I’ve religiously trekked to all the Taylor Wessing competition exhibitions and ignoring the minor wrestle for a decent view of the photographs and the captions on a busy Saturday afternoon last weekend at the National Portrait Gallery, it was worth the trip. I think the best images are below, or at least these are the ones which most resonated with me…
In two of these images the subjects are over 100 years old. The stories of their long lives lived are etched on their faces. Through the course I am now more conscious of checking the supporting captions when looking at photographs and these two photo captions made me smile… The image to the left by Paul Stuart is entitled ‘John Harrison – 36852 days old, June 2015’, the image to the right by Karsten Thormaehlen is entitled ‘Susannah Mushatt Jones (1899 – 2016) At age 116 and 14 days, July 2015’. There seems to be a marked interest in photographic studies of centenarians now as the exhibition highlights, because they are that much more prevalent globally, rather than just residing in the Guinness Book of Records and living in Japan…
The appeal to me of Stuart’s portrait on the left above, is the superb use of the really shallow depth of field blending everything sitting behind the plane of his wrinkles and eye sockets to an almost dreamlike texture. I’ve used an image from the internet here, but I remember the portrait being printed deliberately dark which was very effective also when seeing the full size print in the gallery. The photograph has echoes of almost sci-fi genre in nature, maybe it is Harrison’s rather Star Trek round turtle-necked top, but I couldn’t help but think that he looks like he’d come from another planet where they had invented a pill to stop ageing past the age of 80, it’s just so strange how relatively ‘young’ he looks… his eyes are still so bright and inquisitive and this has been perfectly captured by the photographer.
The Thormaehlen image to the right above similarly portrays a characterful face and whilst there is also a fairly shallow depth of field, this effect is not so marked in this image. I think it is the determination in the expression which is striking here, and the eyes whilst closed, but in no way take away from the strength of the portrait. It makes you wonder if she is praying and it is strange that a face can be that animated, even when closed off to others by the eyes. The creases in her head covering are echoed in the lines down her face from the side of her flared strong nostrils, and the creases down her blouse further replicate the pattern of her head covering creases and facial lines.
In stark contrast the third image that caught my eye is from Ebony Finck, an untitled image from the series ‘Juncture’:-
The subject of the image is struggling to stand up and his skeletal arm, awkward and crane-like, points out at an angle. The image appears to be covered in a layer of voile, all the colours are pale and crepe-like with the exception of his pants and watch. Whilst the image is bathed in light, we sense impending passing away of the old man and there is a reminder of our own mortality in the visibility of the bones through the pale skin. This image touched me as it was so sensitively shot, and the composition is balanced and simple.
I enjoy Taylor Wessing despite the crowds and the inevitable sets of twins on display each year. It gives me ideas for how to pose subjects and invariably I find that the most successful images are the ones which retain a clear simplicity.
Mary Doggett, aged 17732 days with hopefully a few more to go….