There you are

What would contemporary photographic portraiture look like if teenagers just said no to portraits? If they refused to pose in attitudes of alienation or contemplation? If they laughed as the shot were taken? What if it were established beyond dispute that taking photographs of yourself in sickness, or in various costumes and personae, will neither help you to come to terms with your illness, nor to know yourself any better? We would be left with photographs of contented individuals with their cats and dogs.

There is nothing that humans can see that is beyond the decisive finger, and subsequent digital revision, of the rudimentarily-equipped photographer. Each of the Gallery’s National Photographic Portrait Prizes has attracted numerous images depicting dementia sufferers, intellectually disabled, grieving, blind, maimed and sick persons. This year, there were at least two deceased subjects. Every competition has its images of bondage, of self-mutilation, of perversity. It is as audacious as ever it was, without doubt, for an individual to face the camera, valiantly baring the reality of a mastectomy or some other scar of survival against odds. These sitters are to be saluted. Yet such sober images are a staple of photographic competitions. Photographs that appear to put pressure on boundaries are now amongst the most clichéd. Often, such works are made in a worthy attempt to counter images of perfection in advertising (although advertising is never far from appropriating that which seeks to subvert it). Some years are propitious for shocking entries. An institution worried it is perceived as conservative can display them as an easy claim to hipness, or a bid for the coveted ‘new demographic’ amongst visitors. This year, as it happened, few deliberately confronting works were chosen.

Many entrants in this year’s prize took photographs incorporating masks, implying that a series of assumed identities is all we offer the world. The idea that we all comprise multiple selves, too, has a very long history (though like many truisms, it has often been poetically expressed). We have all seen many images representing apparently contradictory aspects of selfhood, and purporting to interrogate gender roles or subvert conventions of masculine and feminine identity. A photograph in this genre won the National Youth Self Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in 2010. But only a handful of works concerned with ‘notions’ of identity made it to the wall in this competition. One was truly confounding; one was funny; one was beautifully, complexly executed; one was teamed with an unusually cogent artist’s statement.

Photographs have always offered great scope for play, and never more than now. Yet photographs are also uniquely capable of affirming and confirming: here is the human being, real and proudly present in his or her turn on this earth. For every pair of tricked-up images representing the performative aspects of human life, there was one that reminded us that no human moment or situation is too real or distressing to photograph. There is absolutely no sham in the couple willing breath into their lifeless baby, his waxy flesh creased in his mother’s desperate hold; the old man stroking the papery, emaciated face of his insensible wife. In these almost unbearable images the contested self is forgotten, irrelevant compared to one person’s love and hope for another. Here, truth is not relative; being is no construct.

There is a branch of contemporary art photography that is characterised by banal, apparently uncomposed and unpremeditated shots, typically exhibited in series. Laid out in considered array in a contemporary art museum, or a gallery of conceptual photography, these often-ugly, often-clumsy works can arrest the viewer in a way that can only mean they’re art (not, though they may look like it, polaroids taken at a teenagers’ sleepover, say). In photography – as in humour, or seduction – the combination of intention and context play crucial parts in reception. Scrutinised as isolated specimens out of their natural habitat, as some were by the judges of the National Photographic Portrait Prize, such photographs can not only look absurdly amateurish – as they’re supposed to – but neither cause any consternation, nor achieve any subversive effect. In this case several established contemporary photographic practitioners did not make the exhibition. That is matter of indifference for judges unfamiliar with their body of work; but it makes for palpable struggle on the part of the judges who have appreciated their work for some time.

As different as we four are, we judges – National Portrait Gallery curators Dr Sarah Engledow and Dr Christopher Chapman, Director of Adelaide’s Experimental Art Foundation, Dr Domenico de Clario, and National Portrait Gallery Director Louise Doyle – are human, with our own histories and involuntary reactions. We cannot select the best fifty-five of 1,200 photographs by applying a set of independent measures. We cannot even guarantee that the fifty-five we pick are the best; indeed, some photographs were included because they simply made all the judges feel happy. No entrant was advised that their photograph was one of the four hundred classified as ‘maybes’, or that when sixty remained, theirs was one of the five that still had to go. Many who submitted ‘rejected’ photographs are left with a great picture of their child, their parent, their holiday, themselves. Photographs play a strong part in shaping histories from the personal to the national level and a good photograph is a treasure that outlasts any show.

Sarah Engledow, Curator, National Portrait Gallery and judge National Photographic Portrait Prize 2011