Jooney Woodward was the winner of this year’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize – the long-running and highly distinguished competition organised by the National Portrait Gallery. Her winning image (Harriet and Gentleman Jack, 2010) of a young redheaded girl holding a guinea pig is taken from her series examining the world of animal exhibiting.
The judges of this year’s competition came under much criticism for their decision, which in the opinion of many was made in-line with a perceived long-standing bias for images featuring young, grim-faced females with red hair. There are certainly a great number of images of redheads within the exhibition, many of which are standout images.
Woodward’s image is perhaps an unworthy winner, but I haven’t fully decided yet. It’s difficult to gauge the success of photography in such a large assortment as occurs in a prize exhibition such as this. The show comprises around 60 works, and rarely, I would imagine, do visitors spend even 60 minutes in the space in order to allow a mere 60 seconds for each image. The book is a slightly more leisurely way to give each photograph the attention it deserves, and allows for better reflection, though sadly the accompanying texts from the exhibition itself are not present in the book.
Harriet and Gentleman Jack takes on something of a different feel when viewed in its correct context, as part of Woodward’s ongoing series. The image above, I feel represents better the native tone of the project; one of cultural curiosity and an inspection of the visual peculiarities of this corner of society. Much of the sternness afforded to the portrait is not apparent in the rest of the work, and so its meaning is changed.
I wonder if we can really pass judgment on the images in a large show like this without knowing their contexts. There is a danger, surely, of mistaking deliberate selection bias with the prejudiced expectations of the viewer (particularly given Taylor Wessing’s reputation). Perhaps it is slightly unfair to talk of this year’s show being ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the previous year for this reason.