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The look and the feel

Living Memory exhibition essay

Editor Stephen Phillips looks at the finalists' photographs through a judge's lens.

Untitled, 2020 Steph Fuller
Untitled, 2020 Steph Fuller. Courtesy of the artist. © The artist

The National Photographic Portrait Prize has always drawn forth a candid, instructive expression of Australia. It’s a perennial Portrait Gallery and audience favourite for a reason: each year another delicious portmanteau emerges, featuring an intrigue of our fellows in national composite; and we, the lookers, pupils dilated, get to immerse ourselves in these pictures and their narratives, spanning tones quirky to quotidian, chilling to charming, zealous to zen.

2021 brings us the NPPP’s fourteenth iteration, and — with the cataclysmic events of late 2019 and 2020 in its orbit — conceivably its most significant. Indeed, noting the prize’s identity astride the juncture of photographic portraiture and collective social documentary, it was only apposite to widen its embrace to mark the remarkable. And so Living Memory: National Photographic Portrait Prize 2021 was born. Conceived and named to acknowledge the starkest of times, the Gallery expanded this year’s prize to support our artistic community: it features significantly more finalist works than usual; a new artist support payment, paid to every finalist; an extended exhibition season at the Portrait Gallery in Canberra (31 July – 7 November 2021); and, supplementing the usual suite of winners’ prizes, mentorship opportunities awarded to selected finalists to support photographic career aspirations.

The words that follow summarise the astute observations of esteemed photographer Bill Henson, responding to questions from Portrait Gallery Director Karen Quinlan about this year’s prize. The pair are two of the three judges for Living Memory, with National Gallery of Australia Director Nick Mitzevich the third. References to specific works here are in the context of the judges having just arrived at the shortlist of finalists after viewing thousands of entries on-screen. The subsequent, final adjudicators’ deliberations — to choose the winning photographs — took place shortly before the exhibition opened, and long after this essay was written. After all, as Henson notes, when it comes to that final stage, looking at real objects on gallery walls, ‘things change radically’.

The trio of Living Memory judges started with the mammoth task of having to work through over three thousand entries. It’s a daunting figure, and one which raises the question of what qualities stand out in an image to entice an experienced arbiter. Having judged multiple competitions (‘from Tierra del Fuego to Siberia’), Bill Henson’s take on matters is clear: ‘The thing that I’m looking for most is something which, on repeated viewings, becomes more interesting — perhaps even mesmeric — and the longer you look at it, the more interesting, strange and mysterious it becomes’. Qualifying this mesmeric element, he explains that the critical attraction to a photograph begins with the heart: ‘If you don’t feel anything about something it’s never going to mean much to you. Meaning comes from feeling.’

1 Hana, Bobby and Mica in the lounge room, 2020 Lisa Sorgini. Courtesy of the artist. © The artist. 2 Tom at the drain, 2020 Julian Kingma. Courtesy of the artist. © Julian Kingma.

It’s a proposition that resonates instantly: the observer’s private gasp — that spark of visceral empathy or connection we feel when looking at a particular scene or subject(s) in a photograph. Henson characterises it as the ‘suggestive potential of the meeting’. It’s a quality in the work that ‘universalises the subject, and suggests things which are abstract. These things come from a feeling of the passage of time; they act as a memento mori, and, of course, they remind us of those universal conditions of life on earth: love, fear, growing old, longing.’

At some level it’s gratifying, even lifeaffirming to note that a practitioner of Henson’s stature is looking first and foremost to be moved or affected. We’re all human, after all! And what of the more technical elements of a photograph, such as composition and other structural considerations? Henson explains that for him the overarching concern in this sphere is simply the aesthetic — which is not to say that technical elements aren’t important, but rather that they stand as functions or components of that overall visual appeal, that aestheticism. So, simply put, it has to be an arresting image — a picture that works in its own right, beyond specific technical or thematic considerations.

1 Lockdown dreaming II, 2020 John Morley, Madelin Bronar-Thomas and. 2 The silent gardener, 2020 Guy Lamothe. Both Courtesy of the artist © The artist

An interesting part of that aesthetic premise is the idea that beautiful results in art are, at times, achieved by accident — subverting any all-consuming notions of technical mastery. As Henson states, ‘I think you have to kind of get over certain things with photography. And the “purely professional” is one of those things; there needs to be space for the unforeseen, the accidental — in any work of art, ideally.’ Applied in the case of Living Memory, Henson was taken with the ethereal and ‘quite haunting’ effect of two finalist works that are double exposures, with at least one of those entries — a photograph shot on a roll of film already used — created by accident. Again, it’s the image primarily as capturer of emotion; the means of rendering it, while fascinating (and/or accidental), are a supplementary concern.

