I had just opened up a new compose window to write my review of this year's Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition (in short: uninspiring and hackneyed) when someone sent me a link to this BBC article. Suddenly, my lamentation of a rather bland competition exhibition took on a new complexion. This year's Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize was won by Spencer Murphy for his photo of mud-spattered jockey Katie Walsh at Kempton Park racecourse. When I first saw it, I felt quite non-plussed by the image; it didn't seem to convey any of the energy or determination that I know fires jockeys. They're steely people, but they're driven by adrenaline. Even when they're exhausted, they still buzz. If you can convince one to sit still, or you can capture one in motion, jockeys are great subjects. It was an image that I knew I should have loved but I didn't; somehow it fell short.
Murphy said that he wanted Walsh's portrait to convey 'both her femininity and the toughness of spirit she requires to compete against the best riders in one of the most demanding disciplines in horse racing.' National Hunt jockeys are extraordinarily tough and to portray this along with Walsh's feminity would have made for a glittering image. My interpretation of the portrait, though, was that Walsh appeared nothing more than miserable. It was a lovely picture and there is a gorgeous depth to it that Murphy had hoped to achieve by using a medium format camera, but I wasn't convinced by its characterisation. Now, I'm wondering if one line in that BBC article explains it. Walsh hadn't ridden at Kempton the day the photograph was taken. It's made to look as if she's just unsaddled and weighed-in, but that doesn't seem to be the case. 'Spencer Murphy took the shot of jump jockey Walsh at Kempton Park, although she had not raced there that day.'
So is the mud, the rosy cheeks, and the skid-lid hair nothing more than a contrivance? My friend who sent me the link to the BBC article felt very strongly that Murphy should not have been awarded the £12,000 prize. I don't want to put words into his mouth, but I was under the impression that he felt in some way deceived by the image. It wasn't telling the story that it purported to tell. A portrait of a jockey in silks is one thing; but a portrait of a jockey in mud-spattered silks that makes it look as if they've just ridden a driving finish on soft ground, when they haven't, is another.
This is potentially problematic for a major prize, depending on what's expected by the judges. Should the judges want nothing more than a beautiful image that tells a story, it might not matter how it's achieved. If the photograph is meant to be telling the subject's story, we might be venturing into more difficult territory with respect to portraiture and prizes when an image has been staged. I don't wish to state if Murphy's photo should be eligible or ineligible for the prize: I'm insufficiently familar with the competition's rules to make that judgement. But having seen the portrait of Walsh in the flesh and not been especially moved by it, I think that it might be more problematic for the art of portraiture.
When I was wandering around the exhibition this morning with Gareth, we commented on how many of the photos' subjects felt more akin to puppets in the thrall of the photographer, rather than as people being photographed. When you looked at these images, it felt as if they were lacking a crucial element, a certain something that was able to elevate them from being 'a picture of a person' to being a portrait. Portraiture is about capturing spirit. It's about distilling the essence of an individual into pictorial form. When a photograph moves away from capturing someone's spirit to something more manipulated by the photographer, is it still a portrait? Perhaps I set too much stall in the notion that a portrait isn't just a photograph that happens to have a person as its subject. I believe that it's meant to be more than that.
Photos are meant to make you feel something; a portrait needs to leave you feeling what the subject feels, too. I'm left wondering if it were the contrivance behind Murphy's portrait of Walsh that left me feeling hollow.
If you'd like to explore the exhibition for yourself and decide if I'm being nothing more than a cynical and overly-pricipled misery, it runs until 9 February 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery, London.