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Snap chat

by Anne O'Hehir, 22 May 2019

Greta In Her Kitchen, 36 weeks, 2018 by Alana Holmberg
Greta In Her Kitchen, 36 weeks, 2018 by Alana Holmberg

Judging a prize goes somewhat against the grain for me. I went to a school that didn’t have academic prizes (I have never been quite clear why; I suspect because it was deemed ‘unladylike’ for girls to compete against each other). I used to do aikido, one of the few martial arts that does not have competitions. I mostly do yoga these days and ‘winning’ at this is quite complex, though I haven’t given up. I’m highly competitive, but – or maybe because of that – I tend to avoid competing, because if you are competitive you always want to win. I wish either everyone could be a winner or no one. You could say my relationship with winning and losing is fraught. One of my favourite aspirational celebrity quotes is by Rainer Maria Rilke who said, in German of course, that the aim of life is to keep failing at greater and greater things.

To be judged a winner by who, then, and by what criteria? When it comes to the National Photographic Portrait Prize, the Portrait Gallery’s recent panel-filling practice has been to include an internal staff member (this year – 2019 – Senior Curator Dr Christopher Chapman); a practising photo media artist (this year Melbourne-based Hoda Afshar, who won the prize in 2015); and a curator (this year me, Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia). And by what criteria? Well, it’s a bit like yoga – a little opaque; not very cut and dried. How could it be? I can’t presume to talk for Chris or Hoda, but to get where we are as curators, practitioners and teachers, we’ve all acquired and honed very particular tastes and biases. It’s unavoidable. It’s a strength in many ways. You have to think a lot about image-making – read about it, talk about it, look at lots and lots of images, educate your eye and then rely on it. Trust it. You can’t perpetually doubt or second-guess yourself or you’ll go mad!

1 Osher, 2018 by Stephen Baccon. 2 Jackie, 2018 by Katrin Koenning.

When it comes to judging – and perhaps this is an obvious point – I have a bank of favourite images in my head that new pictures I see either ‘click’ into or don’t. It’s inescapable. I have my favourite photographers, as well as photographers I have studied deeply over the years in relation to the collection I look after and the exhibitions I’ve curated – and if that is not problematic enough, favourite directors who are probably just as important to me. On top of that there are favourite authors and writers who speak to my own preoccupations about what is important in life. Like everyone, I bring all this with me – longstanding loves and present preoccupations. An awareness of the ‘baggage’ of bias is something, but it doesn’t help a lot.

1 KB Bailey, 2018 by Isabella Capezio. 2 Nelson Earl - Dance - The Ephemeral Art, Straithfield, 2018 by Kellie Leczinska.

To be asked to be an official judge is daunting, because you know you’ve been a self-appointed one many times in the past – as a judgmental bystander. Lots of people come to the exhibition and have an opinion on the finalists and winners. We love it. It’s one of life’s great pleasures really, going to a prize and being irritated by the winner if you don’t agree and validated if you do. Personally I’m not into controversy for the sake of it, but hopefully we’ve been able to choose images that make people deeply engage with their own notions of what photography can be.

1 Abdullah in his room, 2018 by Max Mason-Hubers. 2 Black Dog, 2018 by Jamila Toderas.

Prizes are popular; they do bring a sense of excitement and focus. It is interesting in terms of how they function, perhaps. As a professional athlete (by way of comparison) the winning and losing is what you train for; it’s fundamental. I would argue that for an artist the only person you can ultimately be making the work for is yourself. If other people like it, all the better, but it can’t be at the core. I don’t mean that you can’t work as a professional photographer and not make great work and get critical and public recognition; photography is packed to the gills with great professional photographers working in all sorts of ways – it always has been – but I do believe that for great artists the practice comes ultimately from a place of necessity, deep within. I have to say on judging day Hoda and I were nervous and felt the responsibility of singling works out keenly. Chris seemed a little more sanguine, having been a prize arbiter many times. Not any less professional or responsible, just calmer. Hoda had the perspective of being a winner herself – she’d won the top gong in this prize a few years ago; was the winner last year of the William and Winifred Bowness Photography Prize; and was chosen to be part of Primavera 2018 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. In other words, she knows from experience what winning these prizes means to an artist.

I am writing this a couple of weeks after the judging process, so the winners have been chosen, and everyone has come and gone. The dust has settled, so to speak. The National Portrait Gallery has been doing the NPPP for a number of years – this is the twelfth iteration – so the process of choosing the finalists and finally the winner and runner-up is as simple and well-run from a procedural perspective as it could be. The number of entries is big – over 3,000 again this year, as it was last year, and each of us individually went through all the images to reach our own shortlist. I had about 150 on mine. We met up at the Portrait Gallery to choose the finalists – still on screen – and any image that had a yes or a maybe from any of us was discussed. We eventually arrived at a group of 40 finalist works. We then met again in front of the physical works to choose the winners. We chose the finalists in early November and the winner and runner up in late February, so there was time to think about the finalists over Christmas – if we wanted to! I can say for sure that none of us knew who we’d give the prize to when we met up to decide. Many prizes are judged by one person alone, and there is a certain logic and sense to it – committees and compromise and all that – but there is a wisdom too in having different voices decide the prize. For one thing it makes you get clear on why; at times we each had to convince both ourselves and the others as to why we thought someone’s work had merit.

