Friday, February 13, 2009


Bag by Hendrik Kerstens

While in London I was lucky enough to get to spend some time in the National Portrait Gallery. In fact, the weather was so wet and cold that we went back twice over a couple of days. The first time we visited the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2008 exhibit. A wide variety of portrait subjects are on display in this contest, with work from professional and amateur photographers. I was particularly interested in the Young Guns image, Platon's Puttin and the Thai Boxing portrait, along with noticing something I hadn't really appreciated in portrait photography before. Nobody smiles. In fact, most people are almost expressionless in the portraits that were selected for this collection. I can remember only one image that seemed to be expressing or displaying any real expression - Steve McQueen by Chris Floyd. The rest are almost blank, settled into a resigned non-expression. I suppose I've noticed this before when looking at some portraits, but it was strange to see this repeated, over and over in such a wide range of portraits from so many different photographers.

On the second visit we took in the rest of the portrait gallery, looking at a lot of portraits from British history, of important figures from royalty, politics, the arts and sciences. Looking for it this time, I noticed again, no expressions on the faces. Now as many of these paintings were created over many, many sittings, it isn't surprising to see an accurate representation of an expressionless face. I am left wondering if so much of that artistic style still influences modern day photographic portraiture, even though the fundamental reason for those blank expressions has changed. Talking to my friend Chris today, he mentioned that he thinks Dan Winters has a lot to answer for, in this style of modern photographic portraiture. I found a good interview with Dan in PDN.