The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2014 is one of my favourite art events in London. This year, it was awarded to one of my favourite portraitists/photographers (who is Spencer Murphy) for a work that was not the best one in the competition. In my opinion, the same happens with the second (to Giles Price) and the third prize ( to Anouch Abrar) which pale in comparison to Rosie Hallam’s Choir Master or Andy Massaccessi’s Fabio.

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I am starting to realise that art prizes are trickier than they seem not only because of issues of idiosyncratic taste but also because of, what we could call, institutional affairs. Not long ago, I got interested in the Buenos Aires Petrobras Photographic Prize which was awarded to a photographer that was openly plagiarising Broomberg and Charanin and who is called Dino Bruzzone. So I decided to call one of the judges, Rodrigo Alonso, to ask him about the criteria for selecting that work in particular. His answer was revealing for he said that Bruzzone was allocated the prize for his ongoing participation in the previous years. This meant that the award was not given to him for the submission of a particular work but to an individual for his or her ongoing relationship with the institution (Prize). This puts the newcomers in the worst possible place.  If you understand Spanish, you can see the interview by clicking here. 

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I have the feeling that this could also be the case for the Taylor Messing Awards. Last year, I was surprised that the first prize was not awarded to this year’s winner. His study of actor Mark Rylance was a show stopper. Murphy’s rather cool white light and transparency of  lens transforms the sitters’ eyes into mirrors of the soul that function not too differently from the background convex mirror in Van Eyck’s Anolfini Portrait or Velazquez’s Las Meninas. The eye of the viewer is immediately drawn to their eyes which become a vanishing point of all existence , at least, during the performance of viewing. Although this was the case for Rylance’s last year submission, the work presented this year was not up to standards. It is a portrait of Irish jump jockey Katie Walsh.

‘I was asked to show how demanding a job the jockeys have’, the photographer says. ‘Until then, I had not realised the kinds of extreme diets they endure and the injuries many have suffered in their careers’. The problem with this image, however, is that her white complexion, the hairstyle and the costume combined with the memory of Mark Rylance brings about theatrical associations. Until I read that she was a jockey, I thought she was an actress in period costume. Downtown Abbey?  This means that that directness that worked amazingly with the actor (because that is his job), here becomes cold detachment. She is looking at the camera but the look is too representational. She is posing as a woman that suffers a world of men. As Allan Stone used to say, it just does not cut the mustard. Thus, it does not surprise that the catalogue says in its second sentence: ‘This year’s success means that Murphy’s work has been selected for exhibition in the competition an unprecedented six years running’. Is that the reason, then?

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Then the second prize and the third prize are a portrait of a Kumbh Mela Pilgrim with her baby and a portrait of Kofi Annan, respectively. So we have a white woman, an indian woman and a black man. Politically correctness? I know that this sounds far-fetched but when asked the criteria for the selection, Kate Bush, Head of Barbican Art Galeries and one of the judges starts saying: ‘This is a prize that celebrates and recognises the diversity of contemporary photographic portraiture’. Well, I thought it was about choosing the best portrait and suddenly words like ‘diversity’ and ‘seniority’ start to appear. Politics and institutions seem to emerge as an obstacle for just choosing the best one. Just a thought.

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