Everybody, look serious

For three affable and effervescent people, the judges picked a dour group of portraits for exhibition in this year’s National Photographic Portrait Prize. There are seated subjects, standing subjects, subjects pictured from behind, eyes open, eyes closed, clothed, naked. But there isn’t a tooth to be seen. Nary a smile that goes beyond the wry; only the merest upturn of the lip, the faintest of sparks in the eye. It wasn’t that the judges were especially biased against the happy snap. Of 1,400 photographs submitted to the National Photographic Portrait Prize for 2014, fewer than thirty showed a broadly smiling subject. Of those, several grinned bravely through severe disabilities or illness; several were babies; several were very old; three were joyously chubby; two were life-coaching yogis; one was a nun; and one was a Tibetan.

On account of all the muscles involved, the smile is notoriously difficult to represent in paint, and people’s teeth used to be atrocious into the bargain – two reasons why subjects in the world’s favourite painted portraits sport a grave face or ‘Mona Lisa’ smirk (where the lips turn up, but the eyes remain uncrinkled). Early photographs required very long exposure times; portrait sitters were invariably pictured with expressionless faces, because they were the only ones they could maintain. No matter what cameras can do now, our idea of a profound portrait is caught in the twin strands of this tradition of gravitas. Anyway, the smile is a transitory phenomenon; its delightfulness rests in its sudden appearance, and its inevitable dissipation, so a photograph of a smiling face will always outlast the viewer’s capacity to be elated by it. Ambitious entrants in a portrait competition will usually take the classical path, hoping that they can persuade judges and viewers that they have conjured something that the sitter usually keeps to himself or herself; an ‘essence’, no less; the kind of thing the great portrait painters are renowned for. Although the subject looks a little tense, Gary Grealey’s Megan recalls Vermeer’s Lacemaker in its quietude, its negative space, the demure loops of the centre-parted hairline of the sitter. Adalita Srsen, in Anita Beaney’s portrait, wears an expression of hauteur that wouldn’t be out of place in a painting by Sargent. Daniel Bornstein may be a sooty-footed student in real life, but in Astrid Piepschyk’s tiny tintype he exudes the superb arrogance of Van Dyck’s cavaliers.

Let’s state at the outset that in every National Photographic Portrait Prize there are many tattoos, many breasts, and several chests where once breasts were. These persistent themes converged impactfully this year in the portrait of Judy, posed among her artworks and crucifixes, beside a flat-chested, cowled holy figure and a sculpture akin to the ample little Woman of Willendorf. Judy’s marvellous tattoos are shockingly, and liberatingly, displayed. The terrible reality of her double mastectomy is there before us; but so is a woman of maturity, audaciously topless, her virtue guarded by dragons. In his photograph Thirty-three weeks, David Roberts imbues Karina with a quality of monumentality. Mighty as a Maillol sculpture, she is a woman sunk in breeding, incubating, the hard planes of cheekbones, jaw, chin and collarbones blooming into the soft illuminated flesh of breasts and belly. Roberts’s black-and-white Karina is a Madonna without a skerrick of playfulness, made with his customary serious photographic apparatus of bellows, tripod, darkcloth and film. By contrast, Fiona Wolf-Symeonides’s Crowned Madonna with kids, a visual discourse on the competing demands on the modern mother, is the exhibition’s only flagrantly set-up image. Its subject poses crowned, naked but for a man’s shirt and modesty-preserving baby in the back yard of an inner-city terrace house. A potted camellia, a security grille, neutral interior blinds and a mid-century modern chair (the ‘throne’) are clues to a relatively affluent household. The house, like its owners, is passing through its years of upheaval; festooned with environmentally-responsible nappies and tiny items of washing, its leaf litter is unswept, and toys, no doubt, are strewn throughout the living areas. The fabric backdrop against which the mother poses is grimy. Yet her crown is beautifully crafted; her legs are long and unblemished; she is clearly a triumphant breast-feeder; her daughter, in a white lawn frock, is as pretty as a fairy. She is evidently coping well enough with her responsibilities to find time to depilate, don crown and pose for a feminist statement. Purporting to expose unrealistic expectations of the materfamilias, the image is complicated by the apparent privileges of the sitter herself – she has certainly been favoured by nature, at the very least. Ferne Millen depicts Raphael protecting and attending to his children, gathering them into his embrace; the boy clings, affectingly, to his father’s finger and thumb. But the family doesn’t appear to be prospering financially. It’s unclear whether they’re just coming into this shabby room, or just heading out. We hesitate over the question of whether this is Raphael’s painting studio, or his home; over whether he wears the Hawaiian shirt ironically, or whether it has come, of necessity, from the same op-shop as his daughter’s spotted dress. The paint tube his daughter brandishes suggests that his art practice is disrupted by his children’s visits (are they visiting or do they live there all the time? where?). Raphael meets Millen’s camera with steadfast gaze. He is a rock, a point of stillness; but there’s a kind of arbitrariness or temporariness about the image that gives rise to unease.

