18 February 2011

Every picture tells a story

Earlier this week I paid a visit to one of the West End's most popular museums, but it's one whose merits often go overlooked by visitors to London.  The National Portrait Gallery on St Martin's Place at the bottom of Charing Cross Road, opposite the similarly overlooked statue of Edith Cavell and immediately behind the more famous and august National Gallery. Perhaps it's fortunate that the NPG is a little off the tourist radar, because its compact galleries could easily be overwhelmed if large numbers swarmed through its revolving doors.  I usually visit the galleries every week, particularly if I'm in nearby Leicester Square to see a film at the Prince Charles.

Every year I make a point of visiting the NPG for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait prize exhibition, which showcases notable examples of portrait photography, mainly from European and North American artists. The awards dished out to the panel's chosen few portraits are often interesting but irrelevant to the enjoyment of the material, because generally the standards are high (6000 entries are whittled down to an exhibition of 60) and everything is worth taking a closer look.  It has the benefit of being accessible in multiple senses of the word: the gallery is right in the centre of the West End, the works chosen generally avoid the worst excesses of pretentious flummery, and the entrance fee is only £2.

First prize in the 2011 awards went to David Chancellor's striking image of a 14-year-old girl riding a horse with a dead buck slung over the saddle, on her way back from a paid hunting expedition with her family in South Africa.  It sounds too good to be true, but the girl's surname was Slaughter. Perhaps this conforms to the award's expectations of quality: after all, Simon Bainbridge, editor of the British Journal of Photography, has pointed out in that magazine's November 2010 issue that the award is 'derided by many for its perceived preference for po-faced artiness and its obsession with images of sullen teenagers'.  But he also agrees that 'the prize provides a unique barometer of contemporary portraiture and our changing attitudes towards representation'.  And the Slaughter image ('Huntress with buck') definitely possesses a painterly command of light and offers a glimpse of a serene and proud moment for a young girl, which, to my mind at least, contrasts jarringly with the limp form of the expired prey.   

© David Chancellor / NPG

I also appreciated the third prize winner, Jeffrey Stockbridge's 'Tic Tac and Tootsie', which shows the hunched, defensive stances of two 20-year-old American sisters, who work the streets of North Philadelphia. They stare at the camera half-defiantly, half-warily, with bunched-up shoulders and hair tightly pulled back.  'Sullen post-teenagers' are also welcome in the exhibition, it appears.

Perhaps my favourite image was that of Amy Helene Johansson.  Her 'Unsafe Journey' was taken from the rear window of a speeding train in Dhaka, and captures the upwards glance of a woman riding on the carriage couplings while the tracks speed by underneath.  Lacking the price of a ticket, she risks certain death or cruel maiming, with only a single hand-hold to secure her position.  Several other pictures appealed too, like Felix Carpio's 'Wafa', a Syrian woman in a headscarf that was chosen as the exhibition  poster image, and David Brunetti's 'Jonathan', a portrait of a Ugandan teacher working at his desk in the warm dusk light.  

The only image I didn't warm to was the pointless exhibitionism of the second-place award winner, Panayiotis Lamprou's 'Portrait of my British wife', a casual depiction that was intended as a private image, but was later entered in the competition with her permission.  Perhaps it appealed to the judges by asking questions about modern concepts of privacy and intimacy, because it pushed buttons in that age-old argument about the dividing line between art and pornography, or simply for the shock value. From my perspective, it just felt out of place and left me cold.   

The exhibition remains open until Sunday 20 February.
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