Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize proves hot contest at National Portrait Gallery

By Ben Miller | 26 November 2012
A photo of a young woman in a purple floral dress resting her hand looking into the camera
Jordi Ruiz Cirera's Margarita Teichroeb won this year's Taylor Wessing prize. Work by the finalists is being shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London© Jordi Ruiz Cirera

Exhibition Review: Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, National Portrait Gallery, London, until February 17 2013

Meeting pigeon carriers, basketball players, wide-eyed babies and urban cricketers along the marble pattern floors of this year’s Taylor Wessing, you’re left with a sense of the difficulties the judges must have had in picking a winner.

Sifting through the initial 5,000-plus entries might have made the final selection feel like a drop in the high-resolution open. But deciding the recipient of the £12,000 top prize must have been as clear as mud.

A photo of a man with long black hair and a thick moustache looking downwards
Mark Rylance, by Spencer Murphy, won 3rd prize© Spencer Murphy
Casual observers, thankfully, only have to enjoy the consuming works of the 60 finalists, with a definite sporting theme present in the Olympic year. The sleek muscularity of track cyclist Victoria Pendleton is as commanding as the taut intensity of running machine Mo Farah’s stare.

Then there are the journeys: to European beaches, Romney Marshes, Los Angeles – where young thesps chase Holywood stardom – and Ethiopia, where a boy with eyes as deep as ravines is denied schooling by the poverty of his farming family, and poses in the hope a portrait might help him.

Perhaps the eyes have it. Actor Mark Rylance fixes emerald pupils on the far-off distance for the shot which earned a runner-up award for Spencer Murphy, who found it easy to direct his subject in a commission for a magazine cover celebrating Rylance’s return to Shakespeare’s Globe this year.

Sometimes the fact that the photos ever happened seems miraculous. You can only applaud the portrait and non-verbal communication skills of Annie Collinge, who persuaded a Japanese girl to pose in her new home in New York despite a seemingly insurmountable language barrier.

Colour matching, as always, features prominently. These are often exercises in extreme skill and poise for the artists. Yet for the non-technically minded, as a kind of reflex response, the stories steal the attention.

Indeed, there are, as in previous years, photos where the premise of taking a photo, as much as viewing its result, could be best described as challenging: a displaced migrant worker in a grim escape from Libya, or David Rathband, the PC shot by gunman Raoul Moat, portrayed for a national newspaper by photographer Justin Sutcliffe here.

Rathband committed suicide in March, eight months after the photo was taken. For an exhibition occasionally called out for erring on the side of safety last year, the abiding sense is of a thoughtful, at times extraordinary display this time out.

  • Open 10am-6pm (9pm Thursday and Friday). Admission £2 (free for under-12s). Follow the gallery on Twitter @NPGLondon.

More pictures:

A photo of two young men with bowler brown hair cuts sitting next to each other
The Ventriloquist, by Alma Haser, won 4th prize© Alma Haser
A photo of a young woman with short ginger hair half naked clutching a mug of tea
Jennifer Pattison's photo, Lynne, Brighton, won 2nd prize© Jennifer Pattison
A photo of a Japanese man in a blue shirt against a blue wall holding a cat looking ahead
Matthew Niederhauser's The Nine Lives of Ai Weiwei© Matthew Niederhauser
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