Photographic Genres: Portraits

Tom Hanks by Dan Winters


What is a portrait?

A portrait is an image which attempts to capture the likeness of a person or animal. However, in modern times this definition has become more flexible; for example, in classical portrait paintings a portrait shows a person’s face and profile. The portrait would have been commissioned as a symbol of wealth and status, and portrait painters would become famous not only for their skill, but on the back of the fame of the person they painted. The more famous their subjects, the more demand for them increased as others clamoured for the same treatment to show themselves equally as powerful.

King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein c.1536

Today, with the prevalence of photography, portraiture has become less about power or realism but more about trying to convey emotion and depth. Arguably any image showing a person could be a portrait, but true portraits capture an essence or sense of who the subject is, what they’ve feeling or what they’ve been through. With portraiture leaning towards an emotional rather than physical portrayal of a subject, it is even possible to portray a likeness without the subject in the image, or of just part of them and not their face.


The British Photographic Portrait Prize

In 2003 the National Portrait Gallery began an annual prize for photographic portraits. For the first 3 years it was sponsored by Schweppes and known as the Schweppes Photographic Portrait Prize, then for the two subsequent years there was no headline sponsorship. Since 2008 the competition has been sponsored by Taylor Wessing, an international law firm. A shortlist of 60 images are selected for exhibition at the gallery, and the top four receive cash prizes. First place receives £12,000 and in 2013 was won by Spencer Murphy for his portrait of jockey Katie Walsh. After visiting the gallery with my classmates, I had the privilege of viewing all of the shortlisted portraits in person.

Katie Walsh by Spencer Murphy

Murphy was quoted as saying, “I was keen to include Katie… I wanted to show both her femininity and the toughness of spirit she requires to compete against the best riders in one of the most demanding disciplines in horse racing. I chose to shoot the series on large format film, to give the images a depth and timelessness that I think would have been hard to achieve on a digital camera.” For myself, one of the striking things about this image is the balance it achieves. The colours are complimentary and the image is even. Yet, the eye is still drawn back to the subject’s face thanks to the lighter background behind her, and the clarity of her eyes and expression. The portrait perfectly captures the physical and emotional impact of the race she has just completed.

Whilst the winning portrait was, in my opinion, deserving, there were of course other outstanding portraits included in the collection. One that stuck with me was ‘Three Colours Red’ by Tom Stewart.

‘Three Colours Red’ by Tom Stewart

Again, I loved the balance of colour in this image, and the calm neutral tones. I also enjoyed the symmetry of the girls and the bench arms. It is a very serene and mysterious image. The subjects are friends of the photographer, Katie and Jojo, and the cat is a Maine Coon called Tex.  The exhibition label states “Stewart originally intended to make a moving image piece, but found a photographic portrait communicated the idea more clearly.” However, there is no more information to be found about the image. It is not part of a series and appears to be a deviation from the photographer’s normal work. It is admittedly difficult to understand exactly what the idea Stewart wished to convey through this image.

Tom Stewart, the photographer, lives and works in London as a filmmaker and photographer’s assistant. He graduated from Manchester School of Art, in Contemporary Film and Video, in 2011, and his graduate film ‘When the Dust Settles’ won the ‘Cinematography Award’ and ‘BBC Best of the North’ Award at Exposures Film Festival. The film went on to feature at various film festivals throughout 2012.

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