national portrait gallery

Bailey's Stardust at the NPG

Bailey's Stardust, an exhibition of over 250 of David Bailey's portraits, opens today at the National Portrait Gallery, London, where it takes up virtually all of the ground floor. Kate Moss by David Bailey, 2013

Organised thematically rather than chronologically, the exhibition is based on the notion of stardust: we all begin as dust and we all return to dust. Lesser known portraits will feature alongside some of Bailey's most iconic work, juxtaposing fame, fortune, and glamour with famine, poverty, and despair. The Rolling Stones, London's East End, Papua New Guinea, and East Africa in 1985: it's all there.

From the series Nagaland by David Bailey, 2012

Bailey will be making new silver gelatin prints of his black-and-white portraits especially for the exhibition, showing off photographers, actors, writers, musicians, filmmakers, fashion icons, designers, models, artists, and people encountered on his travels.

Francis Bacon by David Bailey, 1983

The exhibition, sponsored by Hugo Boss, runs from 6 Fenruary to 1 June 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Falling out of love with the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize

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.

Katie Walsh by Spencer Murphy

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.

Celebrating a scandal

Scandal '63 has opened in Room 32 at the National Portrait Gallery, marking the 50th anniversary of the Profumo Affair.

If you don't know the story of the Profumo Affair, it's something straight out of a spy thriller, save that it really happened. John Profumo was the Secretary of State for War and married to actress Valerie Hobson. However, he was also having a bit of a carry-on with Christine Keeler, a nightclub hostess and model who was also enjoying the attentions of senior Russian naval attaché, Yevgeny Ivanov. Being 1963, and the height of the Cold War, this was far from ideal for national security.

The NPG's exhibition tells the story of the scandal, and how the national media helped to unravel it, using portraits, press images, magazines, and ephemera. And it wouldn't be complete without at least one nude portrait of Keeler.

Scandal '63 at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, LONDON, WC2H 0HE

Taylor Wessing shortlist announced

Andie, by David Knight

The National Portrait Gallery received 6,000 submissions from 2,506 photographers – some amateur, some professional, and some just graduated from art school – for the 2011 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait prize. Somehow, the judges managed to whittle down that list to 60 photos for exhibition and five shortlisted for the £12,000 prize.

Which is your favourite?

Wen, by Jasper Clarke

Clarke was born in 1978. He left school without any qualifications in 1991 and began taking pictures with a camera given to him by his father. He graduated from Edinburgh’s Napier University and moved to London to assist the likes of Nadav Kander and Liz Collins. His shortlisted portrait, taken in hipster-tastic Hackney, is of Wen Wu, a Chinese artist. It’s from a personal project depicting artists, musicians, and other creative types who live where they work.

Andie, by David Knight

Although he now lives in Australia, Knight was born in Oxford. This portrait was commissioned by Loud for the Cerebral Palsy Alliance to raise awareness of the condition throughout Australia. Knight commented: ‘I wanted the portraits to be positive and to convey the kids in an uplifting way. You don’t immediately notice Andie is in a wheelchair; you just see a beautiful young woman.’

Christina and Mark, 14 months, by Dona Schwartz

Dona Schwartz is an American photographer based in Minnesota. This image is from her current series, On the Nest, which documents those moments when parents’ lives change. This one shows a parents in their child’s empty bedroom, after he’s flown the nest.

Harriet and Gentleman Jack, by Jooney Woodward

This photo by Jooney Woodward, a London-born and educated, but Dorset-raised photographer, shows 13 year old Harriet Power who was a steward at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show, in the guinea pig judging enclosure. I didn’t even know guinea pigs were judged at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show!

Of Lili, by Jill Wooster

Born in Connecticut, Wooster now lives in London. The portrait is part of a series portraying women in their forties and fifties at pivotal stages of their lives. Lili, says Wooster, ‘Is a complicated character. I like the way her androgyny makes her appearance seem both guarded and relaxed at the same time, capturing both her confidence and vulnerability.’


If you want to see the photographs yourself, you can do so at the National Portrait Gallery (St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE) from Thursday 10 November until 12 February 2012.

(All images are, of course, copyright their photographers and used with permission.)

A Closer Look: David Chancellor

Steve 'the paratrooper' Burke, from the series boxers, before and after.

The more observant of Small Aperture’s loyal readers may have noticed that my blogging on Small Aperture has increased as of late. Well I have further bad news for you: I’ll be looking after our dear litle blogging site for the whole week. As a portrait photographer, I’m kicking off the week by looking at one of many portrait photographers whose work I enjoy, in the hope to inspire you, help you get more out of portraits and, ultimately, explain to you and to myself why I am particularly attracted to looking at and creating portraiture.

