – she isn’t perfectly androgynous, and little touches such as her deep red lipstick and the playfully feminine embroidery on the shoulder make this a complicated and interested photograph that begs to tell a story.