taylor wessing

The Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize shortlist is announced

Four photographers have been shortlisted for this year's Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, hosted by the National Portrait Gallery in London. Anoush Abrar, Dorothee Deiss, Spencer Murphy, and Giles Price are all in the running to claim the £12,000 prize for their entries, having been shortlisted from a total of 5,410 submissions by 2,435 photographers. Kofi Annan by Anoush Abrar, 2013

The twins by Dorothee Deiss, 2013

Katie Walsh by Spencer Murphy, 2013

Kumbh Mela Pilgrim - Mamta Dubey and infant by Giles Price, 2013

My initial reaction is that all of these images feel very safe. They're gorgeous pictures, yes, but there is nothing here that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up or leads me to believe that these photographers have pushed any boundaries or limitations. I hope that when I have the opportunity to see the images in the flesh, hanging in the gallery, I'll feel differently about them.

The competition was judged from original prints by: Sandy Nairne Director, National Portrait Gallery, London (Chair); Kate Bush Head of Barbican Art Galleries; Suki Dhanda Photographer; Tim Eyles Managing Partner, Taylor Wessing; Terence Pepper Head of Photographs Collection, National Portrait Gallery; and Rebecca Valentine Photographic Agent.

Sixty portraits have been selected for exhibition later this year, running from 14 November 2013 to 9 February 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

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 www.jordiruizcirera.com 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.

A Closer Look: Jonathan May

I've handed over the reigns to Gareth again today. He's taken a slightly different approach to his article this week: he's going to take a closer look at a photographer he admires, and examine just what it is that does it for him.

All yours, Gareth...

A Closer Look is a series of articles looking at the work of photographers whose work means something to me. When I am influenced by the work of others, I like to take less tangible elements away from the images. It isn't useful, in my opinion, to closely study the technical style of a given photographer, as you are at risk of losing your individuality. A more useful practice is to study what you love about an image beyond the immediately visible.

This week, I'm looking at Jonathan May, a photographer I became aware of when he was selected as a finalist in the National Portrait Gallery's Taylor Wessing 2011 Photographic Portrait Prize.

A small disclaimer: just because I admire May's work doesn't necessarily mean I can speak about it with authority – I merely aspire to describe what I like about it.


The first thing that strikes me about May's work is that it's often very positive in tone. This is extremely refreshing in the current climate, because so many photo stories, whilst absolutely beautiful and shot with a mastery that leaves me open-mouthed, are of subjects that are, frequently, unrelentingly bleak. Now don't get me wrong, I think it's  vital for photography to be able to highlight issues and tell stories that would go untold and unseen by the world. Not only that, but I think the people who bring such stories to the world are genuine superheroes (and possibly slightly unhinged): it's just that the saturation of such stories makes me yearn for something different.

You can see this immediately in his set L'Afrique. I feel that, in the West, we have a skewed image of Africa: a combination of the doom and gloom of the media and the plethora of photo projects that cover injustice, poverty, war and political horrors throughout the continent. It feels like from north to south, east to west, it comprises misery and human suffering. There is, of course, much of that, all of which needs to be exposed to the world and not kept a secret, but there is also a vast and beautiful culture and history which is seldom celebrated in the face of documenting all that is wrong with Africa.

May's shots of Africa exhibit a warmth, respect and admiration for African culture. It is refreshing to see a story of Africa that feels more celebratory than exploitative: in L'Afrique we become students, soaking in the beauty, gazing up at these people, learning, engaging on a human level.


The most important skill exhibited in L'Afrique is May's ability to act as the humble recorder whilst still applying his style, skill and proficiency to the images. If an image evokes more of the photographer than it does the subject, it's doing something wrong, in my opinion. This is something May is acutely aware of and he elevates his subjects whilst remaining anonymous to us, the viewer.

It's a feeling May achieves in many of his projects and is something evident in any story he tackles. I love his ability to find beauty in topics and stories that are infrequently covered. This is why one of my favourite photo stories of his is Greens: a look at crown green bowling, more specifically the bowling club his grandfather founded.

There is something quite beautiful in the telling of a story through the paraphernalia and objects that surround the people involved in the story, and Greens achieves this beautifully. An image of a somewhat chintzy clubhouse carpet with a table occupying the corner tells us as much as a one of his intimate, shallow depth of field portraits does. It's when these two are combined in a series that they unlock the power of one another: although they are strong images on their own, the effect is compounded when they are brought together, contrasting as they are in content.


As a portrait photographer halfway through my first ever long-term photo project, I am fascinated with the idea that a portrait of someone can be greatly enhanced by an image of their surroundings, or of something that is illustrative in some way of who they are, as opposed to a single image of the actual person.

There are dozens of single images within Jonathan May's work that I love but, in the interests of not making this article tediously enormous, I will look at my absolute favourite and attempt to articulate why I adore it.


This is a portrait from May's series Caravans, a story about a society that is often looked down on and dehumanised in many ways. The series itself has all the trademarks of May's work, but there is something about this particular portrait that, as I cycled through the images, was like a punch in the stomach: a good punch in the stomach, if that makes sense (it doesn't).

Initially, the intimacy of the composition grabbed me, so I brought it up in full screen. The background is uncluttered and plain yet far from blank: it further draws us to the subject's face. The expression that May has captured is utterly captivating: it's an expression that is both inscrutable and full of emotion at the same time. His mouth is ever so slightly curled up at one side, suggesting a smile may be breaking out. There is the tiniest hint of a wet glint in his eye, as if he is holding back a tear, but it's all so slight that we're not sure whether that is a projection of what we are seeing in his face or the reality of the situation. When I look at his face, I see a man remembering: an expression of fond reminiscence. We are the ones to lay down the final brushstroke, the canvas is left open for us.

And 'canvas' is an appropriate word here: the mesh of the door has muted and diffused the light and the wooden frame forms the right hand side of the image, creating the feel of a Renaissance-era painting, faded over time. I love the idea that something so beautiful can come from a seemingly innocuous shot of a man looking out of a window in his caravan. That, dear readers, is the magic of photography.

What I'd really like is for these columns to become discussion points about the artist in question. I want to hear what you think of Jonathan May's work – does it resonate with you? Does it excite you? Does it bore you? What do you like? What do you hate? Let's hear your opinions!

The illustration was by the mightily talented James, of Sweet Meats Illustration.

You can check out Gareth's photography here.

And if you're wondering about the copyright implications of reproducing May's work in this article, it's covered under fair dealing, as criticism and review.