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by Dr Sarah Engledow, 6 March 2017

NPPP finalists
NPPP finalists

A baby stares openly at whatever interests him: it’s one of the cutest of all baby characteristics. As the baby is tamed, domesticated and incorporated into the machinery of the State, however, he has to be taught that staring is rude. As time passes, he’s told to look people in the eye when shaking hands, not to look sideways at the trough, not to adopt an expression of ‘dumb insolence’ in the classroom, and – should a job interview eventuate – to meet his interlocutor’s eye, but not all the time. Throughout life, the degree to which we’re meant, and not meant, to look at other people is difficult to calibrate (and all over the world, it’s a different calculation for men and women, the affluent and the impoverished, the hale and the frail). Everyone knows it’s a survival skill, though. Amongst adults, the question ‘What’re you lookin’ at me for?’ is shouted more often than it’s couched as a courteous enquiry.

A perennially attractive feature of portraits is that we can stare blatantly and hard at them for as long as we like. Sometimes the person in the portrait will be looking away; and then it can feel as if we’re watching them in secret – tenderly, furtively, hungrily. Other times the person in the image may be staring right back at us. Then it’s the kind of standoff that might end, were both of us real, in a punch, a serious question, or a sudden, game-changing kiss.

Occasionally, in photographic portraits as in painted and drawn ones, we sense an exciting connection between artist and sitter. In my own favourite photographs from ten years of the National Photographic Portrait Prize, which include a self-portrait, the sitters acknowledge what’s going on. They can look bold or nervous, appraising, forbidding or seductive, but they have to be palpably present, giving off human warmth and the certain knowledge they’re being photographed. Unless, of course, they’re dead, which several subjects of the NPPP have been. 

If that sounds depressing, well, looking back at all the finalists over the ten years, one’s struck by the scarcity of happy pictures. Jennifer Stocks’s Free Range Cousins from 2016 really has few rivals for the title of perkiest picture – and it’s one of the best group pictures, too. Wiry and wild, little Beau Stocks springs pugnaciously toward his mother, the photographer; but each of the other children’s full of character, and delights the searching eye in a different way. A great group shot needs a strong compositional dynamic between the sitters, but everyone in it has to project his or her individuality. For me, the standout amongst the group shots is Greg Weight’s picture of the Shen family, a finalist in 2011 acquired for the collection of the National Portrait Gallery the following year. It’s witty, richly coloured and masterfully composed. Jiawei looks straight and confidently toward the camera, his paterfamilial chest puffed with pride. Imagine the ridiculousness of the portrait if his wife and daughter adopted the same pose! Instead, we linger over the demurely downcast eyes of the daughter, Xini, the even-tempered dignity of the mother, Lan, and the lazy diagonal glance of the dog, Billy. Only then do we see, too, that Princess Mary peeks at us from a painting in the painting behind the family, the painted Jiawei is oblivious of us, and the painted Billy keeps his chin on the painted tiles, only swivelling an eye.

The late, gentle Billy is one of many animals who’ve featured in the Prize since its inception in 2007. Janelle Low won in 2013 for a superbly affecting, painterly image of history shared by a woman called Yhonnie and her cat, Indiana. Many pictures of old people have been finalists, but somehow this image of a moribund, tufty pet in a shaft of light speaks of the effect of time more eloquently than most of them. Usually, photographs featuring animals are a little lighter than Yhonnie and Indiana. Veteran judges and curators Chris Chapman and Joanna Gilmour joked recently that Chris O’Doherty seemed just to have taken his cat out of the freezer to be photographed by James Brickwood for the 2013 Prize; but in earnest, no one doubts that he dotes on it, struggling to keep his customary poker face as it clowns around. In Christopher Pearce’s photograph from 2017, a woman called Melanie’s blissfully flanked by her slim, funny hounds: the standing one looks to be kissing her temple, the one in the suitcase is laughing.

Chris O’Doherty, well-known as Reg Mombassa, is one of the most-photographed sitters in the history of entries for the Prize. (Other repeated subjects are actors Jack Charles and David Gulpilil, former prime minister Bob Hawke and historian Bruce Pascoe.) In 2014, when Reg Mombassa’s portrait by Steven Siewert was a finalist, so was one of his brother, Peter, by Stuart Spence. Taken by the faint light given off by an exit sign in a bowling club, Spence’s photograph of Peter O’Doherty is another of the most ‘painterly’ photographs of the last ten years in mood, palette and composition. It emanates tranquility and thoughtful intelligence, like a Jude Rae painting. Yet no one, looking at this photo, would wonder what’s going on.

