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Snap decisions

by Robert Cook, 3 May 2018

The girls, 2017 by Tamara Dean
The girls, 2017 by Tamara Dean

2018 sees the eleventh iteration of the National Photographic Portrait Prize, a perennial favourite among Portrait Gallery visitors. The process of deciding on this year’s winners – from a veritable cascade of entries – fell to tenacious trio Christopher Chapman (National Portrait Gallery Senior Curator), Petrina Hicks (contemporary artist who works with photography), and Robert Cook (Curator, Art Gallery of Western Australia). Here, arbiter Cook responds to questions from Portrait editor Stephen Phillips.

This year’s National Photographic Portrait Prize saw an unprecedented level of interest, with its 3,223 entries leaving the previous record – 2,804, from last year’s prize – in the shade. Can you tell us about the process of working through such a large number of entries, and the challenges it posed? How did you, Christopher and Petrina go about arriving at the final shortlist of 43? 

Lord – It was H-U-G-E! Such an amazing response from the art and photo communities. It was overwhelming actually. I mean, as a curator, you know there’s only so much work that can fit on the walls in the exhibition, so your first response is practical – how to shrink it down to a manageable scale without losing any gems. You can’t fall asleep at the wheel! Rather, you can’t fall asleep at the mouse … because the wonderful Portrait Gallery team had set up this system where we individually went over the entries online. We each went through this first round separately with no idea what the other two were choosing. And, again, it began with the sense of a brutal yet necessary cull … but over time, you came to expect these little flashes of brilliance (that stood out from what was actually a uniformly impressive field), though often you don't know why, but still you find yourself, almost irresponsibly, clicking ‘accept’. Maybe it’s like Tinder or Grindr – with a slight thrill, you click fast and have a think later! So that’s how the first part happened: all very loose and, for me at least, intuitively, with always a sense of the looming mass! 

After that stage we all met up for a couple of days in a sealed bunker in the Portrait Gallery basement. On a very large screen, we went through the work we had all said ‘yes’ to, and then the works that two of us had said ‘yes’ to, and then the works that only one of us had said ‘yes’ to. This was all very jovial, and the first time we had to suss each other out taste-wise. It was fun; but then it got really hard. The list was still huge, and now there were actual stakes – works we loved and didn't really want to part with … but, you know, WALL SPACE! So then the hard talking happened. We argued (politely) for and against individual works. Sometimes the arguments were cogent; other times, well, not so much. Often my big cry was for a pic that featured, say, a really good hairstyle. I don’t know why I liked it any more, but it brought the whole together for me, and I guess I was responding to style in a broad sense – as the thrust of a work, its ‘ambiguous togetherness’. I was not altogether amazing at putting that sense into words. Chris and Petrina were more articulate and super-sharp on other aspects too. Petrina looked as an artist honing in on composition, subject, technique – but also as animal lover (and as you know animals have often featured in her output over the years). It was a great privilege, in fact, seeing her at work. It’s corny but true: there really is something that distinguishes artists from the rest of us; it was compelling to listen to her take, and I felt I learnt about how she makes pictures in the process. With his experience as Senior Curator at the Portrait Gallery, Chris was very sensitive to how great portraits fascinate and communicate, both in terms of immediate punch and lasting resonance. He was also incredibly on top of the practices in general of the artists we were looking at, and was able to fill us in and give context to what we were seeing. Also, both Chris and Petrina knew who the politicians and culture stars in the photos were, unlike my news-phobic self, I’m afraid. They had a bead on how these figures were being presented, and how they resonated as icons. 

So we were all different – through this process there was a lot of agreement, but also some stalemates. When we got stuck we left the room and went for coffee upstairs. Actually, there was lots of coffee! But after each double espresso our previously jittery nerves became focused anew, and we could see things a bit more clearly. And in the end, there were 43 works. One more than the meaning of life. Life, plus change. No wonder it was hard!  

Following on from the last question, could you tell us a bit about your background and current role at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, and how this might have influenced your perspective when judging? 

I’m currently Curator of Contemporary Design and International Art. Photos make up a fair part of the second part of my job focus, and I’ve also been a straight-out curator of photos and design. I’ve built our collection up over the years, introducing works by Roger Ballen; Stephen Shore; James Welling; Pat Brassington; Theresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler; Miles Collyer; Vivian Sassen; Roe Ethridge; Petrina; and a bunch more, and, you know, curated shows. So that engagement sets a kind of quality horizon, but honestly no more than my Instagram addiction. And, just as importantly – or perhaps even more so – there was a while when there were magazines in the country, and I was writing for them, and some of them were photo-focused. And I got used to my writing being a dreaming into the space of the photo in such a way that I would find an alternate self in another’s take on reality, thereby occupying the imaginative position of subject and artist. And this kind of conscious dreaming, with its necessary dropping of the guard, and its implicit permission to be slightly different to myself in the process, is how I approach all art and the judging process. So I guess I think I’m technically a judge, but not really a judge; like Barthes in the cheesiest possible way, I come as someone prepared to be wounded by the work. So yeah, there’s a professional side (buying, curating, etc.) and also a side that is not that at all. And as a judge there’s a point where this downright emo-amateur streak will become very apparent. It happened of course during the NPPP, and Chris and Petrina were gracious enough to keep me in the room afterwards. Though, you know, while I’ve made a big deal about my take here, I know Chris and Petrina ‘felt hard’ too. I know they were touched and moved and wounded, and more times than we had slots for. I mean you’re not even involved in this cultural stuff if it’s not personal; the pro side is just a prop for that deeper stuff. 