1 Dayannah, 2018 by Raphaela Rosella. 2 My Brother's family, 2018 by Joel Pratley.

There is no doubt that, on a certain level, a prize such as this must reflect societal concerns and preoccupations – something that probably becomes even more obvious with the passing of time. Different years have different, recurring themes, and these are very evident in the work made by the finalists; it sort of happens of its own accord without the judges noticing I suspect. Well it did with us, at least initially. One thing that looking through the exhibition made me reflect upon was the vulnerability that many of the subjects of the photographs either willingly or unwittingly reveal. I often think people are completely insane to agree to being photographed, but that is more about me; I’m almost pathologically camera-shy. I guess other people are both braver and more generous than I am!
I could be wrong, but I am not sure there is a cut and dried answer to the question of what makes a great portrait. Maybe it’s just as well I don’t work at the Portrait Gallery! Perhaps each great photograph has its own unique answer. Sometimes it’s nearly all about the photographer; sometimes it’s nearly all about the subject. The making of the portrait is always a complex relationship between the photographer and the sitter(s), and between the sitter and their environment. There are always questions of ethics and power dynamics (the photographer after all always has the final say on when the shutter is released, however collaborative the set up). The insider voice built on trust and familiarity, and the outsider voice with its different perspective are both equally meaningful, and equally capable of producing cracking images. Ultimately how the viewer reacts to all this is the final piece of the puzzle.

All the finalist photographs are works we stand by – and there are some real beauties in there. Invariably there were some that we were really sad to see not make the final cut (with accompanying range of judge facial expressions – disappointed and/or miffed!). With that noted, I am going to just say a bit about Alana Holmberg’s winning entry and Alex Vaughan’s highly commended. In the end, after hours of discussion and getting Portrait Gallery staff to carry photographs around the room from here to there and back again, we did choose these two images and we are happy to stand by that as well. I am speaking for Hoda and Chris here – but I know that is the case.

Some images just capture something magical. This is the case with Alana Holmberg’s depiction of her heavily pregnant sister, Greta. That moment with the light coming in through the kitchen window in the late afternoon is one that seems to exist in between times. When everything has slowed down to a stop. I think we’ve all experienced those moments, those flashes of heightened awareness … and a suspended pause before things go on again. Mythic. A little otherworldly.

I know images don’t generate sound, but this one is quiet. Greta is turned away, introspective, on the verge of such a life-changing, unknowable event, and yet caught nonetheless in reflection. I found myself breathing more slowly, more deeply in front of it.

Alex Vaughan’s image of the family on their boat (and home), Sumbawa, captures a moment of suspended movement that you know is about to dissolve. It’s magical in a different way. The momentary dispersal of all those children across the picture plane is quite extraordinary, and then like the Holmberg work there is this moment of unexpected quiet intimacy in its midst, with mother Beccie breastfeeding a newborn baby. It’s an image that makes me think, how did she even get that photograph? Everything has just come together in the most astounding way. Those moments that must make being a photographer a complete blast.

Something magical happens when photographers spend time. Time in photography – it’s such a hard thing to capture; even a long exposure is short. It’s not the only way to do it, but something happens when it’s there almost as a player on the stage. There is that all-important element in photography between the surface and what lies beneath. Can photography ever really tell a story in the same way as words – how do you tell a story in an image? What can the photographer ever really know other than what the sitter wants them to know in that moment – the mask, the performative element we all produce to exist in the world, and more specifically that we put on to be photographed. We all yearn to be seen for who we really are beneath the performance, and when photographers take time, sometimes the effort of keeping up the mask falls away – sometimes grudgingly, sometimes unknowingly, sometimes as a gift. Holmberg took her image after the sisters had been making others in a different setting – it was taken in the break. I didn’t know this until after we had chosen it as the winner, but I could feel it. Similarly, it took Vaughan time to build trust with this family – again I only found out later that she was the only photographer that they had allowed into their sanctuary. The trust that they have in her is palpable.

Whilst I’ve singled out the two winning photographs for discussion here, I’d like to pay tribute to the others in the final selection. I’ve just gone through the catalogue again as I sit here thinking about the works, and realise how invested I have become in the images we chose, remembering the many compelling and enlightening discussions they prompted with Hoda and Chris; and reflecting on – despite my misgivings about winning and losing and the whole judging palaver – how privileged I was to be part of the process this year.

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