NPG: the camera never lies?

The new show at the National Portrait Gallery – the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize – is quite curiously fascinating. That it should be so is an achievement in itself. Under normal circumstances, we tend to care more about ‘portraits’ because of a connection with the sitter, whether family, friends, celebrities. A handful of holiday snaps would not have made the cut here though. These are special, chosen for their very particular capacity to convey an essence of the subject – through a subtle and indefinable blend of imagery, expression, context – down the lens and into the understanding of the viewer.

From over 6000 entries in this open competition, the judges whittled it down to around 50 that constitute the final exhibition, all remarkable for their seeming portrayal of ‘the individual’. These characters reach out from their glossy prisons, prompting the viewer to wonder who they are, and why?

Phrenology – the idea that you can relate a person’s character to the shape of their skull, or their facial features (a famous one, eyes too close together =  untrustworthy) has been widely discredited since its Victorian heyday – but evidently we still place some store in appearances. Often there is little else to go on. In an ever-changing urban environment, in the anonymity of populous cities, judgements are made in seconds, so it is by outward signals to the world that people distinguish themselves. And it is on a similar assumption that a collection of largely unknown subjects relies. But perhaps it is false.

There is always the frustrating niggling suspicion in an exhibition such as this that the message might be a cleverly manipulated lie. The images where there was a clear element of role-play were by far the least interesting. The winner, a paralympic swimmer at rest, was pleasing for the (lucky?) balance of composition, lighting, timing and expression, but she was probably captured looking more melancholy than she felt. As with books and covers, there is always more (and sometimes disappointingly less) than meets the eye. That is part of the fascination of photography – art masquerading as fact or the other way round? And how to tell the difference?

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