photographic portrait

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012

Margarita Teichroeb by Jordi Ruiz Cirera. 1st Prize (Copyright Jordi Ruiz Cirera).

This year the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, hosted at the National Portrait Gallery in London, had 5,340 entries from from 2,350 photographers, some professional, some student, some amateur. Of those entries, 60 are exhibited at the gallery. One picture is judged the winner, and then there are second, third, and fourth placed prizes to be had, too.

I popped along and took a look early in November and Gareth went this week. My immediate reaction to the overall exhibition was that it felt very muted and subdued, with relatively few bold colours. Just like everything, photography has fashions and right now, that's in vogue. Gareth, however, goes into this trend more deeply in his analysis, so I'll hand you over to him, and his impressions of the winning entry and the runners up.

This year's winning entry was Margarita Teichroeb by Jordi Ruiz Cirera. What I have noticed is that, every single year, people react angrily to the winning entry and indeed to many of the shortlisted images. Because I hate being happy, I decided to trawl some comments underneath online articles announcing the winners. Thankfully, it wasn't all bad, but the main complaint was the somewhat reductive argument that it was 'just a woman sat down, looking worried.'

This attitude baffles me. I feel like these comments are the result of a combination of bitterness and laziness, or a reluctance to make an effort to interpret the image. Saying that Margarita Teichroeb is 'just a woman sat down looking worried,' is like saying The Exorcist is 'just a scary film about a little girl.'

Margarita is a woman living in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. Mennonite communities often frown upon and do not allow photography, believing it is a form of graven image. This is reflected in Margarita's deeply worried expression. She is attempting to obscure her face, possibly partly subconsciously, and it is clearly a uncomfortable experience for her.

In print, it is a breathtaking image. The sense of connection between the viewer and the subject as you look into her eyes is really quite powerful: the emotion captured is so raw and real. In being so very nervous, Margarita has laid her honest feelings completely bare in front of us. People often speak of a person looking 'natural' in an image, which they always translate as looking relaxed, essentially. However, I think a 'natural' portrait comes in many flavours, the key being the genuineness of the expression, regardless of what emotion is being expressed. Margarita has a genuine, natural expression of concern on her face.

The deeper level to the image is what it says about the Mennonite community. The beliefs held by these people are clearly strong religious beliefs: Margarita's concern and conviction tell a story of the wider community and give us a telling insight into the isolation and strict rules which typify this community.

For those reasons, I agree with the judges' decision to award it first prize: Margarita Teichroeb is an image that captures genuine, raw emotion whilst simultaneously telling a much wider story. It is not 'just a woman sat down looking worried.' I would recommend you take a moment to visit and have a look at the series that the image came from. They are excellent. I particularly like the contrast between the children's portraits and those of the adults. The children have not yet been moulded by the strict rules of the community the way the adults have, and this is clear to see in their significantly more relaxed and confident expressions.

Addressing the other winning entries, I mostly agree with the judges' decisions here, also, Spencer Murphy's Mark Rylance being my personal favourite. One image that doesn't grab me, however is The Ventriloquist by Alma Haser.

Like any art form, photography often goes through fashion spells. At present, there seems to be a penchant for low contrast images, sometimes with no true blacks, sporting very neutral, window light tones. As it happens, this style really appeals to me, as there is often a feeling of truth to the final shot: a feeling of the image not hiding anything.

With The Ventriloquist, however, it feels as if the photographer is a little too aware of the current trend and has processed it in that style for no real reason other than it being currently popular. I also feel that it has been processed quite clumsily. The story behind the image of two friends is that the photographer 'wanted to turn their verbal banter into a visual image.' I appreciate that interpretation can be a very personal thing, but to me, 'banter' conjures up images of fun and affectionate jibing, a key element of a close friendship. Her decision to capture them both with neutral, blank expressions is at odds with this idea.

I feel that all the visual decisions made in the image were to tick the boxes, so to speak, of what is currently appetising in photography. The clumsy processing and attempts at distant, emotionless expressions leave me cold and feel incongruous to the message and I feel like it doesn't belong in the winning entries. A better replacement for a posed, conceptual portrait would have been Nadia Lee Cohen's absolutely stunning American Nightmare, for example. If the judges were more interested in the sense of companionship and the relationship between the two subjects, a better fit would've been the delightfully simple yet beautiful Rosa and Adoney by Sarah Booker.

Nevertheless, I felt that the entire selection of 60 images were varied and a fair final decision, even if I disagreed with some of the entries.

Should you have the opportunity to pay a visit, do go. It costs £2, and we'd be very interested to hear what you have to say about the entries. The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012 exhibition is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from 8 November 2012 to 17 February 2013.

Gareth Dutton is a portrait and editorial photographer based in London. You can see his work here.

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011: Winners Announced!

Harriet and Gentleman Jack, by Jooney Woodward

We’re back around to that time of year again, where the winners of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize are announced. As a portrait guy myself, I adore this competition and the results it produces, especially when it’s time to take a wander around London’s National Portrait Gallery and see the selected entries in print. You may recall that last year’s winning entry was David Chancellor’s Huntress With Buck – a striking image of a young, red headed girl on horseback, the recently killed buck draped over the horse’s neck. Interestingly, this year’s winner bears some thematic similarities, albeit in a somewhat more humane context.

This years winning entry is entitled “Harriet and Gentleman Jack”, by Jooney Woodward. The portrait is of 13 year old Harriet Power and her guinea pig, Gentleman Jack. It’s interesting to draw parallels between this and Chancellor’s winning image last year. Both are of young, red headed girls, creating a striking contrast in the image. In addition, the animals in both images are also red / auburn in shade, which complements and creates a visual connection between the subject and the animal. What’s really neat about comparing these two images is that they have a major contrasting difference in the story they tell: “Huntress With Buck” portrays a world where animals can sometimes be seen as tools and commodities, whereas “Harriet and Gentleman Jack” portrays a world of the animal as a pet, as a companion.

Harriet and Gentleman Jack, by Jooney Woodward

Personally, I find the winning entry this year to be encouraging and proof that the judges are on the right track with this competition. Whilst I love portrait competitions, sometimes I get the sinking feeling that, with some competitions, there is often too heavy an emphasis on an portrait having to be about the exotic, or the extreme, or the exploitative: images of homeless people or perhaps of someone in shocking living conditions, be it in a third world country or in a down-and-out part of New York.

Whilst I appreciate photography’s unique ability to illuminate ways of life that would otherwise remain hidden to all and the subsequent value and importance of such images, it’s just nice to see that, hey, people without problems have interesting lives and personalities too. A photographer shouldn’t feel they should have to ingest a cocktail of vaccines and travel to the most obscure corners of the Earth in order to create a portrait of worth. I’m also pleased that the actual subject matter of the images that were shortlisted this year feels fresh and original. It inspires me and helps me realise that there are still new ideas to be found out there – we just need to look for them!

If you live in London or you’re planning on visiting, you would be absolutely mad to not give the exhibition a look. It’s on at the National Portrait Gallery for only £2.

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.)

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.