May 23, 2013
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Comment - Taylor Wessing Photography Prize
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Photography: News, Gossip, Art, Documentary, Pornography. Discuss!
Photography has for some decades now, struggled to define itself and this trauma causes all of us "light painters" to adopt personalities in a Jekyll & Hyde kind-of way. Can a subject with as broad a canvas as photography actually be categorised in such a way as to define its content in strong, clear upper and lower-boundaries? And does anyone who consumes photography care? Well, the short answer to both questions is; no and yes. So if that's satisfied your curiosity you can stop reading now.
OK, as you insist, I'll explain my point. Putting aside the so-called down-market, paparazzi-style photographs that appear in the weekly celeb-sheets (where the need for photographers to produce these snaps sits somewhat uncomfortably with the celebs desired view of their "image") the main source of friction in the "visual arts" is generated where photography morphs into art, puffing out its chest and proclaiming its worth. In the blue corner, such ire rises from the niche where judges of photography have to pronounce competition short-lists and winners because their subjective assessment of the entries is exclusively art-biased and is almost always controversial for everyone who has a viewpoint. In the red corner are the art critics (and dealers and collectors who listen to them) who don't see photography as "serious" art and try to distance themselves from any debate. There is no referee in this fight and the contest rumbles over infinite rounds with the main spectators being the mass of artists and photographers themselves.
So, what's your point caller; I hear you say? My point relates to the runner-up image in a national, annual photography prize; one that offers substantial cash awards to the winner and the 3 "best" runners-up. I'll explain more ...
The British National Portrait Gallery in London has, for many years, run a Photographic Portrait Prize (to give its full, if somewhat Victorian, name) and this prize has been sponsored since 2005 by the international law firm of Taylor Wessing, so its Monday-to-Friday name is the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. Its 2010 winner won £12,000 (twelve K large in anyone's currency) for a fairly faultless and uncontroversial image of a young huntress on a horse with a dead buck slung over it. While this image in itself may have led to whispered mutterings over the skinny-lattes about its value as a first-past-the-post winner, most folks would have said "lucky ba'..stard" and wondered why their entry wasn't seen as just as worthy. No. The real controversy was the first runner-up (second place in my dialect) who won £3,000 Sterling for a shot of his "English wife" sitting with her legs open wearing no knickers on on a sunny day outside a Greek-style house.
Professional Photographer magazine was a bit flabbergasted by this result, as they noted in their Exposure section ... ( see it here
PP Exposure, November 2010
) and called for comments and letters from Dumbfounded from Dunstable. Here's what I had to say in full after viewing the uncensored image on-line ...
It seems that today in order to stand out from the crowd a photographers image must have shock value. This one does, but apart from that what else does it say and, is it worthy of being listened to for all that? This image may be part of a trend that has been going on for years; "Picture Shock!". Whether its junkies shooting up in dark moody images, kids in Chinese sweat-shops in low light, or mature women with their bits hanging out on a summers day, they all fall into the same category; single-second-shock value only. Does this mean that if an image doesn't shock it has no value regardless of the aesthetic nature of it?
As a member of the public I am as susceptible to scenes around me as anyone; which means that for the most part, they pass me by, because any single image may be out of my context; its not part of my daily life and seeing it or not seeing it make no difference to what I do and how I feel. As a photographer, and one who strives for a raised profile, I see scenes as potential images that prick at emotions, but the emotions I wish to stir are not shocking for shocking sake. Real images that produce real, life-changing actions are valued for the change they make in the attitudes of peoples who would rather not see what they know is going on, but how would this image change YOUR life? What would you do tomorrow that you haven't done today as a result of viewing this image? Would you lose sleep at night, or donate to a charity? No is the answer.
So what does this image say and do? It provokes comment and discussion; it causes sane photographers to wonder how many moons orbit the planet that art critics and photography competition judges live on. It doesn't do much else. The morality of the UK is already dented by decades of bombardment by visual, aural and written pieces of art, but this image doesn't shake the final keystone loose so that we can all be free. I would not have submitted this image as a competition entry for many reasons and, had it been my wife, it'd stay firmly in the private collection. Apart from its "Oh, Matron!" value I struggle to see what aesthetic it has. Its a nice summer picture of a sexually-experienced woman with no knickers on. So what?
Winning art competitions is, and probably always will be, a lottery, but ... like its popular namesake its a lottery that delivers a life-changing result to the winner.
There may be whispers in dark corners that the runner-up was actually mooted as the winner by the judges, but the potential controversy had to be trailed before the "final" decision was announced, to make sure that the public mood was properly tested. Its fair to say that I don't think Taylor Wessing, for all their broad-mindedness and philanthropy, would want their corporate name forever "tainted" with a winning photo that may have been art in some circles but in main-street UK, USA and most of their client-base, would have been considered straight, unadulterated porn.
Finally, I'm not a prude by any measure and art, photography and literature is full of erotic and blatant overtly sexual images - inside one's head as much as on paper or canvas. The point is; should judges seriously consider such imagery as true art and worthy of public recognition as such, and if so, which end of the artistic spectrum does this then put photography into? Top shelf? Is the practice of photography enhanced by such an outcome? Will painters put down their brushes in favour of the lens? Is it more "arty" now than it was before to take "instant" pictures with a camera and have some invisible barriers to photography's acceptance into the art hierarchy been blown away? No, I don't think so. Its porn that's all. When is porn not porn? Answer; when its a painting!
The imagery fight of the millennium goes into its 150th round and this prize punch has been nothing more than a good left-hook from the photography contender just before the bell rang. But did photography miss its intended opponent and end up slugging itself on the jaw? I think that's for the judges to decide...
26th November 2010