Saturday, 7 August 2010

Showering in public.

Summer's here and the time is right for..... standing uncomfortably in a line of hopefuls all fidgeting nervously and clutching envelopes of prints - Yes its that Taylor Wessing moment. The National Portrait Gallery's annual prize for photographic portraits has rolled round once more and oh, the joy of submission is upon us already!

Every year this well-run and highly regarded prize (now sponsored by Taylor Wessing) offers a chance to take the "Pepsi challenge" with the best portrait photographers around.

Because all pictures must be entered as prints and most photographers choose to deliver them personally, the temporary office at London College of Communication becomes the single most passive aggressive place in town for one week only.

There is normally a queue. So you wait patiently eyeing your fellow combatants and their envelopes. The minimum size for prints is A3 and maximum is about A1. But in the line, unlike the actual judging, size is everything.

Size says confidence, size says, "Hey everyone my pictures are big, my pictures demand respect." Size says, "A3? Schmaythree! - looks like a goddamn postcard! Get that puny little passport picture out of my sight!"

But at the end of the line there is the room of tables. And the tables have a different take. The tables say, "Right then.... Are you going to get them out face-up or are you trying to compensate for something with that EXTRA-LARGE envelope or yours?"

The tables say, "Name, rank and registration number." The tables are ALL business.

Well on this occasion I'm delivering Abbie Trayler-Smith's prints along with my own entry and as it turns out she has gone the "Supersize Me" route so I get them out, Face-up (obviously) and somewhat gingerly - the acetate sleeves crease if you so much as look at them the wrong way!

They are really good and the big prints look great, like you want to dive in. They are carefully turned face down to have a registration number branded on their rump and carried off to the adjacent room.

Photographers at the other tables can't help but sneak a peek at each-other's work as they unpack their prints. They glance furtively and immediately look away if spotted. There are measurements being taken, strengths being assessed, weights estimated and totted-up. There is something of the communal shower about the whole process but hey, I just unloaded the Ark of the Covenant and best of all, they're not my pictures. Zero emotional investment and the room shudders as I flex my indifference.

But then it's time to drop my own towel and get these tiny little A3 prints of mine out. Anyone got a microscope?

I have three pictures, all darker and more direct than I normally shoot (abandoned my "painterly" style this year as I try to experiment with new approaches) they are - in no particular order: My favorite, a personal picture and a total flyer.

They come out of the envelope face down. A sticker with my registration number is slapped on the sleeve and a few details checked to make sure all is in order.

Against my better judgement I turn the pile over to give them a last farewell at the school gates. The girl on the next table looks over. A little hint of curled lip passes over her face and then she lifts the corner of her print as she ostentatiously dusts it off. I get it full in the face. The work is strong, colourful and instantly memorable even at this distance.

I gather my envelopes and card and oversize plastic bag and leave quietly, not expecting good news from the judges in the coming weeks. There's always 2011.


Maelo Manning said...

You are a amazing photographer. The picture of me in yesterday's paper is wonderful. Thank you. I am going to follow your blog.

Jason said...

You never know mate, I got to the whittling down stage last year and failed... I decided to save the money this time around. Maybe, we should adopt a more postmodern soulless style that seems to work next time around.

Justin Sutcliffe said...

@ Maelo, Thank you very much for your kind compliments on my photos. It was a pleasure to meet you and take your picture, thank you for being so patient and welcoming.

@ Jason, maybe I'll go the "Big Prints" route next year but as with any contest you never know what might take their fancy. Some years I've looked at the selection and been wowed by nearly everything, some years there are just a few but, much like the World Press, there are a lot of nice pictures that don't get in.

Interestingly enough, one of Abbie Trayler-Smith's pictures made it so I clearly didn't jinx it with my very presence!