National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
$10 adults, until June 1
The National Photographic Portrait Prize is an annual competition to promote the ‘very best in contemporary photographic portraiture by both professional and aspiring Australian photographers.’ In its tenth year, forty-nine portraits made the short-list selected from ‘thousands’ of entries by three judges, two internal to the Portrait Gallery and one external guest judge – Sydney-based photographer George Fetting.
In the catalogue one of the internal judges, Dr Sarah Engledow, provides an entertaining essay on this year’s selection. She notes how fashions have changed in the entries over the years…
‘Overall the photographs selected [in this year’s exhibition] don’t comprise a particularly upbeat exhibition. However, in contrast to the notoriously depressing show of 2014 for example, none of the subjects is actually dead, and there’s no one injecting heroin imperturbably into her neck…’
(I suppose we should be grateful for that.) There are photographs of famous people including photos of ex-formula one racing driver Mark Webber; Richard Morecroft (ex-news presenter for the ABC, now landscape photographer) and Alison Mackay (painter, photographer and artist)* ; and actor and musician Tom E Lewis.
There are images from urban and regional Australia, photos of age and youth, Aboriginal and migrant Australians, wealthy and homeless. There are also some photographs which I consider to be ‘making a point’ – an image of a fierce dark haired young man with a beard called ‘You look like a…Matthew’ by Cherine Fahd and Steve Wise’s image of a young man wearing an old style prosthesis Cameron and the Prosthetic Arm, the impact of the photo somewhat undone by the artist’s statement that the young man in the photo was not an amputee but was imagining ‘what it was like to not have his right arm.’
I really liked the dynamic environmental images such as: A Moment by Millie Brown in which a young Aboriginal boy wet from swimming frowns at the camera while standing waist deep in a rock pool; the exciting ‘Eva and Finn’ by Noah John Thompson a WA photographer in which the couple stand together in the fading light while behind them a huge plume of smoke rises into the air, she’s wearing a high cut swimsuit and he has his arm at her waist; and Return by Philip Myers, the portrait of Tom E Lewis pulling a boat to shore, the subject being the only dynamic element in a silent eternity of sea and sky.
My favourite was Renaissance Rose by John Benavente a south coast NSW photographer. This is a beautiful black and white photograph which shows a young woman in half light, her her face turned to the viewer, her clothing, hair and background all lost in darkness, her face and eyes and the modest curve of her neckline make a sharp line between light and darkness. You can see a blush of freckles and some acne on her cheeks and forehead but at her lips there’s a hint of a wry smile and her gaze is level and assured as she regards the camera and us.
Since the European renaissance, portraits provide both a likeness of the person and also show something of their character. Arguably that’s what makes them fascinating. If that’s still true today, the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is well-worth a visit. Particularly at a time when our Government is busy tightening the Australian citizenship test to give migrants to Australia “more time to integrate” and ensure they subscribe to what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull terms “uniquely Australian” values. In this exhibition we see youth and age, men and women, Anglo-European, African, Asian, we see wealth and poverty (and a few greyhounds), we see struggle and misery and exuberance and humour and we are reminded that it’s this rich variety that makes up contemporary Australia.
*This portrait won the judges prize