Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize

On days when I work in the art gallery office, I like to prop the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize postcard on my desk near the computer screen. Wafa by Felix Carprio, the portrait of the young Muslim woman fascinates me, with her embroidered green headpiece and her demure, timeless and placid smile.

Another gripping image is the artpiece Portrait of my British Wife by Panayiotis Lamprou, which won the second prize. Taken on an island of the Aegean Sea, it is a shockingly intimate portrait, with the woman only half dressed, revealing her private parts. The picture unsettles the viewer by giving one so much detail, exposing the highly intimate relationship between the photographed and the photographer.

The £12,000 award is presented to David Chancellor for an image on a young huntress with her prey. The sense of freedom glimpsed in the expansive landscape, coupled with the reserved, proud and almost heroic gaze of the young huntress, contrast with the irrevocable, disturbing stillness of the carcass. I admire the painting-like composition of the image, and the non-judgmental perspective of the photograph that seems to represent killing as a fact, neither romanticizing nor criticising the act.

 

A closer look sheds light on the relevance of professional practice and training in photography. While digital photography using auto function compacts has been made easier and more accessible than ever, one will notice many of the showcased photographers have worked in art-related roles for many years, especially in image production, submitting to magazines, competitions and photography salons from time to time. The value of experience. Meanwhile, the assessment for such prizes is questioned (for details, see FT’s article). I admit, though I like a handful of the entries, I find some not as riveting, perhaps even a little too casual in their efforts to represent a subject or person.

The collection of photos are exhibited from now until February 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery.

Staged photography of Jeff Wall

When I first saw the picture featured in The Guardian, I was struck by the spontaneity of a domestic scene: a wife walking away from her ironing to get something in the house. Her daughter or maybe sister is lounging at the sofa reading a magazine. Both are enjoying each other’s company in a weekend afternoon.

This is, however, not a candid shot but the staged photographic work by Jeff Wall. A Canadian artist and art historian whose highly cinematic work is sometimes compared to paintings, this photo overlooking the harbourside in Canada has taken him well over a year. He has waited for the woman to decorate and arrange the bric-a-bracs, and for the right season to be featured through the window. He has to wait for the apartment to evolve over time, and for it to acquire a story.

As the critique published in New York Times points out, ‘photography has always involved waiting.’ Henri Cartier-Bresson refers photography as the composition of ‘the decisive moment’.

We have assumed that this process of waiting applies more to the wildlife and nature photographers. The bee does not pose for the camera. The waiting is a craft, and sometimes the decisive factor that makes an unforgettable picture. This is especially easy to overlook in a world that celebrates digital snapshots and instantaneous upload-and-share photography. We have forgotten that most photographic works are, to a certain extent, deliberate. Other than deliberate composition, they also involve a careful selection process and, in some cases, editing or rendering.

In another of Jeff Wall’s photo, we see a black man with his back facing the camera. He is in a brightly illuminated room with the ceiling full of light-bulbs. The room is cluttered and chaotic, and he is engrossed in his work. The art-piece exposes the black man’s private world, such that the viewer cannot ignore his presence, his strength, or his poverty.

By manipulating the composition of a photograph, Jeff Wall draws attention to the authenticity of the genre: each image is a chosen moment, and pictures don’t tell a story.