The more things change…

Trevor Jamieson by Brett Canet-GibsonThe handsome West Australian actor Trevor Jamieson has one of the best beards in Australia. We judges of the National Photographic Portrait Prize for 2017 are in a position to declare it, because looking through the thousands of photographs submitted this year we saw beards aplenty. By the end of the process, a hairless countenance looked a little odd – squidlike, somehow.

Custom dictates that three people judge each year’s National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP): two from the National Portrait Gallery and one from outside. The internal arbiters this year were curatorial staff Sarah Engledow and Joanna Gilmour. The external judge was professional photographer George Fetting, who has six photographs in the permanent collection of the Gallery and has been a finalist in the NPPP several times – including its first year, 2007. This year, for the first time in the ten-year history of the Prize, the judges selected two works by each of three photographers: Charlie White from Canberra, Brett Canet-Gibson from Perth and Peter McConchie from Victoria. White and Canet- Gibson have both been finalists before, but McConchie had never entered a photograph until this year, when he submitted a few shots at his wife’s urging. It was difficult to decide which of Tristan Still’s entries to pick, to name just one photographer who submitted several very strong images; similarly, the judges argued for some time over Alana Homberg’s entries before settling on one. More than a dozen of this year’s finalists have all made the final cut before. It was a matter of note, however, that many photographers whose works have been selected for previous exhibitions entered images that were not amongst this year’s final forty-nine.

During the judging process, themes emerge that turn into running jokes as the hours wear on. Every year has its character. In the early years of the prize there were many photographs of tattooed people, for example, but now there are so many tattooed people that photographers have no reason to seek them out. Similarly, in early years the judges were routinely startled by images of people in bondage gear, or people wearing clothes customarily adopted by a person of another gender. Now, crossdressing is much more mainstream, more and more people identify as intersex and either people can’t be bothered getting trussed and tied up, or no one happens to have a camera handy when they are. Mercifully, as time goes on fewer photographers try puckishly to ‘push the boundaries’ of what portraits are; by now entrants realise, presumably, that most portraits in which a person’s face can’t be seen are more boring than thought-provoking.

Hereinbefore by Laura MooreThis year, we noticed quite a few photographs with levitating elements, either people or objects. There were more people than usual photographed under water, with and without clothes. The numerous women in hijabs tended to look happy, but otherwise there were quite a few crying women – spurred, perhaps, by Kate Murphy’s video installation at the National Portrait Gallery in 2009, and Laura Moore’s triumphant video piece Hereinbefore in 2012. If the photographs submitted are anything to go by, people from rural Australia are dressing more and more uniformly in blue shirts and Akubras. A significant-seeming proportion of the young women pictured wore septum jewellery. There were many lavishly-costumed New Guineans, Africans, Tibetans and Southeast Asians; quite a few homeless people; not many cats or dogs; fewer breasts, perhaps, than in previous years but more penises and testicles, mainly soft old ones. As usual, there were many photographs of people attached to life-supporting machines, people with injuries, disabilities, wounds, scars, physical deviations and irregularities; from this broad category it was Brian Cassey’s quiet representation of Carol Mayer that was selected this year. Overall, the photographs selected don’t comprise a particularly upbeat exhibition. However, in contrast to the notoriously depressing show of 2014, for example, none of the subjects is actually dead, and there’s no one injecting heroin, imperturbably, into her neck. As usual, it pays to read the artists’ statements. Most years, a couple of them are nonsense, but some are fascinating, several are sad, and a few are funny.

