With so few moments of genuine happiness captured by entrants to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, isn’t it time we all received a bit of cheering up?
They say a smile costs nothing, but it seems a frown can earn you £15,000 – that’s what it feels like anyway, when I look at work submitted to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. I’ve made an annual pilgrimage to the exhibition since I was a teenager (back then it was known as the John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award), and while the sponsor may have changed over the years the content of the pictures remains just as bleak. In 1998 Tom Hunter took the top spot with his cheerless, albeit beautiful, portrait ‘Woman Reading a Possession Order’. I remember raving about its painterly quality and exquisite lighting (I was a student at the time, after all). The year before that Richard Sawdon Smith wowed the judges with his shot of Simon, an ex-boyfriend who was suffering from AIDS. The image is shocking, powerful and sensitively executed, but it’s not uplifting. Drinks company Schweppes backed the competition next, and having seen the 2004 exhibition Joanna Pitman of The
Times asked, Just‘ how miserable is our world?’ Pretty miserable it seems.
In 2007 law firm Taylor Wessing took over sponsorship of the competition, but the gloominess remained. Lottie Davies was the winner in 2008 with her clever, but disconcerting, image ‘Quints’: a recreation of a friend’s nightmare in which she becomes the mother of five children.
All of the aforementioned pictures are remarkable in their own way, but sometimes it feels as though the photographers are trying too hard to prove that photography is ‘real’ art. It is art, there’s nothing to prove. Twenty years ago I enjoyed looking at pictures of sulky teenagers and pale-skinned twins. In fact, I raved about how great the competition was in this very magazine. But now I’m in my 40s, and I just want cheering up (and for chocolate bars to stop getting smaller). Is that too much to ask? A few months ago I received a book showcasing some 200 entries from the Portrait of Britain competition run by British Journal of
Photography, and I have to say I was impressed. There was a smattering of sulky teens and miffed-looking twins, but on the whole the portraits were life-affirming, and very real (to be fair, a few of them also appear in the Taylor Wessing exhibition). Take, for example, Tom Oldham’s image ‘Son 2’ which shows a young boy gazing out of a car window, or Fiona Johnson’s portrait ‘A Sunday Morning Swim’ of Simon, the open water swimmer, captured after a dip – Simon is actually smiling!
Now I’m not saying everyone should be beaming away like the Cheshire cat – some of the individuals in these photographs are going through incredible hardships – all I’m asking for is balance. Maybe it’s time to seek out joy and make a real effort to share it.
Naturally, I will be going to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition this year – they say if you do something long enough it becomes a habit and, on the whole, this is a pleasant one to keep. But next year I want to leave smiling.
‘Mio Figlio Alfredo’ from the series La Mia Famiglia by David Brunetti