A visit to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize in Bristol

This was the first South West OCA day for sometime. Such events are a little more intimate than other OCA events since we get the chance to relate to each other more in a group. There were ten attendees with one no show; Sharon Boothroyd, OCA tutor, was also present.
We were asked to read the chapter on portraiture from the book “Key concepts in photography” beforehand; this was helpful for understanding what portrait photography is all about. The difference between a mugshot and a portrait!
I took an early train from Taunton and just missed Teresa and Jen who were on the one behind. We met later in Bonapartes cafe on platform 1 in Bristol Temple Meads; they walked on along the waterway to Mshed while I waited for Sharon Boothroyd, our tutor for the day. She arrived soon after and we also walked to the Mshed chatting as we did so.
Sharon is not just an OCA tutor, she is an accomplished photographer, currently working on a project about prayer; this sounds interesting particularly as I am about to photograph a meditation event in Varanasi, India. I talk a little about my fascination with nature photography, the need for technical excellence in the accurate reproduction of fauna yet also the need to present something artistically appealing.
Sharon Boothroyd outside the Mshed

Sharon Boothroyd outside the Mshed

When we arrive at the Mshed shortly before the agreed time of 11.00 a.m., there are already quite a few people present, all busily chatting away. Some people are new and getting to know others; others are greeting each other after years.
I decide to collect the money as soon as possible. Not an easy job but asking those present to also sign a book for Sharon helps. The charge of £15 is towards the tutor and her travel expenses; it covers about half the amount; the student body OCASA will pay the rest.
About 11.30, we go upstairs to see the exhibition, the 2012 Taylor Wessing Prize. Outside, there is a sign that reads that the images are from “around the world, capturing famous faces and intimate moments … “
photograph of Ai Weiwei in the exhibition space

photograph of Ai Weiwei in the exhibition space

The first portrait one is faced by is Ai WeiWei, the Chinese artist; this image has not won the competition but did win the John Kobal Prize which is awarded to a promising young photographer under 30.  Ai WeiWei stands holding a kitten that also looks back at the viewer (it was hard for the photographer to also include the kitten that was not trained to look at the camera). This is a straight forward photograph in it’s portrayal of an icon of the arts and generates much discussion. The colour blue dominates this photograph (it is also the colour of the exhibition wall at this point) and recalls the colour of the boiler suits that citizens were once forced to wear; Ai WeiWei is in fact wearing blue denim, an interesting departure from the norm. The colour red, a necessary inclusion in Chinese icongraphy is not in evidence.
There is an obvious political undertone to this image. When it was made, for a project entitled Top 100 Global Thinkers, Ai WeiWei was getting a lot of publicity as a Chinese dissident;in fact, he was placed under house arrest for 81 days in 2011. I find myself a little wary of this since the demonisation of China often seems contrived particularly over the Tibet issue. Of course, there are major concerns but personally I would like to understand China better rather than condemn it outright, as in the “yellow peril” mentality. Ai WeiWei himself was not an easy subject to capture as he also likes to photograph those who photograph him!
In the background one sees part of a chain that implies the sense of captivity that underlies any reading of the photograph. This monumental portrait has the quality of stillness around it.
OCA students from left ... Teresa, Anna, Jen, John Umney and tutor, Sharon Boothroyd

OCA students from left … Teresa, Anna, Jen, John Umney and tutor, Sharon Boothroyd

