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Friday, 6 November 2009

Sullen, Smiling or just Unconvincing: More on the NPG


No Smiling Please #1  by Colin Pantall

More on the NPG Photographic Portrait Prize  from Diane Smyth (one of the judges) at the BJP - this time on the question of  smiling.

Most of the portraits (the exception is  Circe, by Nathan Small) show people who aren't smiling - but they are showing a range of expressions and very few are actively sullen. The problem comes with the unconvincing, vacant look which one can find here and there in the show. But that's always the way.

Read the article, there are a few differing perspectives in there and some big assumptions being made, most of which I don't agree with most of the time.

Once more, with feeling

No smiling please, it's the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. Diane Smyth, one of this year's judges, talks to the 2009 winners about the recurring fascination with adolescence

Rosie Bancroft © Paul Floyd Blake, winner of the 2009 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize

The National Portrait Gallery opens its doors to the Photographic Portrait Prize this week, a contest it has organised over 18 years in one form or other, proving increasingly popular with the public year on year, but drawing an annual chorus of derision among some quarters of the photo community.

The competition ran for a decade in partnership with the John Kobal Foundation before it was relaunched in 2003 with sponsorship from Schweppes, and more latterly from the law firm Taylor Wessing, who began their support last year, when a record 273,000 visitors came to the show of 60 shortlisted entries. But it's come in for its fair share of criticism too, particularly for its apparent obsession with grim-faced, adolescent subjects.

This year is no exception. The winning photograph, Paul Floyd Blake's shot of Rosie Bancroft, shows the 14-year-old British Paralympic hopeful calmly eyeing the camera. And the second, third and fourth places - taken respectively by Vanessa Winship, Mirjana Vrbaski and Michal Chelbin - all feature adolescents, while the Godfrey Argent Award, which this year went to recent photography graduate Ali Lomas, also shows a young woman, balefully ignoring her chips. As one of the judges this year, I can only say it wasn't deliberate.
We looked at more than 6300 images over two days' judging in August, depicting everything from smiling, playful children to tightly composed OAPs. But this is what rose to the top, and although we weren't unanimous about the placings, we did agree these five images deserved special recognition. Perhaps we simply reflected our society's obsession with youth, or perhaps, as Winship comments, there's just something enduringly fascinating about the young.

'The point of transition between adult and child is interesting,' she says. 'I liked this girl because of her poise. She's holding the bottom of her dress, so you can see she's not 100% confident, but she's certainly not afraid. I feel it's an image we can all relate to.'

As for not smiling, Winship wonders why it's even an issue - in painted portraits the subjects rarely smile, she points out, and no one thinks to question it. 'I suppose people often use cameras at celebrations, where everyone smiles for the shot,' she says. 'But I don't see the absence of a smile as a negative thing, and I certainly don't think it implies that all is not well.'

Natural pose

This year's winner agrees. 'It's really quite recent that we want people to smile in pictures,' says Floyd Blake. 'In real life you don't go around grinning.' He prefers to try to capture people 'as they are', encouraging his subjects to relax in front of the camera. Bancroft is a fantastic model because she doesn't act up in the frame, he says, and he shot her in a pose she naturally assumed. 'She relaxed into it as I was changing plates,' he says. 'I just asked her to hold it. It's the second time I've photographed her, and perhaps that helps.'
Chelbin concurs, adding that she believes the key to making a good portrait is building a respectful relationship. Her fourth prize-winning shot was taken in a juvenile prison in Russia, but although she worked there for several days, she never asked the prisoners what they were jailed for. 'It's important to represent the subject with dignity and respect, no matter who he is,' she says. 'I usually spend time with the people I photograph, from hours to days and even more, so there is mutual trust.