David Chancellor was the winner of 2010′s Taylor Wessing National Portrait Gallery Photo Prize – a wonderful exhibition which was displayed in, you guessed it, London’s National Portrait Gallery. I’m not going to look at his winning entry, “huntress with buck” – instead I’ll be looking at a portrait series of his, entitled “Boxers”.

Daniel 'the mover' Avenir #I, from the series boxers, before and after

What I love about “Boxers” is the simplicity at the heart of the idea. It has that “why didn’t I think of that?” appeal to it. On the basic level, it’s a “before and after” spot the difference affair, showing each fighter just before their fight and immediately after their fight. This series has a quality that I see in many excellent pieces of portraiture (and any photography, for that matter): a simple, strong idea that has been executed exceptionally well.

From a technical perspective, they are absolutely beautiful – the lighting separates the boxers from the background so that they are especially prominent in the image. Another important detail is that the boxers are situated in the same position in the frame in their before and after shots (or, at least, those who were still able to sit up straight afterwards are!) which adds to the intensity of the “after” shot, as it almost seems like no time at all has passed between the two images, as they don’t appear to have moved anywhere in the interim.

So we’ve briefly examined the setup of the shots, but what takes a portrait from a pretty picture to something that holds your attention and gets you thinking beyond what you can initially see? To achieve this, we need a story.

The boxers in these images are not professionals. They are part of a phenomenon in South Africa known as “White Collar Boxing”, where men and women who have white collar jobs train for around three months to take part in a special boxing event against others of the same background. Not only that, but the boxers in this series are about to have their very first fight. Armed with this knowledge, whole new areas of intrigue are opened up to us, and this is where a well-lit, professionally composed image begins to turn into a real piece of portraiture.

Daniel 'the mover' Avenir #II, from the series boxers, before and after.

Now, we are scrutinising their expressions prior to their fights. You can see the nervous energy they are harbouring under the surface, the kind that only builds up prior to a tense situation such as a physical fight, especially your first ever fight. Look at how some try harder to hide that nervousness, or indeed tackle it head on, especially for the camera. In a way, to point a camera at you the moment before your fight is the non-verbal equivalent of someone saying “how are you feeling about your first fight?” to which they answer non-verbally. I know that sounds a little pretentious, but go back and look at them with that idea in mind – they’re answering the question for you with their expression. Isn’t that just magical?

The “after” shots are similarly rich with story and intrigue. Did they win, or lose? What injuries do they have? Some of the boxers look so utterly exhausted, it gives across a feeling of relief and release, especially when compared to their “before” images, packed with nervous energy. My personal favourite is Steve “the paratrooper” Burke: the expression of absolute defiance and confidence combined with the pose is incredibly imposing and powerful.

I’m pretty sure he won.

The final sign of a great portrait or series of portraits is what it leaves you with, or what questions it makes you ask that go beyond the initial image. What fascinated me is considering what drives these “ordinary”, office job people to step into the ring and do something that, in my opinion, is incredibly daunting and frightening. Were some attracted to the thrill of the idea and the danger involved? Was it a result of feeling bored and stuck in a 9 to 5 driving the need to do something different? Was it the need to challenge themselves to instil a sense of progress and improvement in their lives? Bearing in mind that David tells us that White Collar Boxing is hugely popular across South Africa, it brings you to ask questions about the human condition, about what drives us.

Steve 'the paratrooper' Burke, from the series boxers, before and after.

David allows us to come to these conclusions and ask these questions ourselves, which is an important distinction to make. I’m all for setting up a series of portraits with a little bit of flavour text to tell you what you’re looking at, but it’s important to strike a balance. I have an intense dislike for photo projects where the photographer has written three pages of text to accompany the photographs, telling you what colour schemes to look out for, how the images all link to each other and which of your preconceptions will be challenged. This should all come across in the image: you shouldn’t be told how to feel (or what your prejudices and preconceptions are, for that matter).

And that, dear readers, is why I love “Boxers” and why I love portraiture. I’ll be taking a look at another portrait story later in the week.

We’ve included a couple of David’s “Boxers” images in this article purely for editorial and critique purposes. I hope my article has already moved you to do so, but please go and explore the full set on David’s site. Here’s a direct link –

Ida Kar at the National Portrait Gallery

Dame Barbara Hepworth

It was a shame that the NPG couldn’t manage to open the first exhibition devoted to Ida Kar in over fifty years on Tuesday, what with it being International Women’s Day. It would have been fitting for such an influential figure in photography. She was, after all, the first photographer to be honoured with a major retrospective at a London gallery. (That was at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1960, by the way.) But that’s a minor thing, because the exhibition itself is the important bit.