The famous people whose portraits get entered are an interesting selection. Regular favourites with photographers, David Gulpilil, Jack Charles, Chris O’Doherty and Paul Kelly all materialised afresh this year. Other men, portraits of several of whom have been entered in previous competitions, included ‘Father Bob’ Maguire, Ben Quilty, Tim Winton, Jimmy Barnes, Michael Caton, Tom Carroll, Ernie Dingo, Daniel Ricciardo, Les Murray, Bryan Brown, John Howard, Graeme Murphy, Ken Done and Troy Cassar-Daley. In general – Quilty notwithstanding – craggy men are more sought-after by photographers than wondrously handsome ones. There were far fewer well-known women: they included the entertainer Kate Ceberano; the actors Leah Purcell, Yvonne Strahovski and Anne Louise Lambert; and Diana Doherty and Lerida Delbridge from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Well-known people whose photographs made it through to the final exhibition include television presenter Richard Morecroft and artist Alison Mackay, the couple looking rather Tudor although they’re not actually in costume; racing driver Mark Webber (photographed by Gino Zardo, a fellow ‘Queanbeyan lad’ who forged an international career); fashion designer Alex Perry, sunglasses off for once, tool-of-his-trade in his mouth; and Tom E Lewis, the Murrungun actor and musician who began his public career in the film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

Philip Myers’s haunting picture of Lewis as a boatman, emerging from a featureless sea, sets the tone for a group of works with not much in common but an unsettling tone, rich colouration and some strange features. In Stephanie Rose Simcox’s image a woman hurries down a bush road in gathering darkness, her child clinging to her neck, its exquisite face turned gravely to the photographer. Mark Stanjo captured a boy in well-cut clothes striding across a flat landscape. His jeans are double-belted; his eyebrow’s a perfect arch; his long locks stream against a big sky. CJ Taylor photographed a sad, pale woman in coarse, heavy and voluminous costume of indeterminate period; reverently, she holds a dead owl. Suburban teenagers with beautiful, hard features stare straight down Charlie White’s lens. In the other of White’s shots a girl in bikini pants looks like trouble, a bit like Isabella Rossellini used to. She’s not far from a dam, and her name, her t-shirt, her beer, her hooded eyes and the skewed lines of the picture suggest she’s cast a few different spells over the hapless photographer. (Now that post-production software makes it so easy and enjoyable for even a beginner to right a horizon, one rarely sees a tilted picture.) Finn and Eva – she, too, in a high-cut swimsuit evoking the 1980s – stand by a highway against a massive smoke cloud. Both of them look like movie stars; her fingers curl around his neck, his around the curve of her hip. Whatever Noah John Thompson was thinking as he took the photograph, it’s come off the printer in the mood of Badlands, Drugstore Cowboy and Natural Born Killers. With their uncertain suggestion that something awful’s about to happen, these pictures are of the same ilk as David Apostol’s bleak and sensual self-portrait from 2014.

A popular aspect of the NPPP is its representation of urban and rural Australians alike. There’s Brad ‘Gaggsy’ Gallagher, a sight to absorb, from his flamboyant hair hack to his Crocs, pictured either before or after the Tooradin Bachelors’ and Spinsters’ Ball. There’s the itinerant circus girl Wonona Weber on the street in a flat place, tent just visible, cicadas almost audible; Chase Middleton’s picture of a man called David in an archetypal small-town hall, holding a watermelon that reminds him of his late mother. There’s the brave, bereaved Annette Baker, mental health awareness advocate, immersed in the ever-changing Murray. There’s a Yolngu boy called Peter in a red rock waterhole. There’s Gayili Marika at the Galupa Safety House in Eastern Arnhem Land, and Tiny and Devon with their baby, Jerry, at Wallaby Beach, nearby. Then again, there are the two young people Jonno and Api on the steps of an inner-city terrace, one in a simple jersey dress and camisole, one in an edgy de-sleeved turtleneck and drawstring pants.