There are so many excellent portraits in this exhibition that it is hard to engage with them all. However, I shall touch upon those that struck me or were pointed out by others.
For instance, the portrait of PC Rathband, one of the first images on show looked somewhat ordinary at first. Closer inspection revealed that one eye of the subject did not seem to be working. Presumably, it was made with a large format camera owing to the shallow depth of field it has, evident from great detail in the eyes but blurred ears and background. Yet the full force of this image only comes to light when one learns from the caption, that this was the police officer who was shot by an escaped convict, Raoul Moat; although the policeman survived this ordeal, he later tragically committed suicide. Knowing this, completely alters one’s perception of the image. Does not the reliance on textual context here subtract from the value of the photographic portrait?
I notice a heroic element to the subjects in this exhibition which is open to those active in the arts and sports people but not politicians !?
An interesting perhaps quirky image, is of a couple of tourists photographing themselves while visiting a museum. The photographer who caught this image is a gardener with a keen interest in art photography who used his mobile phone to capture the fleeting image.
The winner of the competition photographed a Mennonite woman. This has many of the characteristics of a great photographic portrait. The subject is relaxed, looking calmly into the camera while the background is the simple room she is in, thrown out of focus by the lens which does however capture enough detail to give some idea of her situation.
Of course, there are many questions that might be asked in relation to the judging of this exhibition in which, initially, the judges have only 10 seconds to look at an image. I was interested in Sean O’Hagan’s remarks on the judging process.
A number of portraits seem to be included for the status of the person photographed. Hence, we have Gillian Wearing, the artist, posed behind transparent curtains, the sportsman Mo Farah, dark sweaty skin against an even darker background.
One image that appeals to me is of a road worker in Delhi; this is because of my familiarity with Delhi yet also the lighting and originality. In fact, during the talk, this photograph is mentioned and I find myself somewhat incredulous that this is only men filling in holes in the road. Arrogantly, as it turns out, I dispute the fact that these are road workers and instead suggest that they are building the Metro; it is not until the next day when examining the photograph in the catalogue that I see that the caption is presumably correct and my interjection not. This makes me question my studies at the OCA – am I not becoming too knowledgeable? This comes from reading theory that I am unable to digest yet filling myself with the idea that “I know!” It is a topic that sometimes comes up in online discussions amongst college members, the conceptualisation of the learning process in photography. During this visit there is discussion about the lack of proper Photoshop instruction at Level 2.
Following a closer look at the photograph, it appears that these are men laying tarmac (the suggestion that they are filling holes is perhaps misleading). Yet, what they are doing is not really relevant to the portrait, the strength of which comes from the subdued lighting (the scene is at night with only a few street lights) although one senses that flash might have been used if not some other kind of lighting since there is a shadow below the drum to the right of the picture. The road worker is presumably posing, assuming a posture, in which he is not making eye contact with the photographer. What is also striking is the way the road worker is standing on top of a drum. There is also reference  to The Transfiguration of Christ by Raphael; the image has an epic quality to it.
A lot of photographs seem to be of friends rather than professional models. A question that is discussed is the legality of street photography. In the UK, it seems to be acceptable but in France, it has become outlawed.
One photograph I find interesting is of the conservationist and ape specialist Jane Goodall by Sam Faulkner. Photographed in black and white that brings out the lines in her wrinkled face, the angle of the head is unusual, being at an angle to the viewer, the lips almost pursed and the eyes looking into the beyond. It is a striking pose from a striking person. Someone suggests irreverently that she looks almost apelike herself. Don’t we all?
Why do we look at photographs like this, all of which are a bit serious, and discuss them at such length? To learn to look intelligently rather than to gawp!
One image that provokes controversy, interests me because of it’s subtle colours; it might almost be a monochrome image but the lips are red. “Senna” is the name of the portrait by Ineke Schoonheyt and the provocative pose of he child is something I only notice later when it is pointed out to me. Sharon says she thinks this exhibition intends to be controversial and using images like this is an example.
student Dorothy Flint's sketches from the day

student Dorothy Flint’s sketches from the day

I like the portrait of Hilary Mantel, the only woman to have won the Booker Prize twice, perhaps because I have seen it before in a newspaper. The photographer Michael Birt has captured his subject by the sea shore on an overcast day; the natural light is probably enhanced by some fill in flash while the subject poses with both hands on the lapels of her coat above which is a large black circular broach.
After looking at the exhibition for over an hour, we gather to hear a talk from Dr.Rowe who has studied some of these images in depth. She is an academic with no interest in technical considerations but a crowd of almost a hundred people have gathered to hear her, squeezing themselves into the narrow space of the exhibition.
She talks about a number of images such as the Ai WeiWei photo which she seems to think is the winner; it is a winner! One photograph she discusses is the upper torso of a nude woman who holds a cup; this is entitled Lynne, Brighton and is by Jennifer Pattison and it came second in the competition. This is a relaxed and captivating portrait different to other nudes, of a woman by a woman, a different kind of female representation devoid of the heterosexual view dominated by what some refer to as the “male gaze.” She looks back at us rather than away from us and she is not lying down in a seductive pose. It has been said that the chip in the cup is what makes this image as references are made to Barthes’ punctum; I am not sure I can follow this argument as for me the image is about the vulnerability and softness of femininity. Of her work, the photographer says … “make the work that excites you and in turn this will excite others.” She spent a whole day in the capturing of this one image.
Another image the academic considers is called “The Ventriloquist” by Alma Haser. Like another image, “The Pastry Chef” a black and white blow-up of a rolling pin wielding chef, this image has been referenced to the sober portraiture of August Sander (German, early twentieth century). It shows two friends whom the photographer met at a party; at first, she tried to photograph them individually but then decided that the two went well together. They are friends although when at school together, one bullied the other. One is posed behind the other as they assume different postures that mirror their relationship. Originally intended as part of a series called “Cosmic Surgery”, “a set of surreal portraits in which her sitter’s faces are obscured by origami shapes”, the photographer was struck by the image and decided to enter it into the competition. She calls it “The Ventriloquist”so the viewer can wonder a little at the meaning of the image.
One student comments that the exhibition is better presented than in London. Here, the images are not grouped together but hung at the same height making the viewing experience “more democratic”.
many gathered for the talk by Dr.Rowe

