Fine art: Portraits that open a window to the soul

Fine art: Portraits that open a window to the soul

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize
National Portrait Gallery, London, until February 21

This year’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize is showing now at the National Portrait Gallery. Almost 5,000 images from 2,201 photographers have been whittled down to four dozen or so, and the five prize-winners.

A visit to the exhibition is an enriching hour. Walking from frame to frame, the viewer pries into the still lives of each subject, sussing their expression and their circumstance, feeling like a detective sniffing out clues with which to piece together some of the many puzzles held within each portrait. All the while, the subjects look back at you in their pact of silent indifference, or gaze off in another direction altogether, as if daring you to try to know them.

Having drunk your fill of one life, or simply run out of clues, another life awaits you a few feet down the wall. As one door closes another opens into a completely different world.

Some are pictures of celebrities. Benedict Cumberbatch is there, as are the Obamas. We see the backs of the heads of Gilbert and George, who are dressed in tweed. But there are also images of those who will never be famous. In one, three child amputees leaning against a wall, victims of the Syrian civil war. In another, Afghanistan’s first woman police chief stands proudly behind her desk.

But when the story is told for you, there is less detective work to be done. Somehow the most successful photographs are those wrested from their context – the subjects you know nothing whatsoever about. The profile of a beautiful redhead staring into space. Two girls sitting on a pipeline in the middle of a forest at sunrise. A plump boy in a vest staring up at the sky. The less you know of the subjects, the more is left to your imagination. And that is why these portraits are so fascinating.

It goes without saying that all the images in the exhibition are of a high quality. In each one, according to one of the judges, three elements are at play: how the subject might wish to be seen; how the photographer chooses to represent them; and the preconceptions of the viewer receiving the image.

Two are self-portraits by the Dublin-born Trish Morrissey, in which she mimics photographs she has found of Icelandic scenes from the 1940s. “Each character I chose to reimagine had something about them that I recognised,” she explains.

This raises the question of whether all art a mirror. Do we seek in art some way of recognising ourselves, merely projecting what we want on to what we think comes closest? Each photograph in this exhibition must carry a different meaning for each person, something in themselves they recognise. No doubt a repeat visit would bring to the fore a different set of photos – those which come closest to setting off our hidden emotions at that moment.

One of art’s big purposes is to help us make some sense of our lives. It seeks to bring us closer to that goal, while at the same time recoiling from it and deepening the mystery. Photographs like these help us along the way, fleshing out our own self-portraits a little more.