18th March – 4th June
Review by Faye Atkinson.
The Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2016, exhibiting at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, is a vivid and enlightening presentation of some of the most talented portrait photographers in the world. The exhibition shows 57 portrait photographs of individual experience, characteristics and cultures from around the world. For example, Charlie Clift manages to express the honest and ‘normal’ side of The UK Independence Party’s powerful figurehead, Nigel Farage. I found that his powerful portrait of the controversial politician compels observers into understanding, acknowledging and arguably appreciating the human side to him; the side that doesn’t cause ever more conflict between left and right voters. The photograph shows Farage casually smoking a cigar with a smug, potentially mischievous grin on his face. The informality of the shot reminds us that ultimately, politics is a façade which masks real personality and character; forcing us to buy into promises that won’t be kept. Nevertheless, this doubt and uncertainty subsides momentarily when we experience a moment of relief filled with tranquillity, as we embrace the normality of political figures in our society.
Another standout photograph from the exhibition was a beautiful portrait entitled ‘Frances’ by Josh Redman. Redman focuses upon the ways in which the art of sculpture can influence and infiltrate through the art of photography. His model, 83-year-old Frances, is seen to be posing in a stance of elegant contortion, resembling early Greek and Roman statues that embody majesty and grace. ‘Frances’ is a beautiful example of how age can be defied and forgotten – the photographer catches light from various angles on the model’s body that moulds her into a statuesque goddess, basking in the burnt orange glow that Redman has captured. ‘Frances’ has stayed with me as it is proof that society’s ideas of youth and beauty are nothing but a social construct, which holds no substance or meaning; beauty and allure are everlasting, as 83-year-old Frances perfectly demonstrates.
‘Martha’ is an ongoing series of portraits by Sian Davey, a social policy graduate who focuses upon the interaction and development of individual character within her photographs. These images were striking. The casual congregation of what appeared to be family and friends within the image, enjoying the great outdoors, made for a perfectly informal composition which was ultimately what made it so powerful. The nonchalant echo of conversation glazed the photographs with a familiarity that seduces the observer into thinking these are their friends and it is their family in the photographs. This compelling naturalness set Davey’s portraits apart from the rest, as they played with social groups, comfort zones and the overwhelming power of nature on the individual.
Not knowing much about the Taylor Wessington Portrait Prize prior to my visit to the exhibition, I was sceptical and uncertain about what I would find: nevertheless the exhibition was a majestic statement in the sense that all social groups, social classes, genders, ethnic groups and cultures were shared through the art of photography. The exhibit is eye opening and powerful, a small light that we need and may seek comfort in when we are uncertain and afraid of life outside of the photograph.