many gathered for the talk by Dr.Rowe

The photograph that the lecturer ends with is called “Edie.” This is of a young naked girl sitting on a chair; she has just had her hair cut. This is one of the more controversial images as it depicts childhood nudity and there has been a complaint to the Mshed over this image. What perhaps is the disturbing element here is the fact that the child is being manipulated and the photographer, her father, was quite calculated about it. However, she was to have her hair cut anyway and her being naked makes it a lot easier. Edie, a six year old, is apparently happy to see her photograph exhibited but will she feel the same way when older? Her expression is a bit grumpy yet natural and the background has not been formally arranged, The almost monochromatic image is not one I noticed and the image does not appeal although it does become the but of much conversation. There is talk of Sally Mann, the American photographer, whose photography of her children has attracted a lot of controversy; she has not however been prosecuted and I personally find her black and white work sensitively executed.
The image of Edie has been described as beautiful and brave. She does not enjoy having her hair cut and one can see this in the clenched foot as well as the upturned smile. The way her hands cover her private parts is a disturbing element of this photograph; it suggests the child is threatened by the photographer rather than being a willing subject. For some, this image will be pornographic.
After the talk we have lunch and then find some tables upstairs outside the gallery that we can sit around as a group. Sharon suggests we discuss images we thought should have won the competition!
group discussion

group discussion photo by John Belcher

 John Umney liked “Becoming Annalie” a photograph of a woman with Down’s syndrome. It has aesthetic beauty and could be hung on a wall.
John Belcher likes an image of a group of younger women, a family from Bosnia who look as though they have nowhere to go.
Jen does not appear to have a favourite but likes many.
Karen F goes for the Ai Weiwei image and its’ multitude of connotations.
Anna Goodchild goes for the portrait of Gillian Wearing who stands behind transparent curtains, waiting to be peeled away. Having been to a Gillian Wearing exhibition, I am also struck by this image.
Karen Woodfield goes for the Delhi street workers that has attracted my somewhat misplaced comment. Karen is struck by the strong sky, the unusual subject who is elevated; the image is not overtly contrived.
Peter chose the “Pastry Chef” which I have mentioned before as it was also a favourite of mine.
Dorothy, an artist, looks at the photos differently and likes narrative. She chooses one of the winning images, this one of the actor Mark Rylance who has recently returned to playing Shakespeare. The posture is classical and the Mona Lisa is mentioned!
My own choice for winner is the winner, a photograph of a young woman in Bolivia who sits awkwardly at a table, the softened background of the room behind her like a supporting womb. Henri Cartier-Bresson said of the portrait that “In a portrait I am looking for the silence in somebody” and this image seems to convey that. The space occupied by the image is feminine, neither rejecting or manipulating the gaze,
Sharon liked the image of Edie, the naked girl, that was much discussed; it is controversial and controversy is an important element of this exhibition. It pushed the limits of what can be done.
It has been an interesting visit to this exhibition and enhanced by hearing other’s views. At school I learnt to appreciate literature, here I am being taught to read and appreciate photographs, to see rather than to gawp, and am made aware of the complexity of photographic images and the rewards of looking at them.
Not long after this exhibition visit, one of the students sent an email to us all …
I heard from a contact who I used to work with that the photo we saw in the exhibition, Senna by Ineke Schoonheyt was removed from display by the police today as they have said it is an indecent image of a child. A bit late in the day especially as the exhibition ends tomorrow and it has been on display for the best part of a year now.
I wondered if this was really the case and decided to make enquiries of my own. eventually I got this reply …

Dear Amano

Thanks for your enquiry. I’m not sure where or how this rumour started, but I can confirm that none of the photographs were removed during the exhibition.

Whilst some of the images contained nudity and images of naked children, the signage at the exhibition advised people of the content of the exhibition and museum staff were happy to respond to enquiries arising from the sensitive nature of some of the images.

Kind regards


Marketing and Communications Officer

Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

Queens Road, Bristol BS8 1RL

0117 922 4749


One thought on “A visit to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize in Bristol

  1. Pingback: OCASA Funded Events – October 2013 | OCASA

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