National Photographic Portrait Prize 2018

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Currently on display at the Glasshouse Regional Gallery is the National Photographic Portrait Prize 2018 … The Prize is an annual exhibition organised by the National Portrait Gallery that aims to showcase the wonderful skills of both aspiring and professional photographers.

Senior Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, Dr Christopher Chapman explains the exhibition in more detail …

Hi Chris. What does your role as a senior curator at the National Portrait Gallery involve?

My team looks after the portraits that come into the gallery’s collection; we plan the displays and exhibitions. It’s a great job, because we are telling stories about people.

Please fill us in on a little of the history behind the National Photographic Portrait Prize … when and how was it established?

The NPPP has been running for 12 years now. It was set up to celebrate portrait photography – which is the main form of portraiture of our time. Everyone is able to take portrait photos! We are surrounded by photographs of people!

What’s the aim behind the Prize – what is it hoped both contributing photographers and the general public will gain from being a part of of the process?

The NPPP is our most popular exhibition, because audiences can relate to the diverse stories it tells. It is a great opportunity for aspiring and professional photographers to have their work seen across Australia. Every year the exhibition includes portraits of people from all walks of life, from children to older people; it reminds us of our own experiences, memories and emotions. These are things we all share!

I believe there were 3,224 entries submitted for the Prize in 2018 – of which 43 were selected to form the travelling exhibition. How were entries judged – what was the criteria?

Every year the NPPP is judged by a panel comprising an NPG curator and two invited guest judges, who are leading photographers and/or curators. 

We view the entries as digital images and on the first pass, our shortlist usually comes down from thousands to 400 or 500. Then we get together and view the images on a large screen, and over a couple of days the selection is honed down even more. Once it gets to about 150, the job gets really difficult! There is lots of discussion. We each bring our own informed view to bear and must defend our choices. 

My fellow judges were Robert Cook, a curator from the Art Gallery of Western Australia, and the artist Petrina Hicks. Right down to the finish we talked about why we thought each photograph deserved to be in the exhibition.

The winner of the National Photographic Portrait Prize 2018 was a photo by Lee Grant, titled Charlie. What can you tell us about both this portrait and the artist who submitted the entry?

The final winner is chosen when all of the finalist photographs have been printed, framed and delivered to the gallery, so that the judges can look at them in the flesh. All the way through the process, we felt that Lee Grant’s portrait of Charlie was a compelling photograph. It is stripped back. It shows someone whose life experience has been precarious. It’s a raw and tender image. 

The photographer Lee Grant has made a lot of portrait photographs; she is interested in different communities and the individuals that make up those communities.

What were some of the surprises or “eye openers” for you regarding the entries selected for this exhibition?

Sometimes particular topics seem to emerge across the selected photographs. We don’t select the exhibition with any particular overriding theme in mind. We did notice this year that there was a strong sense of cultural diversity as something completely normal to Australianness. Also, we noted some photos of men, by women, in watery environments …

Given the Prize is now around for its 12th year, in what ways do you think photographers can continue to push the boundaries/explore what’s possible with portraiture in future?

Even though we are very familiar with photographs of each other, a compelling portrait photograph is not so common. There’s no formula for creating the perfect photo, but I think that a successful portrait brings together two aspects: a sense of aesthetic integrity – how is the photo composed? That can be balanced, or deliberately off kilter. How is the depth of field set? The cropping? 

Then there is the conveyance of a strong feeling of inner life of the subject. Can we really feel by looking at the photo that we are looking at someone who is being their true self? Can we recognise something familiar and feel empathy for them? When these elements come together, a portrait photo can be powerful.

Where can we find out further info about the National Photographic Art Prize?  

You can check out all the finalists on the NPG website, from 2007 to now:

Thanks Chris.

Interview: Jo Robinson.

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