The lady doth wax lyrical. And what has brought this on? Only a visit to the National Portrait Gallery which is currently exhibiting sixty of the over 6,000 submissions to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011.
This annual competition, open to photographers from a range of amateur and professional backgrounds, offers a fascinating insight into contemporary portrait photography. Some of the images are formally commissioned portraits of well-known people, but it is the seemingly intimate ones of family and friends which will grab your attention from the start and never let go.
Jooney Woodward's winning portrait of an auburn-haired girl holding her auburn guinea pig, 'Harriet and Gentleman Jack', is arresting for the shocking match of colour tones.
Here, as with other years, Africa is represented in various ways. 'Ari Boy with Toy Car' by Harry Hook is of a young African boy holding his hand-made toy car by a string, but Mario Marino's 'Surma Boy' draws you back one last time to lock eyes with the direct, furrowed-brow stare of the young male adult. Julian Baker need not have informed us of the themes he explores in his photography, for it was displayed in all its naked glory in 'Inflate', a portrait of two friends - he black, she white - in full frontal nudity.
|Harriet and Gentleman Jack|
By far, my favourite was one by Nick Reilly, 'Woman in Orange', not least because it was taken in Stone Town, Zanzibar. I, too, am from Stone Town, though this is the one in Ghana. (Ghanaian readers might know it better by its real name, 'Buokrom', in Kumasi, not its literal translation in English, 'Stone Town' as my family affectionately calls it). The first thing that comes to mind is the 'naturalness' in the woman's composure. The light catches her at just the right angle, and her smile is genuine. And yet..and yet..you wonder just how much tweaking and manipulation was effected to bring about this spontaneity.
What is clear in all the portraits is an inter-connectivity between artist and photographer, some of which you, as an observer, may not necessarily be privy to. They explore ideas and issues about the gaze - why is the person in the portrait looking away from the camera, why is their face hidden, and so on..? It could be shrouded in mystery or it could throw light on that detached reaction with which we sometimes view photographs that have nothing to do with us. Whatever it is, there is a story.
There always is.
The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. Until February 2012
*Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, 15.