I recently received the catalogue from the Taylor-Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition through the post. It includes all the winning photos currently being shown in the National Portrait Gallery. It doesn’t include any of mine, which weren’t selected. The voice in my head as I write this is that of Charlie Brooker, who is one of the subjects in the exhibition. Which brings me to my first gripe. It seems to me that you have a very good chance of being chosen if your portrait is of someone famous (or even just fairly famous, as in Brooker’s case). If it’s The Queen of England or the Head of the United Nations, you can pretty much guarantee you’ll get in, even if your photo is underexposed, out of focus and has a coffee cup stain on it. Celeb faces will get the punters in the door and they also mean the photographer must already be relatively well-established, which means the judges are on safe territory if they pick them.
So to my second gripe. At the risk of revealing myself to be embarrassingly out of touch with high-end photographic intelligentsia, this collection of photos exhibits a very narrow range of human emotion. Seriously, people just aren’t that serious. Even if you ascribe to the questionable blank-expression theory (I don’t: in my view, a blank expression is still an expression), the fact that 90% of the photographers exhibited do makes for a monotonous visual and human experience. Especially in the pictures where you just know the subjects have been told “Stop smiling!” by the photographer, the resulting images become so cliched as to be laughable (well, we would if it were allowed).
And finally, and speaking of cliches, here’s a bit of a cheap (though irresistible) shot. The red-head thing was already a massive cliche (according to the Portrait Salon, a group of photographers that celebrates the 99% of submissions rejected by the official Taylor Wessing jury), yet the judges seem to have gone the other way, as if to spite the mockers. This year’s exhibition is not only peppered with red heads, there are no fewer than three sets of red-headed twins. Are they doing it on purpose just to make people laugh? Say cheese!