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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The eye and the heart

by Nici Cumpston, 6 April 2020

I was delighted to be one of this year’s judges for the National Photographic Portrait Prize, colloquially known as the ‘N-triple-P’. It was a rare but welcome opportunity for me to sit quietly and devote myself to looking closely at over two thousand five hundred photographs. As a photographer myself, I love nothing more than seeing what other people are creating with their cameras.

Focussing in on images and making a final selection required deep concentration and robust discussion, and became a most pleasurable experience due to working alongside two fabulous like-minded people: artist Naomi Hobson, from Coen in far North Queensland, and National Portrait Gallery curator Penelope Grist.

The process ran smoothly thanks to the in-house expertise of the NPG team, who enabled us easy access to the images and statements so we could concentrate on our job of assessing them. Interestingly, after arriving at a group of seven hundred images – comprised of photographs that at least one of us picked to be in the initial shortlist – we realised not a single one of them had been selected by all three of us! This meant we had to then look at each of these images together to reach a verdict on the 47 finalists who now feature in the NPPP 2020 exhibition. We had many in-depth discussions and got to know each other quite quickly, as the presence of each image in the final exhibition must be agreed on unanimously amongst the judges. It was a mixture of exhaustive, exhausting and exhilarating.

Current themes of everyday life across the country began to emerge as we considered the multitude of photographs. Images of ecological degradation, drought and fire prevailed, as opposed to picturesque landscapes – which of course reflects the recent situation in Australia. There were representations of family bonds, people in hats, people with their beloved pets, subjects with prized possessions, images that shared historical information, and images of hope and of despair. Techniques employed included digital, film, tin-types, colour, black and white and toned images. Some images were straightforward portraiture; others were surreal; some were clever, original ideas; while others were more derivative.

1Johnny, 2019 Nic Duncan. 2Yukultji and Yalti with their family, 2019 Ben Mcnamara. 31967, 2019 Dave Laslett. 4Alithia's tree, 2019 Maree Yoelu.

As a national award, open to anyone who is an Australian citizen or resident, the NPPP gives people from all backgrounds the opportunity to have their photographs exhibited. From the perspective of Aboriginal people, we haven’t always been included in that mainstream, so it was refreshing to see so many images of and by Aboriginal people among this year’s finalists. Importantly, the NPPP is a democratic view of our society at this particular time in history, and the final exhibition tours nationally, which is a great gift for the nation.

As we narrowed down our selection, it became more and more difficult; we couldn’t imagine losing any of the images we’d so carefully selected! However, there is a limit to how many works can be included – there is only so much space on gallery walls, whether at the home of portraiture at the NPG or the galleries included in the subsequent national tour. We had a breakthrough when it was suggested that we look at only including our top choices, as opposed to what we couldn’t take out. This meant we only had a certain number to choose, and that shifted our individual focus dramatically. The end result was a selection of remarkably strong photographs that each of us felt we couldn’t do without.

The final decisions were made after carefully considering various aspects of each photograph, including the image composition, the tonal qualities, and the emotional response they evoked in us. Again, we obviously didn’t all have the same responses, so it became an increasingly rewarding experience as our varied points of view made for rich discussion. The artist statement for each work was also of importance to us in the judging process, as we carefully considered if it added support to the image. I felt a real sense of trust developing between the judges over the few days that we were together: we took our roles very seriously, and sought to do our best – to accord the artists the respect their efforts warranted by working diligently through their images.

There were so many photographs that really moved me and that I could make mention of, but I have selected just a few to share with you in this article.

Natalie Finney’s black and white photograph titled Dad, aged 73 is looking down the length of a dining table at her father as he sits alone, gazing towards the light coming in from the side window. The table is bare apart from a coffee cup, a bowl of grapes and what appears to be an ashtray. He is holding a lit cigarette and looks as though he is about to say something – and in fact the statement tells us that he is speculating as to when he and Natalie will see each other again. He returned to Greece eight years ago, after living in Melbourne for most of his life. Natalie brought her children to Greece to meet him for the first time and this is the day of their departure back to Australia. You can feel the emotion, and I sensed the growing distance between them and the pain this knowledge brought.

