The great strength of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize is that it brings together a variety of images, from reportage and documentary photographs to studio portraits. This year some 5,000 photographs were submitted for the competition. As chair of the selection panel, I encourage my fellow judges (this year Emma Hardy, Lauren Heinz, Glyn Morgan, Sean O’Hagan and Terence Pepper) to hold individual opinions and to argue for the works they find particularly appealing. Consensus on the final selection is always reached, but the exhibition is more diverse as a result of this debate.
This year’s shortlisted entries gave the judges much to discuss. The first prize-winner by Jordi Ruiz Cirera is a slow-burn image, it’s not high-impact. But the subject’s expression – her eyes – absolutely draw you in. Initially, you’re not sure what the circumstances are, she seems constrained, but I think the photographer encourages us to feel great empathy for her situation.
The second prize-winner, Jennifer Pattison’s image is fantastic – I remember very vividly when we were judging that someone made the remark that the thing that really stands out is the chipped mug. It catches your eye, and it’s a completely secondary matter that she is not wearing any clothes. The nakedness is so incidental - you’re simply drawn to her expression and her character.
Third prize-winner, Spencer Murphy’s portrait of Mark Rylance both spoke to us as a portrait of a great actor, but also resonates with the character of ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem and how that character had seeped into the national consciousness. Murphy has captured both aspects in this close-up, meditative portrait.
Fourth prize-winner, Alma Haser’s portrait The Ventriloquist starts out as a puzzle and remains a puzzle. You don’t quite know what the relationship is between the two young men - but it seems very strong. The composition is so beautifully put together that the harmony in this image drew the judges to it – there was very little debate about it.
Matthew Niederhauser’s portrait of the artist Ai Weiwei was chosen for the John Kobal New Work Award for a photographer under thirty. I think everyone in the world of culture and the arts has great sympathy for Ai Weiwei and the struggle for artistic freedom he has endured. The contrast of Ai, the innocent kitten, and the saturated colour of the background really make this a great portrait.
By 'Sandy Nairne, Director, National Portrait Gallery
Margarita Teichroeb, From the series Menonos, By Jordi Ruiz Cirera, September 2011
Lynne, Brighton, By Jennifer Pattison, May 2012
Mark Rylance, By Spencer Murphy, May 2012
The Ventriloquist, By Alma Haser, May 2012
The Nine Lives of Ai Weiwei, Matthew Niederhauser, October 2011