National Photographic Portrait Prize 2020

christian thompson

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra – until May 10 2020
and regional galleries to follow*

Earlier this year I took a course on large format photography and, because I was late, I was volunteered as model for a portrait photograph to be taken with a huge sixty-year old 8 x 10 inch camera. So, there I stood against a sunlit wall while this enormous camera was inched in and out, framing and exposure checked and students ducked under the dark cloth to peer at my image on the ground glass. Finally, when everything was set I had to remain still – relaxed, unblinking, not scratching that irresistible itch – for five whole seconds while the shutter was open and the huge sheet of film was exposed. It was a collaborative effort: photographer, the camera and me.

Collaboration is one of the themes in this exhibition of amateur and professional portraiture. Of the 48 shortlisted portraits on display from both professional and amateur photographers the variety is striking: families, brothers, children, celebrities and ordinary people; people in cities and people living in deserts; a fire-fighter engulfed in flames; a Prime Minister sitting alone during a vote to allow refugees with medical emergencies to be treated in Australia; an elderly father looking out a window contemplating his daughter’s departure perhaps for the last time; a chef with a blade embracing a huge dolphin fish. Each image — some subtly some less so — tells a story.


Dad, Aged 73, 2019, Natalie Finney

One favourite is ‘Writing on the Wall’ (top) by Aboriginal artist Dr Christian Thompson. Continuing his exploration of flowers as symbols of landscape and identity, in this self-portrait the artist is behind a wall of Australian flora but for his eyes and a pair of hands dropping bright yellow wattle flowers into (inexplicably) another pair of hands. He explains: ‘Utilising my signature botanical elements, I disappear into the constellation of flowers – beautiful, regenerative and ephemeral.’

matilda houseMatilda, Brenda L. Croft

A second favourite is a close-up tintype portrait of Auntie Matilda House an elder of the Ngunnawal Ngambri people from the land around modern Canberra by photographer Brenda L. Croft.

A tintype is a large format photograph made by creating a direct positive on a thin sheet of metal coated with a dark lacquer or enamel. Tintypes were widely used during the 1860s and 1870s and were popular because of the fidelity of the image and ease of development. The tintype gives great depth and lustre to the image and here the subject is strong, staunchly defiant and at the same time compassionate. Using this antique process also references photography’s associations with colonialism, dispossession and the oppression of first nations peoples.

I have to say, visiting the gallery yesterday was a sad experience: from the distancing welcome at the counter to the odd dance in the gallery itself,  being entranced by the wonderful images while keeping one eye on the other visitors and their proximity. Sadly, I expect the gallery like many cultural institutions world-wide will be closing soon. Nonetheless, if you’re in Canberra and it’s still open – it’s well worth a look, and if not, the website provides a taste of the variety of photographic portraiture – an art-form that’s as vibrant and exciting today as ever.

All images National Portrait Gallery of Australia.

And here’s something slow and beautiful for all those large format photographers out there – by Slowness by Calexico

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