Photography and Portraits – National Photographic Portrait Prize and Ghoti 15

By Peter Maddern

The annual National Portrait Gallery’s Photographic Prize’s finalists are on display at the Flinders Uni Art Museum in the State Library til 17th February. Not sure how often this exhibition comes to Adelaide, this is the first I can remember, but the exhibition should be considered a must for all those keen on the genre.

Given the range of portraits on display, the contest itself, as well as the exhibition, raises issues about what constitutes a good or great portrait. At one end are those images that may be seen to be notable for the access afforded the photographer of their well-known subject. At the other, are pictures of somewhat anonymous folk, often children, just going about their lives. Is it the composition of the image, the moment captured or just the photo’s arresting impact on the viewer?

There is, of course, no real reason why it can’t be all of these things but despite the claims of the organisers that there are no fixed criteria about short list selection each year seems to produce a very similar dispersal of images across the various types. However, what cannot be assessed in such an exhibition is the uniqueness of an image of a subject in the context of the whole of the images taken then (for example the moment the guard is let down and a real insight is captured) or of a more extended subject matter. It is perhaps for this reason that most if not all of this year’s finalists have a very clear sense of composed structure to them rather than spontaneity.

This year’s winner is Rod McNicol’s image of Jack Charles, a man possessed of a ‘colourful life’. It is certainly a wonderful composition with an almost grey tone about it, with Jack’s ensign white vest highlighting his explosion of white hair against a dark grey background. He is also wearing a thinly hooped blue and white skivvy that also picks up the faint horizontal lines of the rear wall.

Also of note in the composition end of the scale are Dr Hassan Rahim in Andrew Campbell’s The Chess Player; a study of study as he contemplates a chess board with reminders of those dark days fleeing Idi Amin’s Uganda behind him, and Peter West’s Tami, a brilliant surge of reds, the subject’s Tami Jakobson’s favourite colour we are told, with lots of diagonals playing themselves across the image.

On the access front, Jeffrey Smart in his Tuscany sun room (by David Tacon) and Margaret Olley in her Paddington Studio by John McRae are important historical images. The former had just put away the paints and easels for the last time and the latter shortly after her image was taken entered the great studio in the sky. Both present expressions of pride while acknowledging their frail states. Both also sit forward in the composition with the photographer ensuring there are pronounced depths beyond alluding to their creative lives well lived behind them.

George Mifsud’s Emmanuel at bedtime (see image above – portion) is the best of the kids’ images with the composition reminding strongly of a Rembrandt painting while Dale Neill’s Farewell my son appears to be the strongest in the decisive moment category.

Adelaide photographer Alex Frayne also delivers an excellent black and white capture of a 70 year old diver on the Glenelg jetty, surrounded by those of the generation who normally indulge in such antics.

Elsewhere, at the Light Gallery, is Ghoti 15 (pronounced Fish 15), the bi-annual exhibition of students of the Centre of Creative Photography. This exhibition includes much more than just portraits and it is perhaps, if nothing else, interesting to see what captures the imagination of the current students of the CCP. One thing of note is the trend to attempt to produce images as if they were made from lesser technology of days long gone by.

Lauren Brauer’s Cassette Photo-gram (pictured nearby) is the best of the exhibition with nine old music cassettes captured as if by an x-ray light. Elysha Glaser does a nice capture of the Mortlock Wing at the Library – old school library walls now making a comeback in our photographic consciousness as their utility in the modern world declines. Tim Allan’s Tate Modern is a tribute to patience, capturing brilliant light and shadows on two patrons as they walk away in the great hall that greets patrons at London’s Tate Modern. Just how he was so fortunate to get an image with just two people in it there is a mystery given usual attendances but well done to Tim for it and his working of it.

On the portrait side and in somewhat of a contrast to the razzamatazz of the National Portrait Prize are two images by Heidi Johns. One, Look me in the eye is of a shirtless teenage boy, cross legged looking at us in a very symmetrical composition. The other is Riley, a younger girl with freckles set off to the right of centre of the photo. Both, in their simple style, black and white without much other post production, draw your gaze in and the subjects give you an insight into their mix of innocence and worldliness even at their young age.

Do try to visit before the exhibition closes on 25th January. The Light Gallery is located on Richmond Rd.

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  1. […] The Ghoti series of exhibitions are about the work of the students of the Centre for Contemporary Photography and comes around each six months. There was much to like in #15 last Christmas as we reported at Ghoti 15 Review […]

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