Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016, Sunderland – Exhibition

The Taylor Wessing prize is now the most prestigious in this country for portrait photography and this is the first time I have been able to get a proper look at it.  It has been showing at the delightful Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens for the past couple of months but I have only just been able to get over to see it, just before it ends.  This is the first stop on a national tour so is quite a big thing for Sunderland.

Although this is a classical grand Victorian civic building, funded by the philanthropy of local shipbuilders, the exhibition space is a now equally classic white box, perfect for displaying these, generally, large, plain black framed prints.

The technical quality of the pictures goes without saying – these are the best 57 images out of an original entry of a couple of thousand.  There are though a number of things that particularly struck me.  One is the range of techniques that are now being used to produce prints.  Lots, as you would expect, are one or other form of digital print.  There has though been something of a move back to older methods, such as photogravure (which I have tried) and even tintype – it was odd to see a clearly modern composition appear in a picture that looked as if it had been taken more than a hundred years ago (it did in fact use a Victorian large format camera).

Another was that with I think just one exception (I could though email have missed someone) all of the photographers are graduates of one form or another.  This is not a prize for amateurs, which puts it in stark contrast to, for example, the BP portrait prize where amateurs often have a good showing.  I am not judgmental about this; I am after all going down the degree route myself.  It is though interesting to see how photography has, for want of a better word, to some extent become academicised.  Similarly I was struck by how many of these pictures were the result of commercial commissions, which is perhaps part of the same sort of trend.

Otherwise: lots of strong colours, very little monochrome work; inevitably as this is portraiture, mostly posed, with very little that appeared spontaneous or uncontrived so that what there was really shone out.

The end result, whatever one’s preferences or prejudices, is that there were a lot of images that were intensively emotional and moving.  For all that the camera can leave a sitter exposed and vulnerable I felt there was a strong sense of tenderness and compassion in many of these pictures which was quite moving.

If this shows comes to a town near you, whether or not you are interested in portraiture per se, so long as you are interested in photography and humanity, go see this!



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