There were fewer portraits of appealing youngsters amongst this year’s entries than we’ve seen in preceding years. The cutest photograph chosen for exhibition is that of Arlo and Lief Dampney with chicken pox. The big-eyed baby is unfazed by the straining grasp of his not-much-bigger-brother; but their father, the photographer, writes that he and his partner were ‘at their wits’ end’ during the period in which he took the shot. A number of entries alluded to the weary exasperation of contemporary parents, as well as the technological preoccupations of their children. An image of family life by Justin Spaull presents technology at its most seductively helpful: Spaull’s baby Eva, comfortably set up with furry toy and two dummies, stares at a portable screen while her mother slumbers beside her, and her father prepares to go to work. Those of us in our fifties sat glued to F Troop while our mothers grilled chops for dinner, and those of us who had children in the nineties made liberal use of the video machine. Hannah Spaull is no more neglectful than the rest of us parents, but she happens to have been photographed asleep on the job. Notwithstanding that Spaull describes this as a personal photograph, it’s been entered for a competition, it’s made it through a stiff field, and it’s up for scrutiny. The aerial perspective on the bed puts the viewer in the position of a household angel or judgemental God. Thus, our response: Get up, Mummy!

Every competition attracts its share of portraits that stretch the definition: there were several, this year, of dogs; one of a whale; and several, as usual, with the human face obscured (by bread dough, veils of nylon, facepaint, bandages, masks, blankets, a basin). Cleverly, if pointlessly, one man photographed his own reflection in the water of a lavatory bowl. Several people wore ghillie suits; the handsome and likeable artist Ben Quilty retained his spray-painting mask and grasped his crotch for Nicholas Walker’s aggressive tableau. Two portraits-from-behind were chosen for exhibition. Michael Bowers’s shows the distinctive head and shoulders of the current prime minister against a blenched sky. Andrew Lance’s is a distant self portrait, fascinating because of the contrast between the stillness of the subject – posed centrally between the majestically symmetrical elements of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge – and the procedure of the shot itself. To create the image, Lance had to set up his camera on a slight rise, scramble around it to his pinpointed position on the paving stones along the lake’s edge before the shutter opened, and stay perfectly still, feigning fixation on the spectacle, because of the long exposure he needed to capture the lights on the far side of the water. The photograph is a miracle of severe detail; the ‘slung’ placement of Lance’s bag relieves its compositional rigour. Another architectural portrait, by Tamara Dean, shows the English author Neil Gaiman in a windy city corner against a massive concrete building with few and tiny windows. Not everyone has a profile that could stand up to such treatment; but Gaiman has.

