The Best Year Yet For This Photographic Portraits Exhibition

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, National Portrait Gallery ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 79 months ago

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Last Updated 21 November 2017

The Best Year Yet For This Photographic Portraits Exhibition Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, National Portrait Gallery 4
A woman arrives at a refugee camp having escaped from ISIS. © Abbie Trayler-Smith

What makes for a perfect photographic portrait? It's a question asked every year by the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize as over 5,000 photographs compete to be shortlisted and displayed at National Portrait Gallery in the annual exhibition.

World politics takes centre stage this year; the overall winner is a rescued migrant staring back at us defiantly with the vast ocean in the background. Though it is a striking image, we feel that it won as much for the political statement it makes as for the composition.

Our favourite of the images also relates to rescued migrants; a huddle of bodies on a boat is pictured from above with all identities hidden under blankets except for one man whose face is visible — it skilfully shows the scale of the issue while also capturing a moment of individual humanity.  

A defiant rescued migrant stares down the camera. © César Dezfuli

Trump's America is another major topic, and it's a sad diptych to see a mum and daughter standing either side of the Mexico-US border wall so that their outlines are visible but not their features — they have been reduced to the nameless, faceless individuals designed to stoke up fears of immigrants.

Scarier still is a black and white still of a 16 year old with a USA t-shirt holding two assault rifles. Given the spate of shootings in America recently, it's hard not to wince and immediately assume this is a massacre in the making.

It's not all politics; the beauty of domesticity is also shown, whether it be a newborn just as it leaves a womb following a caesarean section or a young girl playing with a prism so that only her mouth is lit up by a rainbow while the rest of her face is in darkness.

Erica the android making a case for machine contention in the prize. © Maija Tammi

In a domestic scene by Hania Farrell, women in the background can be seen in the kitchen preparing a meal, a scene that could be anytime in the last century. In the foreground, a group of young boys play Minecraft on a Macbook — it's a well presented juxtaposition of traditionalism and modernity.

A new addition this year is to question whether a portrait has to be a of a living being; Erica the scarily realistic looking android's portrait makes the list of finalists. With the debate around artificial intelligence, we wonder whether one day a robot will be an entrant to this prize.

There are a lot fewer celebrities this year which is a vast improvement as it allows the quality of the work to stand for itself, rather than it being a case of 'I recognise her'. One familiar face is that of David Cameron. but it's a great shot, catching him unguarded as he checks his tie in the mirror — a lack of certainty that the public never got to see of him.

We think this is the strongest line up we've seen compared to the previous six iterations of this prize. It's an impressive turnaround given that we thought last year was by far the weakest edition of the prize.

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 is on at National Portrait Gallery until 8 February 2018. Tickets are £6 for adults.