'The shoot with Stas took several hours in different locations,' she adds. 'He was willing but very quiet - in general he is extremely quiet and distant, mostly hanging out alone. When I approached him I immediately noticed the intense gaze in his eyes, as if under that sealed expression there is a volcano about to erupt. There is a contrast between his very intense, almost suffering, gaze and his physique - although he's well built, he seems to be powerless. I only found out later he'd murdered someone. After arriving at the prison he tried to commit suicide but was saved by the guards. He has almost no friends and is considered a low class prisoner by the other inmates, which makes his life even harder.'

Vrbaski takes completely the opposite approach. She was brought up between Canada and Serbia, and is now studying at The Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, specialising in photographing complete strangers, and she found the model for her Taylor Wessing portrait simply walking past her studio. 'It seems that the less I know about my sitter the better,' she says. 'I couldn't disagree more with the concept of the portrait as a way of capturing the essence of a person.

'I believe that the essence of a human being is so complex and contradictory it is impossible to capture,' she adds. 'But having said that, I am just as against staging an expression. An authentic, genuine look is an absolute prerequisite for my portraits. As with the girl in this photo, I search for the kind of unselfconscious expression that makes the viewer forget about the physical model sitting in a studio and allows them to look beyond.'

Like Floyd Blake and Winship, she's inspired by painting, adding that her third prize winning image works because the girl's face 'shares the archetypal quality of classical painted portraits'. 'There's something that makes her become more than just the girl she is,' she adds. 'This is what I consider a universal portrait, a portrait that detaches itself from the times in which it was made and from the model posing for it.'
The girl's clothes may help. While the other three winners all photograph their subjects as they find them, Vrbaski shoots them in her studio in clothes she's picked out herself. Ali Lomas, who was selected for the Godrey Argent Award, which is given to the most outstanding black-and-white photograph or the best photographer aged 25 and under (she won for the latter), did something similar, carefully staging her photograph and scenario it was shot in. She doesn't consider her work to be portraiture per se, she's more interested in fashion photography, and shoots characters rather than individuals. Fittingly, she won the extra prize up for grabs this year - a commissioned shoot for Elle magazine.

Her work came from her final show at Loughborough University, a series of staged shots of young women in various scenes and poses. In fact, all of the winners' images come from ongoing projects rather than one-off portrait sittings. Winship's image is taken from her continuing work in Georgia, for example, 'which will be characterised as typologies, although I don't necessarily see it in that way'.

Floyd Blake is photographing young Olympic hopefuls in the build up to the 2012 London games, while Chelbin's shot one is of many taken in the Russian juveniles' prison. Vrbaski's photograph, meanwhile, is from a consistent body of work, in which up to 40 individuals at a time are photographed in exactly the same conditions. All of the photographers recognise that a series of images is different to a single shot but, says Chelbin, one isn't necessarily better than the other.

'I wouldn't include an image in a series if it didn't speak for itself,' she says. 'When images are presented together more layers are added to the experience of viewing. The use of creative tools such sequencing can intensify the experience and make a larger impact on the viewer. But the advantage of showing an image alone is that the focus is on the shot and the person in it. It's taken out of the context, so the narrative becomes that bit less important.'

Serious portraits, in both senses, taken by committed photographers with a clear sense of purpose - perhaps the Taylor Wessing judges know what they're doing after all.


The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize is on show at the National Portrait Gallery from 05 November until 14 February. Visit npg.org.uk for details and opening times.
To see further work from this year's winners, visit: www.floydphotography.co.uk; vanessawinship.com; mirjanavrbaski.com; michalchelbin.com; alilomas.co.uk.


cafe selavy said...

Thank you for this. I showed the NPG Portrait Prize Winners to a group of college freshmen/sophomores and this was the topic of discussion. While the collection looks pretty grim on the surface, the portraits they chose to submit did not show smiling faces either. I'm going to go back and look at Norman Rockwell's work, but I don't recall so many smiles even there.

colin pantall said...

Absolutely - there is a range of emotions on display here, but not too many extreme ones. I think there are a fair few smiles in Norman Rockwell though.

Got any ideas of photographers who include smiles/laughter in their pictures - I just thought of Rineke Dijkstra's pictures of the new mothers, which have a certain sub-smile to them.