Chaotic, cluttered, degraded or dingy rooms far outnumbered minimalist interiors amongst the photographs submitted. In Donna Stevens’s shot of Jean Beanham in her motorcycle spare parts shop, the environment teems with objects, but organisation prevails; one’s eyes rove joyfully over Mrs Beanham’s merchandise, and the arthritic hands that have put it in place. Adam Knott’s photograph Paddy Ellis – Lightning Ridge opal miner is even more fascinating; but this is guilty fascination, on the part of a middle-class voyeur steeped in the ideology that neatness is the outward expression of, well, some moral attribute. Knott states that his ‘goal was to show the exhaustion and frustration that Paddy has suffered in the opal fields for most of his life’, and it’s certainly harrowing to imagine Paddy’s daily alternation between this household ruin and the barrenly addictive environment of the opal grounds. Molly Harris states that in photographing Adelaide street walkers she has ‘simply documented what they do, as they do it’. Harris’s photograph of an addict with a needle in her neck and an inexpressibly wild look in her eyes is so successfully objective that we feel she’s not just living a different lifestyle from us, but inhabiting another atmosphere. We don’t feel sorry for her, hate her, despise her, rebuke her – she’s neither young enough, nor old enough, for us to feel protective of her. Those of us who’ve had circumstance, upbringing, ambition and sheer luck on our side might feel, however sheepishly, that the woman whom Harris presents to us has nothing to do with us at all. We’re grateful to leave her under the watch of the likes of Daniel Arnaldi’s portrait subject St John Ambulance volunteer Danny, whose face is exactly the one we’d wish to see through flickering lids in a crisis of our own.

An equivocal image – of despair or resilience, it’s hard to say – is David Apostol’s sparse self portrait at the oven, chosen as much for its beautiful colour and rigorous composition as for its intriguing narrative. Even if it seems to show nothing more than an ordinary man guarding against burning his dinner, the elements of stubbly beard, smoke haze and cabinet grime combine to make it the coolest photograph selected for exhibition. The artist’s statement, however, tells us that the work is from a series of photographs titled Enantiodromia. With the suggestion that the picture draws on the subject’s experience of depression, the oven instantly assumes a darker potential. That said, if the man had turned on the gas, would he be smoking and taking a photograph of himself? And isn’t that an electric oven anyway? Is it a dark joke, then? An existential artwork in the grand masculine tradition; a gruff low bark of gallows humour? The greenish-grey kitchen drawers tone with the drab rectangle of the blind; the curves of Apostol’s warm body and the side of the frypan afford the only relief from the picture’s hard lines. Its palette is close to that of Stuart Spence’s austere yet soft portrait of Peter O’Doherty, which, it’s worth noting, was neither taken nor manipulated with a special filter or app. Spence, a professional photographer, took the ‘snap’, as he describes it, in corner of a bowling club, where the subject was illuminated by an exit sign.

Photographers wrestle daily with capturing something of the reality of the portrait interface in the first place; of conveying what it was like for them to be with that person, in that space, at that time. Further, and increasingly, once they’re alone with their caches of images, they have to make a call on the capacity of post-photographic processes to falsify the initial outcomes. What if it’s possible to make a portrait speak more persuasively through subtle manipulation? Dean Beletich’s ethereally gentle portrait of his nephew Ties van Kempen confounds us; it could have been taken in 1968, a black-and-white still from the set of Skippy. The photographer implies that it’s a straight-up ‘test shot’, the result of no agenda: it just happened. All that’s messing with our heads, then, is Ties’s layered-over-the-ears haircut and spray of freckles. Sonia Macak’s Our dog Maxie, though, is calculatedly mind-bending. Macak photographed her own sons and dog using an archaic process in which a light-sensitive emulsion is spread over a palm-sized piece of metal by tilting it back and forth until an even coverage is achieved. The result could be a photograph of urchins on the goldfields in 1853, but for the modern broom and plastic trough. (The boys clearly cooperated with their mum, remaining gravely composed for the lengthy exposure; Maxie, only a shaggy spectre in the finished tintype image, must have moved.) Jennifer Voudiotis’s portrait of circus performer Andrew Elliott piles trick upon trick. The portrait suggests that Elliott’s circus is a modish steampunk kind of one; he himself has been playing with eyeliner for the first time; and the photograph was taken with an iPhone and an app such as Koloid or Tintype (‘Hipstamatic has released a Tintype Snap Pak that takes the retro mobilography fad to a new level of old school’, reported Connect: Digital Photograph Review in late 2012). The only ‘mobilograph’ chosen for exhibition – from countless entries – it succeeds because the medium and the subject are just as ‘now’ – and just as beguilingly fake – as each other.

