It's that time of year again. The temperature is plummeting, the high street is drowning in tinsel, and the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize is back at the National Portrait Gallery. The annual award is a fantastic opportunity for the worldwide photographic community to see their work displayed within one of London's most well-known galleries. Thousands submitted their images, and this year 60 outstanding photographs were shortlisted for inclusion in the exhibition. Although all portraits (the clue is in the title), these photographs all have very different origins. Professional commissions hang next to personal projects. Well-known faces neighbour unknown characters from the fringes of society. With all entries judged anonymously, this prize really is accessible to all. Consequently the exhibition is satisfyingly diverse, with the work coming from the cameras of professionals and amateurs, veterans and newbies alike.
The show opens with a richly coloured photograph of famous model Lily Cole. Celebrities make numerous appearances throughout the exhibition, but Rosie Hallam's Lily Cole (2013) downplays the expectations of celebrity imagery, whilst kicking off a reoccurring trend of unconventional posing. Lily's pose is naturally relaxed, but with a delicate grimace playing across her face. It's a little awkward and far removed from the choreographed fashion shots she would usually be found in. Consequently the photograph conveys a greater sense of personality and character. Third prize winner Anoush Abrar portrays another well-known face, this time with their eyes closed. The eyes may usually be the window to the soul, but in Kofi Annan (2013) the lowered lids tell us far more about the weight of responsibility and pressures of Annan's political career. It is also fantastic to see that black-and-white photography (although in much fewer numbers) still recognised by prizes such as this.
There are five prizes awarded by the judging panel. The winners are nestled inconspicuously in the middle of the exhibition, so it is easy to overlook them. The overall winning photograph is Spencer Murphy's Katie Walsh (2013). The image shows a female jockey, muddied and exhausted post-race. The shot is an intriguing mix of femininity and tough determination, as well as being very topical and tapping into a lingering national sporting obsession left over from the triumphant Olympic Games. Other current social and media trends are also represented in the show, including Sophie Brocks' The Ward Family (2012), which depicts three generations of a family from the Traveller community.
The exhibition itself seems to occupy a larger chunk of the gallery this year. Instead of the usual tidal wave of photographs bearing down on the visitor, the prints are presented in smaller, less daunting groups. The uniform framing keeps the show neat, whilst the varied print sizes keep things interesting. The photographs seem to have been grouped for aesthetic reasons; common colours and tones override contextual connections. This exhibition is not so concerned with witty intellectual curation as it is with showing the work off to its very best.
The date of this exhibition is consistent every year, and the themes of the photographs are equally predictable. The quality of the work is incredibly high and each of the chosen images is a fantastic example of contemporary photography. However, the topics that draw the eye of the judging panel are largely the same year after year. Surly teenagers, redheads, twins and the dignified poor all make an expected reappearance. This lack of surprise in the judges' selections is in no way a criticism of the photographers or their work. However, the inclusion of some more unexpected and experimental works would be appreciated. The majority of the imagery here conforms to rather formal, sedate photographic conventions. Such conventions have become conventional because they are reliably successful at creating pleasant images, but consequently, nothing here is really revelatory. A bit more bravery from the judges would elevate this prize beyond its middle-class constraints and silence many of its current critics.
Individuals with fraught medical histories are another common entry, but the scene of a stoic woman elegantly baring her mastectomy scar in Néstor Díaz's Sofía (2012) still manages to evoke emotion. It's a cliché, but the exhibition really is an emotional rollercoaster. There are periods of great humour, followed shortly by moving tales of poverty and ill-health. From the heart-wrenching Sofia we move to the brilliantly bizarre Fabio (2012) by Andy Massaccesi. The piece is a comedic highlight, showing a bearded man in an alpine scene carrying a goat in a backpack. The portrait is a powerful tool that can make us laugh and cry. Rich lives and complex personalities can be conveyed in a single image, and for as long as the National Portrait Gallery continues to celebrate it, the art of portraiture will continue to evolve and thrive for many years to come.