Tuesday, February 19, 2008

national portrait photography


I walk into town to critique a show. On my arrival at Trafalgar Square, the throng of whinging tourists is waiting. The slightly abstract thought enters my mind that to truly seek to understand the world and by default, the space around me, I need to have a better understanding of myself as an individual and a student within the art world.I ignore my internal nonsense and press on...wax on, wax off...

I choose a group show at the National, well a portrait competition anyway. I wonder if today I will be surprised by either an aesthetic or an approach that deviates from fashion or tradition.

Phones are ringing and people are talking rubbish or at least my interpretation of rubbish. The obligatory, introductory blurb is the first thing I see on the wall and I begin to ingest out of habit. I notice most people give a cursory glance at the script and move on with disinterest. As ever, people seem to be inconsiderate of their surroundings and babble incessantly about anything but the work in front of them.

I use the comments I overhear as I walk through the gallery as markers for my movement. We move clockwise en masse through the white rectangles, making our respective noises as we go. The crowds seem nonplussed by the works in front of them and show no appreciation or emotion-maybe this is a British thing or maybe the work hasn’t the power to produce the romantic reactions to which  I hope to bear witness.

The first gem I overhear is from an elderly couple. The man, it would appear, is the art aficionado and guides his compliant partner on a journey through his perspective. “I don’t know what it means,” the man says”, but it’s a great photo”.

The image in question was'Sophia' by Billy and Hells.This was a straight head and shoulders portrait but the artist had tried to recreate a sense of the Dutch masters using an aesthetic particular to paintings of the era. The sitter gave an impression of having an aura of calm and there was a sublime quality to the image as a whole. The style of dress, the make up but more than anything the lighting was key in the successful production of this aesthetic. I continue to follow my old couple on their/our detached critical engagement with the work although at least they are tying to engage which is more than I can say for most of the rest. His next line is pure genius analysis of what I can only assume must N.P.G entrance criteria for young artists; “ you’ve got to take pictures of mainly children or old men then you’ve got it”. I smile as he says this and continue stalking. Their gaze floats quickly past a classically posed, reclining nude which reminds me how as a child, my catholic mother would leave the room each time a scene with nudity came on the  Tv screen. The next image they comment on is a couple holding hands in what appears to be a poverty stricken home. The woman decides the couple “ look like desperates” and the man agrees, “yes", he says, "they are a couple of desperates”. On to another image, and another comment. This is a quite beautiful studio portrait of a woman with Thalidomide. The man has another senior moment and says “I thought it was thalidomide, very strange” I am trying to be discreet but I think I’ve been busted which isn’t surprising considering I am standing behind them scribbling furiously.

I find another pair of eyes and rapier mind to be my guide. Two girls in their mid twenties are expounding on landscape/portraits  “ it’s so tragic, we are both drawn to the country life photography, god, we are so tragic”. Some of the artists/photographers (I make this distinction because some of the work is pure reportage and it is, after all, a competition) have managed to think outside the box-excuse the pun. In general, they are all relatively traditional with their approach to portraiture, even if the choice of subject steps away from the ‘norm’ for some of them. The obvious backdrops of war, poverty, and disability have been injected a la mode. Most of the subjects are gazing directly at the lens or, in the direction of the photographer with eyes averted. Slightly refreshing is the lack of ‘beautiful people’ and distance from this modus operandi within portraiture. I do wonder just how far one could actually push the subversion envelope in contemporary photography and still be admitted in to play nicely with the other children. All of this would appear to be in the judicious hands of the demigod gatekeepers that are critics. As I gaze into the into the Von Glasow portrait “ no body’s perfect”, I smell the bad breath before I see the man’s reflection in the glass, and I decide it’s time to leave.


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