Where: National Portrait Gallery, London
When: Till February 17 2013
I had the good fortune to see this exhibition as part of a private function at the gallery, so it was less of an ordeal getting round the pictures than it can be at London’s big galleries.
Viewing the Taylor Wessing prize winners and exhibitors is a bit like reading the British Journal of Photography. You get the feeling there is a very small club running these things and that they have decided on a particular visual style which comes through year after year in the winners and the pictures they choose to exhibit as part of the show.
It is not a happy visual style.
If I had to choose a word, I’d say bleak. The judges like unsmiling faces, subtly desaturated with film-like tones and surroundings that, most of the time, defy any graphic or evidence of compositional skill. Gesture is all when it comes to the Taylor Wessing Prize, and so long as the gesture you’re capturing is, well, bleak, you’ll do just fine.
As always there is a sprinkling of nude pictures – you wonder what the acceptable length of time is to look at these as you stand there alone with a glass of champagne in your hand. One picture which gives a direct view of the naked subject’s genitals seemed lacking an audience all evening: most people moved awkwardly on rather than linger and have to discuss it with a stranger.
There was some good stuff, to be sure, but I found the aesthetic similarity to previous years tiring. It’s as though photographers have learned what the judges are after and started to game the system. There was also an unashamed favouritism for celebrity – I doubt a snapshot of Ai Wei Wei with his cat and a portrait of Mo Farah with some bog standard rim lighting would have made the cut were the subjects unknown. This is hardly surprising in an exhibition where the captions run tediously long and the viewer is denied any information about technology or technique. Not a scrap of metadata – give me Wildlife Photographer of the Year any day. Photos work better with a story, but you’re not supposed to judge them on that basis.
I can’t recommend this one. Two or three standout shots and a lot of British mid-winter realism. I’d rather see pictures of nobodies that give me ideas than safe cultural reinforcement.