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar, 1957. Copyright: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Clare Freestone has brought together a collection of pictures that charts Kar’s career from his first studio in Cairo, through her days in London photographing the movers and shakers in the artistic scene, including her exhibitions at Gallery One and the Whitechapel Gallery, and on to her later reportage and travel photography. It shows how Kar adapted to her surroundings and changing circumstances. Although, she did favour working in just natural light, her camera of choice was a Rolleiflex, and she rarely changed lens.

Kar was definitely an environmental portrait photographer. Yves Klein (‘the artist who painted nothing’) is pictured next to his blue sponge; Iris Murdoch is sitting with her back against her bed, surrounded by books and papers, Shostakovich is sitting at his piano. You can feel the souls of tortured artists and starving poets seeping through the bromide.

I have to admit that I’m not a great lover of environmental portraits, it’s a personal preference thing, but it doesn’t stop me from enjoying them and I did enjoy Kar’s. Still, it probably wasn’t surprising that I liked the picture of Barbara Hepworth best. She seems to be actually doing something towards creating a sculpture, rather than just being ensconced amidst her medium.

Royston Ellis, 1960 by Ida Kar. Copyright the National Portrait Gallery, London.

It’s these portraits, a who’s who of the London literati, that represent the pinnacle of Kar’s work. And they’ve impressed themselves on my memory better than the documentation of Kar’s trip to Cuba or her commission for The Tatler to Armenia, which was from where her family came.

You can get in to the Hoppé and Kar exhibitions on a double ticket, and I’d thoroughly recommend it. They make the most amazing contrast: Hoppé’s very personal, slowly generated and closely cropped portraits against Kar’s quickly shot environmental pictures. Hoppé who embraced technology and Kar who was much more set in her ways. It’s two very different means of telling a story through a photo, but both work.

Go see and enjoy. After all, as Sandy Nairne, the Director of the National Portrait Gallery put it, Kar is ‘admired by neglected’. I hope that this will change that.

Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, 1908-1974 runs from 10 March to 19 June 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE.

(Featured image: Dame Barbara Hepworth at work on the armature of a sculpture in the Palais de Danse, 1961, by Ida Kar (c) National Portrait Gallery, London.)

Snapped! One night only at the NPG

Late shift Call me a romantic if you will, but there’s something that I find especially appealing about late night museum openings (maybe it’s reading too much Umberto Eco?), and I’m particularly looking forward to the Late Shift at the National Portrait Gallery on Friday 11 February. Nine portraits by Rankin of nine models who challenge the typical image of a fashion model in nine designs by fashion luminaries such as Dame Vivienne Westwood.

It’s called Snapped and it’s on for one night only at the NPG. You get to wander around the NPG and gaze upon these pictures beside the more traditional portraits of, say, Elizabeth I or Mary Wollstonecraft. It’s been curated by All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, a group trying to make everyone, from those who work in the fashion industry to those who follow fashion, think about models, and the idea of beauty, differently.

If you want, you can take that debate further by attending the panel discussion ‘Has Fashion Imagery become the lens by which we evaluate identity?’ It’ll be chaired by Caryn Franklin and its speakers include Erin O’Connor, Lorraine Candy who edits ELLE Magazine, Lynne Featherstone MP, Minister of Equalities and co-founder of Body Campaign, as well as psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos. Given my opinions on all of this, you can imagine I might have a question or two…

There will be a room of models from All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, too, just in case you fancy turning your hand to fashion photography.

It’ll be one way to spend a Friday night, anyway.

Snapped shows on Friday 11 February 2011 from 18:00 to 22:00 at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE.

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize

'Huntress with Buck' by David Chancellor

If you’ve a little time to spare and you’re in central London over the next few weeks, do pop into the National Portrait Gallery and take a look at the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition. It’ll cost you £2, but there are some lovely pictures to be seen, all 60 of which were selected from the 6,000 competition entries.

The winning entry was taken by David Chancellor on his Mamiya 7 II, and is of a 14 year old huntress on the African savannah, a buck slung over her horse.

'Huntress with Buck' by David Chancellor

That bagged Chancellor £12,000, whilst Claire Shilland won the ELLE Commission with her portrait, Merel. She now has the opportunity to shoot a feature story for ELLE magazine.

'Merel' by Claire Shilland

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Exhibition runs from 11 November 2010 until 20 February 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE. Between 16 April and 26 June 2011, it will run at the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.