If you’re an expert photographer – as one of the judges of the National Photographic Portrait Prize for 2014 is – it’s easy to see when an image has been worked-over. In general, all three judges disdained new-fangled effects. Early-middle to late-middle-aged, we’ve each tried every avenue to a flattering selfie; but we chose very few digitally desaturated, grittyised, hard-lit, eye-colour-enhanced, vintaged, solarised, indie-movie effect or tone-reversed pictures for exhibition. Whatever the authentic self may be – a question that remains of great interest to photographers, if not philosophers – it’s probably best-represented unmediated. Tamika Morrison states that she took her uncompromising photograph of Jeannette in response to the film industry’s focus on ‘beauty and body image’ instead of talent. Looking at Empowerment, we wonder why Jeannette has stripped in the cold morning air. No one forced her to stand naked on a jetty; yet the painful-looking tension of her neck, collarbones and right arm suggest that she’s resolved to expose her small body against every instinct. In a related kind of contradiction, her soft lips and doe eyes contrast with the hard, poking frame of her skeleton. Speaking of contrasts, what do we understand of Fatima from Andrew Tsangarides’s portrait of her in a purple dress? The photographer states that she is a vulnerable teen; she looks pugnacious, but there is misgiving in her fine eyes; we suspect that having had little chance or encouragement to express her insecurities, she’s developed a shell. Yet it’s only conditioning and sentimental fancy that makes us believe that by looking at the surface of a photograph, we can see beyond a hard exterior to a subject’s ‘real’ insecure core. Physical appearance, bearing, aspect, expression, gesture – every cell, every exudation, every adornment and every utterance – add up to anyone’s self. Like mould, a person’s surface infiltrates her substance and permeates her essence; but a photograph is only surface.

Fatima looks sideways at the camera. So does Gemma Micallef, whose portrait cried out for inclusion on the grounds of the fabulous profusion of her hair – surely too heavy for that lily-stalk of a neck? Minika Peerboom, an elderly woman of substance, appraises the camera with feisty aplomb. Still on an angle, we catch a volatile glint in the eyes of Matt Maunder at Skenes Creek; gloating over every detail of Timothy Hillier’s portrait, we’re glad not to have booked the adjacent campsite on that particular weekend. Matthew Martin and Reg Mombassa (Chris O’Doherty) look away, as if Andrew Cowen and Steven Siewert asked them to; each of them looks a little wistful, a little fey. It’s surprising that if you want to evoke a ‘far-away look’, with all that that expression implies, you just have to ask your subject to actually look at the opposite skirting board and keep a straight face. (In Tamara Voninski’s photograph of cowboys Ambrose Dann and Terence Carter, neither looks at the camera, but Ambrose has a far-away look and Terence is looking at someone. This we know; but it would take some thought to explain how we know: how about you try it.)

An unspoken maxim of portrait photographers is that the straight-on stare is a sure-fire way to bypass someone’s social personae and present the ‘real’ – and it’s edgily confronting as well. A full-frontal, high-beam gaze is hard to turn on. Actors can do it, men seem to be able to do it more easily than women, and the actor John Waters does it well for George Fetting against a multi-textured backdrop of wood, concrete, dry weeds and stone. Waters adopts a look, and a costume, for a living. Atef doesn’t; he has lived in doubt and hiding as a refugee and asylum seeker. It’s all the more remarkable, then, that Alex Weltlinger was able to persuade him to look straight at the camera in his expensive velvet jacket and jeans. Anyone would think that Atef was the creative director for an advertising agency, or a partner in an architectural firm. And, of course, that’s the very simple point; recognition of our own routine of judgement brings us close to tears. Of Hardy Lohse’s image of Lah Wah there is nothing to say; the interesting thing is asking ourselves why. Somehow, he seems to be looking at the camera; while Benjamin Galli’s Michael Rees and the subject of Vittoria Dussoni’s Boy in cycling gear seem to be looking at the photographer (in Dussoni’s case, the subject’s mother). Perhaps it has to do with the readability of the pupils in the lighter eyes; in Rees’s case, perhaps it’s because we see a very slight frown of concentration or concern on his face. Ghassan and Mrwan are seemingly arrested in movement, their long limbs restless. They are, in fact, cabined, cribbed, confined; they wait out their time in relative comfort and security, no doubt, but it’s a dreary interval. In as different a situation as can be imagined from the exhibition’s other twins – elfin brainiacs Alex and Doug Dunn – the Iraqi twins embody the egregious waste that is under-occupation in one’s youthful prime.