For you, what is it about a photographic portrait that is most likely to entice in those first few seconds, to instantly engage you? Does the mix of technical and compositional elements play a part, or is it a more instinctive, ‘human’ reaction to the subject(s) in the first instance? 

This is naive probably, but I figure I can tell a good work by now and let myself be light and not ask too many questions about the technical elements; I don’t break down images into components. I think it’s as simple as the whole thing has to cohere while being fresh and real, and not cloying, or overtly whimsical, or ‘chip-on-the-shoulder-y’, or out to please too much. It has to be charming while also holding something back; it has to … well, it has to be like a real person who has some depth to them, and holds themselves in a certain way, and who you want to get to know even if they might challenge you. In a really literal sense, the photo portrait is a person … and that’s who I’d judge, not depth of field. You could imagine it like you’re in an airport and there’s all these people and you have to choose who you want to sit next to on a long haul flight. No – that doesn’t entirely ring true! But there is a sense in which you are engaging with the mystery and promise and difficulty of another being. The image needs to be about that. If you like someone it’s not because they have a great jaw; or a great jaw, a Harvard degree and a boat; or little sister glasses and a cute tote bag; but it’s for some other ineffable reason that you just can’t name – and that’s what I think we were all open to, though Petrina and Chris were very on top of formal concerns. I could leave that to them. 

As you worked through the entries, were there recurring themes that appeared? Were there any that you or the other judges thought might reflect current national events, or broader societal influences or movements?

Well, as mentioned, there were some politicians but I didn't realise it at the time. So there was, to me, an abstract sense of ‘the nation’, ‘the democracy’, etc., … but also an overt and strong sense of the current shifts in culture, indeed of Australian culture being in a new place, more open to connecting to the wider world, and more open to the crises of their fellow humans around them – locally and globally. If the photographers represented the populace, and they well might [Ed: yes – there were entries from every state and territory], there is a lot of support for equality, fairness and positive social change. That came out even in works that had other agendas in mind. Through the lens of the entries, Australia felt like a humane and quirky place. It felt very Australian in the older, egalitarian sense of what that might be. Old school and new school, all in one. Despite our challenges, I felt very positive about the future. 

Oh – also, there were lots of tattoo-covered people, and artistic and theatrical types, and, given this, I think the entries showed a country more extroverted than we might expect – or have been in the past. There was a sense of performance being a valuable way of being in the world, and this being possible because of a strong sense of self and a welcoming of difference, combined with a strong note of social concern … and how social media platforms have shifted how we express our identities in more overt ways now.  

Here a grimace, there a glare, everywhere a poignant stare! Portrait Gallery historian Sarah Engledow noted the scarcity of ‘happy’ pictures in her 2017 survey of a decade of NPPP finalists. What struck you about faces and expressions in the entries in 2018? Have we reached a point where an effusive, unencumbered smile has become so unusual as to be almost subversive? 

Well. I still stand by what I said above, but there were also many ‘set mouths’. There was a lot of ‘performed pride’ that to my eye verged on the humorously stoic. I struggle a little with that, in terms of it feeling a bit staged and forced. For me such work does the opposite of what the photographer might be intending. 

Technology – initially inexpensive digital cameras, then the rise of the Smartphone – has meant photography has become a uniquely accessible artistic medium. The NPPP sees the possibility of a casual practitioner with a good eye landing in a national exhibition next to a seasoned professional. What do you think of this ‘democratisation’ – is it an entirely positive thing, or do you have some reservations?

I think it’s great! Accessibility means everyone can aspire. That’s got to be a good thing. Also it should keep the pros on their toes! It’s very old school of me to say this, but talent is talent; and I do think there is a way some people have with image-making that cannot be taught, and that can only be enhanced by great tools, and is not dependent on them. And that is the real difference between the artist and the amateur. Great picture-makers could be young, old, using iPhone 3s or major digital Hasselblad second mortgage jobs. And also, I am totally open to the idea that someone might be muddling along for decades and accidentally take a picture that sings, and from that point it all changes for them. 

In terms of final decisions – picking the winners from the shortlist – were there absolute standouts in your mind after seeing the image files, or did you wait to see the final prints to really consider possible winners?

Oh the final pictures for sure. Maybe that’s because I’m a curator. I am not snobbish at all about the digital realm. I think we can make sound decisions in and from that medium. But this is a gallery experience, and the feel of a work, the way the artist has considered such elements as scale and printing, will have an impact on how your body connects to it. It becomes double personal when it becomes public. Digital is perhaps private, one on one. The gallery is that too, but you’re aware of how you are being seen looking … and some pictures will ask different things of you in that regard, in terms of your sense of yourself (as you look) that takes the experience inevitably into the realm of the social. Your desire as a viewer is open to scrutiny by others and yourself in this process. So, yes, we have to deal with the real thing in a situation like this.  

Do you have any other general thoughts/comments? 

I’ve probably over-talked, but I must reiterate how great it was to see the works through the eyes of my fellow judges. Between us, I think we collated a lovely cross-section of views in the shortlist and exhibition, and takes on what it is be a human at this complex point in time. It was also a non-cynical, positive, generous and respectful process. I loved it! I think the viewers of the show will feel this in the hang. And while it will sound like I’m being political – I am so not – the Portrait Gallery team behind the scenes were incredible! Professional, poised and relaxed. The whole thing went like clockwork. So impressed! Five-star production!

1Tre, Dubbo, 2017 by David Prichard. 2My Olivia, 2017 by Filomena Rizzo. 3The Migrant, 2017 by Jacqui Stockdale. 4Yahir, waiting to live again, 2017 by Joel Brian Pratley.
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