The Portrait Prize shows off a plethora of photographic talent from around the globe. A fantastic array of different styles is on display – from photographs of war to celebrity headshots. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that amongst these startling stories told through the camera lens, the first prize was awarded to a picture of a girl holding a rodent at a county fair.

Jooney Woodward’s image is of 13 year old, redhead Harriet cradling a guinea pig – Gentleman Jack – with matching colouring to her own. Although mildly visually stirring due to the shock bursts of orange against the girl’s white coat, it is difficult to see how such an image could trump entries such as Jeremy Rata’s The King’s Palace, which depicts two sandal clad Afghan soldiers in the ruins of the King’s Palace, Kabul.

Perhaps I’m missing the significance…the beauty is in the subtlety…

This image, so perfectly composed and capturing such a captivating point in history, seems superior to the winning entry, despite not being included in the top five spots.

Perhaps I am missing the vital significance of the portrait prize. Maybe to choose the most dramatic or emotive of images is not the point of the award. Perhaps the beauty is in the subtlety; in the close relation between the photographer and the subject.

As Woodward put it: “I like subjects that are often overlooked…I feel I can see things that perhaps other people don’t notice, and I’d like to open up these worlds to a wider audience.”

…portraits should show the subject in a new or unfamiliar light…

Refreshing as this may be, it is hard to summon interest for the story behind Woodward’s image, when some of the lower ranked entries seem so full of emotional vivacity. Maybe it’s just me, but I always feel portraits are supposed to reveal something, to show the subject in a new or unfamiliar light; to make them seem unlike themselves.

In Michael Birt’s portrait of Keira Knightley looking straight into the camera, with chocolate brown eyes and lips slightly apart, I fail to see a sight that has not greeted anyone who has watched her films. I also fail to see the artistry in the image. I can’t help but think that Birt has missed a perfect opportunity to show the young actress in some fantastic new way that would reveal a whole different side to the preened public persona we see every day.

… it seems to hold a mystery that the viewer longs to solve…

In contrast, I long to know the story behind Paolo Patrizi’s Anna: an image of a young prostitute lying on a grubby mattress in a cornfield. The remarkable thing about this photo is that not only does it seem to hold mystery that the viewer longs to solve, but it is also visually compelling; the muted colours evoking a sense of disharmony and unsettledness.

It is the lack of pure human emotion amongst these top-ranking portraits that left me with a slight sense of dissatisfaction. There are some fantastic entries that certainly deserve their place, but many, including all of the celebrity portraits on the shortlist, are not nearly daring or evocative enough for such a prestigious seat in the exhibition.

The exhibition continues until 12 Febuary 2012

Tickets: £2

Images courtesy of Paolo Patrizi and Jooney Woodward

 

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