Recently I decided to go and take a look at the National Portrait Gallery. In particular, at least, on this visit, I wanted to focus (no pun intended) on the National Photographic Portrait Prize 2009 exhibition, in which the 56 finalists of the approximately 1100 entries were on display.
The winning entry entitled ‘Cormac and Callum 2008’ by Ingvar Kenne is controversial. I wanted to find out why. So I went to the gallery when a talk was to be given by the curator of the exhibition. (Sometimes living in Canberra is bloody handy.)
This success of this exhibition lies in its ability to demonstrate the difference between a portrait and a photograph of a person. Further to that, it illustrates the depth of portrait photography by Australians (only 50% of whom actually work as a professional photographer) because the depth and breadth of the work is to be seen to be believed.
A successful portrait must do and ask the following things:
* give less information than more to encourage the viewer to think for themselves (in the artist’s statement)
* contain a sense of mood or psychological intensity
* invoke questions (it is then more gratifying to look at)
* contain a sense of ambiguity
* be raw/confronting/arresting/engaging
* perhaps be strange/disturbing/shocking
* if it’s a created scene, what is the point of view and purpose?
* does it capture a sense of the person’s electricity?
and most importantly
* speak to the viewer
* invite reflection and introspection
I was pleased to hear that during the assessment process the entries are individually projected onto a wall, so they are all viewed in the same format, even though as finished artworks they might be small or large, framed or unframed etc. Also, the identity of the subject, if known, was not taken into account, and the artists’ names were not revealed until afterwards to the judges. Also, it was good to know that when they went back over all of the entries to check they had not overlooked anything, they were satisfied that they had not.
Interesting but not engaging images were sent to the ‘no’ pile.
So when I look at Ingvar Kenne’s image of Cormac and Callum, I have a better understanding of why the judges considered it to be a worthy winner. It certainly invokes questions and is ambiguous. It does invite reflection in the viewer because the subjects give nothing away. And it certainly is an arresting image, I don’t get bored looking at it.
Food for thought for next year.