In some instances, the artist’s statement dramatically changes the observer’s interpretation of a portrait. Paul, on the verandah of a house in Bankstown, appears to sit beside a verminous chair haemorrhaging its stuffing, but Lyndal Irons, who took Paul’s picture, reveals it’s the leftovers of a fashionable floral installation – that’s Spanish moss, old man’s beard, maybe, wired in along with some vines and berries. The text alongside other pictures only deepens a mystery. In Terry Hartin’s image, Kate and her baby look like vampirish creatures scratching a living in a post-apocalyptic favela. We look with anxiety at the caption, only to worry the more when reading Hartin’s description of the child as an emblem of hope. By phone, Hartin confirmed that in fact, Kate and her baby are all right, and, incidentally, that he took the photograph using black and white infrared film of which dark eyes and pallid skin are characteristic effects. Reading the story associated with Anu Kumar’s photograph of the radiant Fatima, newly arrived from Pakistan, we’re reminded of what matters most across the world and all its cultures past and present: in an unprepossessing room in Melbourne, Fatima’s just happy her children are in a safe place. Kuei looks like many another astoundingly beautiful African woman – for example, Sophie and Mercy, photographed by Zelko Nedic in a shot with a groovy 1970s vibe – but her story is very different from the sisters’. Kellie Leczinska tells us that Kuei is from a place called the Sea of Gazelles in South Sudan, and although she was in a refugee camp for eight years, she didn’t get Ebola when it raged through there. Rob, the distinguished-looking man with the handsome face, is in fact homeless in Cooma, a cold town. Some images evoke a human presence with particular potency. Looking at Tristan Still’s photograph, we seem to be able to feel Anika breathing; Still doesn’t provide details of her circumstances, but we don’t need them.

Most years, the NPPP’s included a few pictures seething with details. Remember Heidi Smith’s picture of Larry Sitsky dwarfed by his perilously overloaded bookshelves in 2009, and Adam Knott’s picture of the opal miner Paddy Ellis in his challenging kitchen in 2014? This year, Chrissie Hall’s image of Shannon Dooley offers up a host of archaic treasures, from the bumbag by Ken Done to the jacket apparently handed-down from Linda Evans. Dooley herself, with her remarkably fine features and perfectly-shaped head, looks like a costly store mannequin. Looking at Nic Duncan’s picture, most of us can imagine what it felt like for her to be in the home of centenarian Nell, metamorphosed through the looking glass into a strange insect. We seem to have a cultural memory of the texture of the tablecloth, the weight of the sliding door on its tracks, the magnets, calendars, clock, barometer, thermometer, artificial flowers, plastic and metal containers. Nell, a keen gardener, may well shudder at Alex Frayne’s picture of Royce Wells in pyjama pants, the bamboo and vinca on his Adelaide block way out of hand, but Frayne implies that Wells usually has other matters on his mind.

The fascination of the environmental shot notwithstanding, the staple of the portrait prize is the photograph in which the subject poses against a plain backdrop. This year, Cherine Fahd’s photograph of her modishly-coiffed and bearded brother Matthew, John McRae’s portrait of the dazzling Matuse Peace and Brett Canet-Gibson’s dignified images of Jamieson and Mastura exemplify the style. Often a solid-colour backdrop indicates a studio shot, but it’s possible for photographers to take a portable backdrop of paper or fabric into the street; David Darcy photographed a tattooed man called David that way in Newcastle. Posing the graceful, dark and sinewy figure of Yolngu man Bobby Bunungurr against a white ground works spectacularly for Tobias Titz; the whiteness offsets Bunungurr’s special spider, too. Elke Meitzel’s picture is lit so there’s a slightly darker ground behind Nix’s hair than behind Nix’s face. A dark ground allows for dramatic highlighting; a black and white example this year is John Benavente’s Renaissance Rose (which makes an interesting contrast with Skin deep, the picture Robyn MacRae took of sixteen-year-old Ailis outside). Brave Carol Mayer poses for Brian Cassey against a cold lavender backdrop, all bare, and looking like a calm immortal from the realm of ice. Variations on a hue can also succeed: John Reid’s daughter Lucinda exemplifies the fragile perfection of youth in a shot that’s all palest pink and cool mauve.

