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A review by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!





Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012

The Nine Lives of Ai Weiwei (detail)
by Matthew Niederhauser, 2011 © the artist

National Portrait Gallery


8 November - 17 February 2013


This is the chance to see some of the best in contemporary, photographic portraiture. The Taylor Wessing Exhibition shows a range of work taken on high tech specification cameras through to I-phones, from the professional photographer to the student or hobbyist. Yet if it’s camera surety you’re after, then choose either the Canon or Hasselblad series, as between them they provided most of the sixty short-listed photographs on show.

The global breadth of the exhibits is impressive. It shows moments to arrest social consciousness Displaced Migrant Worker from Libya #1 from the series Trapped in Transit by Antoine de Ras, a study in rain-soaked or tear-stained blue, Road Workers in Old Delhi by Jeremy Rata with its flecks of spectral light and tarmacked roads to the John Kobal New Work Award, The Nine Lives of Ai Weiwei by Matthew Niederhauser.

In this photograph the artist Weiwei, under virtual house-arrest, looks straight out to camera, while a ginger cat, one of the many strays which circle his compound, looks out mid-distance, left. Yet the focus is the contrast: the red specks of the cat’s collar, the chains on the studio’s blue-teal doors or the incongruity in sizes between the artist and the cat.

Technically intricate, each of these exhibits shows in relief context or mise en scene, emphasised by the size and scale of the work. These photographs are meant to be hung, not grace a sideboard. This is perhaps one of the surprising, pleasantly surprising, aspects of the whole experience. Details are so high definition, that up close, it feels as if you are being drawn into the essence of the photograph through tactile portals - the weave of a fabric or a rich-coloured tone.

In the sensitive portrait of Victoria Pendleton by David Clerihew, complete with glamorous Audrey Hepburn top-knot, it’s the blue veins in her arms, linked to the ruched, aertex blue material of her dress which catches the eye. In contrast, author Hilary Mantel by Michael Birt, is dressed in warm rich fabrics, red beret, brooch. Yet these flamboyant, redolent details are off-set against the natural, un-bounded stretch of beach in the background near her home in Devon.

Many of the exhibits titles suggest other narratives: American Nightmare by Nadia Lee Cohen, A New Acquisition (Paul Frecker) by Martine Houghton, One Summer in London by Phoebe Theodora or Arjanit, in Hiding from a Blood Feud, Kukes County by Marco Kesseler. Some are formal commissions for magazines, some capture intimate family moments. Some of the photographers have exhibited before, and some not.

First prize went to Jordi Ruiz Cirera for Margarita Teichroeb from the series Menonos. As photography is forbidden by the Menonite Community, the photograph itself is rare. Yet the ‘fantastic light’ in the picture and the figures in the background, one of whom looks straight out to camera, makes for a vivid composition. The second prize went to Jennifer Pattison for Lynne, Brighton. The naked figure with her frank, relaxed gaze contrasts to the anodyne blue and green striped wallpaper in the background and the chipped mug which she holds in her hand. The third placing was Spencer Murphy’s Mark Rylance, which marked the actor’s return to The Globe to play Richard IIi; while the fourth was Alma Haser’s The Ventriloquist.

Other photographs stand alone for what we invest them with: the honourable PC David Rathband from the series Burnt by Limelight by Justin Sutcliffe, the ragged blue towelling robe at the shoulders of artist Sarah Lucas in Suffolk by Eamonn McCabe, the Four Hats from the series Teenage Pre-occupation by David Stewart, Rick Morris Pushinsky’s David Bailey or the freedom of Edie who didn’t like getting her hair cut by David Oxberry. These ‘familiars’ loom large, expectant, as you make your way round the exhibition. Sometimes their gaze is challenging, sometimes pitying, but always it is fascinating, with a truthfulness that is hard to resist.

National Portrait Gallery
St Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE
Tickets £2, gallery members and children under 12 go free
10.00 – 6.00, Thursdays and Fridays till 9.00



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