With fellow judges Andrew Sayers, Director of the National Portrait Gallery and Sarah Miller, Head of the School of Music and Drama at the University of Wollongong; I selected a short list of 56 portrait photographs from over 1,000 entries. Each entry was judged solely on its merits as a compelling portrait photograph. As judges we had no predetermined ideas about particular themes, or preferences for styles or subjects.
When the short-listed works arrived at the Gallery we met again as judges and carefully considered each portrait.
We selected Ingvar Kenne’s photographic portrait of his sons Cormac and Callum as the prize-winning work for 2009. The photograph depicts two boys standing beside an indoor spa pool. The atmospheric qualities of the interior space are powerfully conveyed. We were impressed by the potent connection that is evoked between the subjects in the photograph and the viewer. The portrait is powerfully direct. We also appreciated the complex compositional qualities and sculptural sense of space within the photograph, and its technical excellence.
We singled out Gary Grealy’s photographic portrait of Sydney art gallery directors Frank Watters and Geoffrey Legge for special mention as a highly commended work. We felt that Grealy’s portrait of long-time colleagues Frank Watters and Geoffrey Legge was a close runner-up to the winner. The portrait invites the viewer to enter into the empathy between the two portrait subjects – the two faces are similar yet subtly different. The photograph’s strong classical composition and technical distinction are highly impressive.
The portrait photographs selected for the National Photograph Portrait Prize 2009 exhibition are characterised by a heightened sense of drama. The exhibition is pervaded by psychological intensity. Ian Darling’s portrait of adventurer Jon Muir, photographed at dusk on the salt-lake Amadeus near Uluru, shows a man electrically charged by his environment. And prepare to be confronted by Sam Ruttyn’s before-and-after portrait of the bruised and beaten cage fighter Brian Ebersole.
Several of the photographs of individuals have an introspective tone. Brooding or contemplative, photographers’ subjects appear against a dense black background. Isolated, pensive or thoughtful, these portraits capture something of the sitters’ intensity. When they meet our own gaze, their look is unwavering, even defiant.
A group of images place their subjects in the landscape, but it is at twilight or evening. Nature is stilled; the human presence within the landscape is not antagonistic. It is concentrated by the drama of the natural environment. There is a sense of heightened naturalism to many of the portraits. Some photographers have used technology to enhance their images, or to add a surrealist edge, but the effect is seamless and subtle. Some of the photographs have a cinematic atmosphere. They convey a sense of enveloping space, and also suggest that the image might form part of a larger narrative. Where many of the head-shot portraits suggest intensity, the cinematic portraits seem to contain arrested energy, and are suspenseful.
This year there are a group of photographic portraits that present individuals and groups in interior rooms. The objects in interiors play a symbolic role: Quentin Jones’s portrait of poet Robert Gray includes two small framed photographs on a sideboard that hint at the passing of time; Heide Smith’s portrait of Larry Sitsky shows the composer surrounded by books and musical scores as if he is a wizard in a magical grotto; and Kevin Best’s self portrait in the manner of the Dutch Golden Age updates references to 17th century plague to 21st century global warming.
Kevin Miller’s beautifully composed image of his son Henderson was taken in the house of a recently deceased family friend and captures the boy’s elusive reflection in a window, and David Wills’ self portrait reflected in a street puddle at twilight suggests the mutability of being.
Finally, this year’s exhibition vividly portrays the intensities of youth. Petrina Hicks’s portrait, simply titled The boy, is cool and controlled. Chris Budgeon’s portrait of young girl Ruby is wintry and brooding. And Nikki Toole’s portrait of young man Daniel is vulnerable and defiant.
Many of the photographic portraits in the exhibition reward considered viewing, especially the prize-winning work.
Christopher Chapman, Senior Curator, National Portrait Gallery and judge National Photographic Portrait Prize 2009