A final category of works chosen for exhibition expresses something of our collective responsibility for young people. In a shot by Alan Hill and Kelly Hussy-Smith that’s uncannily, though surely unintentionally, reminiscent of a Bruce Weber photograph for Abercrombie & Fitch, Jacob and Zac face the camera for a quintessential portrait of fine, ardent boys in a small, hot town. There’s no formal or tonal resemblance, but it has something of the quality of the photographs taken of just such boys before they embarked for Egypt with the AIF. Peter Brew-Bevan’s glamorous War hero, Damien Thomlinson, wears a collarless long-sleeved top that recalls George Lambert’s in his self portrait as an official artist with the Light Horse. The setting is indeterminate; we assume that the rocks are in the desert, but wonder, on closer reading, if they may be near the beach. The photograph appears to be artificially lit, like an old British war movie; the handsome subject’s hair appears to be pomaded; on casual viewing, the prosthetic leg looks like a long black riding boot. As we focus and assimilate the details we can only wish that Thomlinson’s injuries – bravely borne as they are – were as staged as his portrait. Inevitably, upon turning to Nikki Toole’s photograph of Jake Toohey, the first thing we notice is Toohey’s whole, precious legs – so much whiter than the pale flesh-coloured strapping on his knee that his calves appear to have been powdered. Toohey is playing in his final under-19 AFL season; he may, in fact, be a ferocious participant in a hectic game, but in Toole’s photograph – characteristic of her oeuvre – the beautiful youth looks whacked already. Sarah Rhodes’s colour-saturated photograph of Sophie Loane is the exhibition’s ultimate evocation of fragility. Poring over this image, we wonder why we’re a little disturbed by it (telling ourselves that our confusion has nothing to do with the Henson affair). It is an intimate setting, but most young girls make their bedrooms their bases, and conduct their quotidian affairs from their beds. Sophie is fully clothed; she could go straight to the mall. In fact, it may not be her coltish form that makes responsible adults wince, but its combination with the other elements of Rhodes’s image. Sophie has some paraphernalia of the female tweeny: an iPad, a fanzine, a ziplock bag of nailpolish, a pillowcase with pink polka dots. Yet the surface on which she kneels is at odds with its scattered tokens of contemporary femininity. The blanket looks forty years old; the brown blooms on the mattress aren’t stains, but they suggest them. In real life, a clean sheet with hospital corners is called-for here, yet in the photograph, the disjunctive elements make for the art. Rhodes’s image goes to show how difficult it is, when evaluating portraits, for judges to be judgemental in the right way.

It might be argued that by including the photograph of Sophie, we exploit her dark florescence and expose it to monstrous imaginings of the heartless and perverse. Alternatively, its inclusion might be seen to assert the right of all the world’s young girls to be seen and to be acknowledged as individuals. Some of us don’t want to be looked at, but we all want to be seen: not just the beautiful, but addicts, the maimed, the old, the suicidal and the homeless. The economist Adam Smith wrote in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that to be ‘observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages which we can propose to derive’ from the advancement of position to which most of us aspire. Looking at other people is our means to assess our own position in the social matrix; we don’t know who we are until we look at others, and others look back at us. What we look like, ourselves, is the fundamental mystery we carry through life. Photographers will always have portrait subjects, then. Probably those lucky individuals amongst us who claim to have found a soulmate have simply found a person who will look them steadfastly in the eyes. The rest of us can look hard at portraits and make up stories for as long as we like.

Sarah Engledow, Curator, National Portrait Gallery and judge National Photographic Portrait Prize 2014