Extending this premise, the allowance for space outside the purely professional remains one of the attractive and defining features of the National Photographic Portrait Prize. It is, in essence, a relatively ‘democratised’ show: alongside the slew of exceptional, highly experienced photographers who submit entries, and invariably, justifiably make shortlists, there is always the chance that a gifted greenhorn will triumph with a heartwrenchingly beautiful picture. Such is the nature of the photographic medium, and judges’ human eyes and hearts.

1 Pride, 2020 Christopher Hopkins. 2 Back to earth, 2019 Julian Dolman. Both Courtesy of the artist © The artist

Henson identifies another central trait of the most engaging entries as the absence of blunt emotional contrivance. He explains, with reference to the artist statements: ‘Once I got into the texts … there were a few which were quite striking in the background to the photograph. But the funny thing — the almost inevitable thing — was that those were photographs which were already transmitting something quite compelling. And the text just backed up the feeling you’d had about the picture. And that’s why aesthetics is so important. It was the fact that you already knew that this photograph, the actual image, without any words … had an authentic dimension to it, and a truth, but sidestepped all of those kinds of things where someone is deliberately appealing to our emotions, which of course you get in a lot of journalism and other types of picturemaking as well.’ Perhaps it can be summarised as a subtlety, beguiling — a reiteration of Henson’s pivotal concern of the suggestive in a picture, rather than the prescriptive.

1 Max, 2020 Rachel Mounsey. 2 In another land, 2020 Geoff Harvey. Both Courtesy of the artist © The artist

On the topic of powerful suggestion, another theme that emerged in discussion was the landscape — both its presence in the Living Memory images and its evocative strength in art in general. Henson notes that ‘culture is never outside nature’ and makes reference to the immersive pull of such works as John Glover’s 1837 painting Mount Wellington with Orphan Asylum, Van Diemen’s Land, and Augustus Earle’s A bivouac of travellers in Australia in a cabbage-tree forest, painted the following year. The colonial works situate humankind (or their buildings, in the case of Glover’s) at small scale amidst the imposing vastness of the heavily forested landscape around them. Henson points out that ‘landscape can be as intense and illuminating a portrait of the human condition as any picture of a person’. It’s a lovely piece of context, reminding us that the concept of portraiture — with all of its representation of inner being and psyche and life experience — can be applied as broadly as our imagination allows. Among the Living Memory finalists, the landscape as potent element features heavily — whether as fire-ravaged skeleton boughs, as escapist natural backdrops, as verdant greenery, or as the duststorm blur in Joel Brian Pratley’s Drought Story.

And so on to musing about the winners. What happens when the judges walk in to look at 79 photographs hung on the Portrait Gallery walls to determine the winning and highly commended artworks? Henson’s tone is one of relish, because anticipating being moved, inspired, delighted — just affected in some way — is surely what life with art is all about. ‘I think in the end it’ll be very simple. It’s the one that remains, you know, immediately fascinating again, after repeated viewings … and one comes back and back and says, “it’s great. It’s great.” It just pulls you in and keeps pulling you in. And of course that is one of the great achievements because of the instantaneous nature of the medium, and the kind of effect that our environment, saturated with photography, has. It’ll be the one that just quietly takes over and becomes something that you could look at for the rest of your life.’

The point about the ubiquity of photography is well made. Henson considers photography’s ‘evidential’ authority — the proof it provides of something in space and time — as something we’re conditioned to see first by default, meaning it can be harder to step beyond, to connect with the medium’s aesthetic qualities. There’s something rather special about the National Photographic Portrait Prize, because overcoming that first edifice is part of the program. It’s why people come to the Gallery for the show: to enter the space with the art in mind, in an eminently suggestible state; to see how and where the pictures take them; to be transfixed by an image’s look, and transported by how it makes them feel. And for the artists, they wait as their photographs are launched like feathers into the disparate gusts of human subjectivity — the whims of tens of thousands of viewers (and a few judges to boot). Who knows whether and whither they will fly?

Related people

Bill Henson AO

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