Untitled, 2013 by David Apostol

Everyone has their favourite tray of colours, and mine – seen in all three portraits of the brothers – is a dull one of olive, grey, brown, bone, ivory and black. An image that occupies that same general area of the colour playground is, for me, the picture with the most narrative interest, the best self-portrait and one of the coolest photographs of all: David Apostol’s Untitled, the runner-up in the notoriously depressing NPPP of 2014. I wrote at the time that maybe the photo just shows an ordinary man guarding against burning his dinner, but the elements of stubbly beard, smoke haze and cabinet grime create a dangerous atmosphere from the outset. The greenish-grey kitchen drawers tone with the drab rectangle of the blind; the curves of Apostol’s warm body and the side of the frypan afford the counterpoint to the picture’s hard lines. The artist’s statement suggests that the self-portrait draws on his experience of depression, investing the oven with dark potential. That said, if the man had turned on the gas, would he be smoking and taking a photograph of himself? What looks like some sort of detonator in his hand must be a remote – and isn’t that an electric oven anyway? The more it’s studied, the more the picture looks like a dark joke, a gruff low bark of gallows humour in the existential tradition. Like a still from a Coen brothers movie, it exudes a feeling that something awful might happen quite arbitrarily. Nasty, before the dam, taken in the healthful, green outdoors, presents a very different subject, but the image is similarly ominous. La belle dame sans merci with a pixie cut, the enchantress Nasty seems to be luring the photographer toward a dam, and her t-shirt, her beer, her hooded eyes and the tip-tilted lines of the picture suggest she’s cast a few different spells over the hapless snapper. (Now that post-production software makes it so easy and enjoyable for even a beginner to right a horizon, one rarely sees a skewed picture; it was an audacious entry for the 2017 prize by three-times finalist Charlie White.)

Nasty’s a stone cold fox, which most National Photographic Portrait Prize sitters aren’t. Its multitudinous bare and half-bare sitters have mostly projected vulnerability or bravery, rather than rude health or sensuality (that said, I keep going back to look at Anthony Browell’s pinhole camera shot Adrian and Caren at home from 2009, and of the many strong photographs of women who’ve gone through mastectomies – Peta by Eryca Green from 2012 remains particularly arresting). One perfectly modest picture that caused at least one art handler to blush when it was unpacked in 2014 was Vittoria Dussoni’s Boy in cycling gear. He’s not putting on a sexy face or pose – the photographer is his mum, who’s been an NPPP finalist four times – but one look at him and you have to look again. It has something to do with his natural grace, the curves of the white panels of his lycra suit, the way he holds its straps and the gravity of his gaze. It’s a seriously sensual image. By contrast, the most dashing subject of all would be the dandified student subject of Astrid Piepschyk’s tiny tintype, Daniel, from 2014. Coincidentally, perhaps the most beautiful photograph of the most beautiful subject, from 2009, is also called, simply, Daniel. It looks like five-time finalist Nikki Toole was asked by Shakespeare to time travel and collaborate with Caravaggio on a promo shot for his new show about star-crossed lovers.

Very few of us have the capacity to face a camera or mirror without pulling a look, adopting an expression. Instructions and examples on social media have created a set of standards to supersede the uncertain, amateur efforts at posing that previous generations had to make. Yet you’re as unlikely to see duck lips, kissy face, fish gape or sparrow face in the NPPP as you are to see a photo of Kim Kardashian squinting or flossing on Instagram. While smiles are very rare, hard stares are a staple of the Prize. One of the fiercest of the past decade is that of the new mother in Gibson Nolte’s Harbour Road from 2011; yet we’re painfully aware of the woman’s vulnerability, too. Lining up a row of scowling or glaring portraits, it’s fascinating to compare the photographs’ secondary implications. In 2010, as he looked at Scott Bycroft, a youth called Zareth projected more intensity than most people could ever hope to give off; but we feel it might be a defensive strategy as much as something that comes naturally to him.

Ingvar Kenne – five times a finalist, and the winning photographer in 2009 – said that his aim in a photograph was to minimise his subjects’ acquired and inevitable awareness of self. Indeed, his sons Conor and Callum stand in a fug of chlorinated air in a startlingly ingenuous, unaffected way. One boy wears flippers, and Kenne cut the feet of the other out of his composition; both factors, along with the boys’ even, emotionless faces, contribute to the gawkiness of the scene. Another pair of siblings, Donna and Patricia, address Jo Cripps’s camera in the 2017 exhibition with expressions admixing tenderness and toughness, protectiveness and indomitability, frailty, resilience and perseverance.

Donna and Patricia, who share some of the finest eyes of all subjects in the history of the Prize, are amongst quite a few identical twins who’ve inspired photographers over the years. The most painterly treatment of twins came in the very first exhibition, with Karen Donnelly’s The Twins, in which the plum-coloured brocade enhances the general feeling of a baroque painting. The most successful ‘tricky’ photograph in the history of the prize, by Peter Brew-Bevan in the exhibition of 2009, appears to be of twins – one self-assured, the other a little nervy – but it’s just Barry Otto, holding hands with himself. Now, it’s one of very few blatantly manipulated quirky photographs in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

At this moment in early 2017, the world seems set for upsets of various kinds and there is much about which to feel apprehensive, culpable and sad. In person and online, in literature and visual art, in our homes and in our streets and our places of spiritual succour we seek out 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. The sensitivity, curiosity, skill and persistence of its photographers is inspiring. Looking at the pictures we’ve displayed – and remembering there’s not much we’re not allowed to display – we might think about the range of freedoms the exhibition has represented, and our duty to cherish and defend each other in our similarities and differences. So far, in our country, we’ve maintained a society where for most of us, daily life’s still about courtesies, not survival.