With every passing year, photographers have greater capacity to alter their raw images in graphic editing programs such as Adobe Photoshop. Some apparently straightforward images in the NPPP might have been enhanced a little: a sky darkened here, a stray hair eliminated there, but not so as you’d notice. (That said, so striking are the azure eyes of twin sisters Donna and Patricia, they look as if Jo Cripps must have ‘improved’ them a bit, but she didn’t). Photographers often desaturate images of craggy subjects, so their wrinkles look deeper and they seem a little grimy: this year, the effect’s observable in the picture of Lalor Curran by Steven Lloyd, as well as Darcy’s David. Further, though, if you want to, you can make a photograph up, using elements of different pictures arranged in ‘layers’ in the program, so you can make two people who’ve never even met each other look as if they’re sitting together in, say, a palanquin slung between two dromedaries. It’s surprising how few blatantly post-produced and retouched photographs have made the final selections, year by year; and none has taken out the prize. The one overtly tricky photograph this year, The Mirror, by sibling filmmakers Spencer and Lloyd Harvey, seems to show identical twins, one looking rather apprehensively at the other. They stand in a room furnished with ornate fire screens, items of heraldic character, chairs in stripes and Toile de Jouy, gilt objects, a fantastic light fixture, an aspidistra, a worn Eastern carpet on a stone floor. Does that marvellous room exist, though? How many of those objects were really in front of the camera? We can’t be sure, because the ‘twins’ are actually one girl, Victoria Newell, holding hands with herself, just like Barry Otto in Peter Brew-Bevan’s shot from 2009 (her expressions are similar to his, too).

In past years there have been notable pictures featuring animals. In 2013 Janelle Low won the prize for her sad and intensely loving picture of Yhonnie and Indiana, but Chris O’Doherty (Reg Mombassa) was also pictured keeping a poker face as his cat hammed it up. In 2011 Andrew Cowan photographed his son Bruno with his chook Batman and Lee Grant photographed her daughter Clare with her cat Bella. In 2015 there was James Geer’s Neato with Daniel, which combined tattoos, a nicely combed beard and a smooth, folded whippet. This year’s animal pictures both provoke a laugh, with ginger-haired Luke’s modesty preserved by his black powderpuff of a Pomeranian, Nacoya, and Melanie, a collector of vintage gear and also greyhounds, posing very sweetly for Christopher Pearce with her slim, funny little companions.

National Portrait Gallery Curator Joanna Gilmour, who’s judged the National Photographic Portrait Prize several times, recalls outstanding photographs from the last decade with the quality of paintings, including Jacqueline Mitelman’s winning portrait from 2011, Janelle Low’s from 2013 and Stuart Spence’s moody picture of Peter O’Doherty from 2014. This year, Chris Budgeon’s picture of Ricki looks just like a nude study painted by Hugh Ramsay in about 1896: we melt at the poetry of the vertebrae. The photograph of a Turkish woman named Ezgi by Alana Homberg is notable both for the light coming through the thin, coarse, blood-red curtains, and the subject’s expression. The plane of her cheek, her large eyes and the crease under the left one recalls a certain self-portrait drawing by Käthe Kollwitz – though working generations ago, grieved and exhausted by war in her country, just as Ezgi is now.

At the time of writing – 20 January 2017 – the world seems set for upsets of various kinds and there is much about which to feel apprehensive, culpable and sad. We look for the good, the honourable, the beautiful; we look for the truth; we look for a laugh. In its annual mix of drama, tenderness, banality, gravity and zaniness the National Photographic Portrait Prize expresses Australia in its vigorous variety. Looking at the pictures on display – and remembering there’s not much we’re not allowed to display – we might think about the range of freedoms the exhibition represents, and our duty, in response to what we have gained from living here, to cherish and defend each other in our similarities and differences.

Sarah Engledow, Curator National Portrait Gallery and judge, National Photographic Portrait Prize 2017