Tim Anger visits the NPPP exhibition at the newly opened National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and attends a presentation on the judging procedure and how this year’s somewhat controversial winner came to be selected.
How many photographers reading this who regularly enter competitions, have yearned for feedback on their entries after failing to scoop the main prize? The only feedback commonly available is the winner’s ribbon.
Recently, one of the judges of this year’s National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP) lifted the lid – at least partially – on the black art that is the judging process.
The National Portrait Gallery uses the $25,000 NPPP to meet one of its briefs; namely engagement with the Australian public. Any Australian citizen or resident over the age of 18 may enter. There is no requirement that the subject or subjects of the portrait hold any celebrity or public significance, unlike the major brief of the Gallery which is to build a collection of portraits to record key figures of Australia’s history and everyday life.
In this way, the NPPP ushers the art of portrait photography itself to the front of stage, overshadowing the status of the subject.
Here, the famous are just other faces in a crowd of unknowns. Dr Christopher Chapman is one of four curators at the NPG and brings over a decade of curatorial experience to the role. He was also one of this year’s judges, along with NPG director Andrew Sayers and Professor Sarah Miller, head of the School of Music and Drama at the University of Wollongong.
During his recent gallery talk, Dr Chapman reflected on the finalists’ entries and the concept of photographic portraiture. The entrants were a mix of professional photographers (comprising only 25-30 percent of entries this year) and what Dr Chapman describes as ‘aspirational’ photographers – somewhere between hobbyists and wannabe professionals.
Level Viewing Field
In 2009 there were over 1000 entries. These were culled to 56 finalists by the judges after two days of viewing the images projected onto the walls of the NPG boardroom at the same scale, creating a “level viewing field”.
The initial culling was carried out in the absence of any identifying information – the images being assessed purely on how “compelling” they were, not how well-known the artist was. In some instances, artist’s statements were accessed later in the process in order to help understand the context of an image. It was only then that the judges saw printed works.
With the finalists’ images leaned up against the walls of the gallery in a draft exhibition lay-out, the judges selected five images they believed worthy of the ultimate nod. These five were then separated from the other contenders for closer consideration. Dr Chapman explained that viewing the final five in this way quickly revealed a diminution of the perceived power of a couple of the images in the presence of the eventual winners. In the end, the judges were torn between two images, one rather classical in its approach and the other more challenging and described as “enigmatic and ambiguous”. Ultimately, it was the latter which won the prize – an image by Ingvar Kenne of his two sons, standing wet and looking slightly perplexed on the edge of a pool, and titled Cormac And Callum. The runner-up was an intimate portrait of two long-term business partners by Gary Grealy which the judges decided to publicly acknowledge by way of a Highly Commended award.