In Rob Palmer’s portrait, chef Josh Niland embraces a majestic mahi-mahi, stretching to hold it upright on a chopping board as his arms barely extend the length of its long, slender body. This beautifully composed, painterly image – with its soft textures, colours and tonal range – elegantly captures Niland’s deep respect for the fish. His philosophy of reducing unnecessary wastage by utilising every part of the fish when cooking has won him and Saint Peter – his Paddington seafood restaurant – numerous awards and international acclaim.

Marg Briese’s portrait, titled Letting go, is of her father the day he sat on the sidelines at the cattle yards watching the sale of the last of his cattle. Following years of devastating drought, he had to let go of a lifetime’s work, breeding his cattle to get the right bloodlines. It’s a poignant image that captures his pain and heartbreak, but you can also see and feel his strength and resilience, evident in his eyes and his mouth. There is so much emotion captured within this image, and for me it’s a reflection of the state of our country for many people living and working on the land.

Rene Kulitja and Rhett Hammerton have collaborated to produce a portrait of Rene, titled Pulangkita pitjangu. It is a black and white image of Rene cloaked in a blanket, with only a small section of her face exposed. The blanket is covered in English text that references colonial policies imposed on Aboriginal people. This is a strong image that gives Rene a powerful opportunity to portray her experience and frustration. Rene is from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands of far north-west South Australia, and in an excerpt of her artist statement, written in Pitjantjatjara and English, she states: ‘Our culture has been passed down endlessly through the ages, by our grandfathers and grandmothers. Our families – many generations – left this behind for us: law, places, land and language, to be inherited by all those that come after them. And when we are gone, they will be for our children after us to hold and look after. This blanket came and covered over our language. But let us remember – we are not English! We are Pitjantjatjara.’

Brenda L Croft has created a portrait of Matilda House, a Ngambri/Ngunnawal traditional owner of the Canberra region and surrounding areas, who is highly respected and honoured for her cultural knowledge. This portrait glows with pride and dignity. It is a black and white image using the tin-type technique to create a very powerful historical-looking portrait. With its short depth of field and not much more than the eyes in sharp focus, Matilda peers intently at the viewer.

1Eileen Kramer is a dancer, 2019 Hugh Stewart. 2Gemma Baxter (right view), 2019 Shea Kirk.

Photography is a medium that can be utilised by anyone who has the privilege of having access to a camera, but in order to create a truly engaging portrait, it takes much more than just being able to point and shoot. This is described eloquently in a conversation that took place in 1946 between Beaumont Newhall, the renowned American curator, art historian, writer and photographer, and French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who said:

‘One must photograph with the eye and the heart; one must be aware of the significance of what one photographs. Particularly in photographing people, there must be a relationship between the subject and the photographer, the I and the you, if the result is to be more than a superficial resemblance or likeness.’

I commend all of the entrants for sharing their images and stories with us, and encourage anyone who is considering entering to do so. Not everyone can be a winner, of course, but it is an opportunity to have your work exhibited in a major award in our country’s National Portrait Gallery. It also gives the audience a chance to read the pulse of the nation, by the nation, so if successful as a finalist it is a win-win situation – both for you and this ever-appreciative audience.

Nici Cumpston is Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia. 

Related information

The mahi-mahi, 2019 Rob Palmer
The mahi-mahi, 2019 Rob Palmer
The mahi-mahi, 2019 Rob Palmer
The mahi-mahi, 2019 Rob Palmer

National Photographic Portrait Prize 2020

Previous exhibition, 2020

The exhibition is selected from a national field of entries, reflecting the distinctive vision of Australia's aspiring and professional portrait photographers and the unique nature of their subjects.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.