Seeing the 2017 National Photographic Portrait Prize of Australia

Several weeks ago I hopped on my bike and pedalled my way across the bridge over Lake Burley Griffin to the National Portrait Gallery of Australia. It was a bright, sunny, and typically cold winter day in Canberra. But I was determined to see this year’s competition for the National Photographic Portrait Prize. (To go to the official prize website and see all the photographs click here.) When I got there I promptly put down my wrinkly $10 and started walking through the exhibit, still a little warm from the 40-minute ride, camera in hand. One of the great things about visiting an exhibit, including the chance to see the photographs grouped together, comparing and contrasting and considering one another, is the fact that they are much bigger than you’re likely to see on a screen.

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(1) “The National Photographic Portrait Prize is an annual event intended to promote the very best in contemporary photographic portraiture by both professional and aspiring Australian photographers.”

(2) “The National Portrait Gallery exists to increase the understanding of the Australian peopletheir identity, history, creativity and culturethrough portraiture.”

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After spending about 90 minutes going through the gallery I strolled into the gift shop and purchased the exhibition book, from which the quotes above derive. I knew I wanted to look at many of the portraits again, and I was intrigued by how this composite collection of photographs provided a portrait of Australia. Obviously this exhibit is one very important way of considering how Australia sees itself. It can be usefully compared with political discourse in this country. At the gallery itself there was a computer at which you could vote for your favourite portrait, though upon reflection I think I’ve changed my mind since casting my ballot.

First, though, consider a few details. There were 49 photographs on the shortlist. 38 were in colour, 11 were in black and white; 18 were oriented by landscape, 20 by portrait, and 11 were scaled 1:1; six contained children, three youth, nine young adults, perhaps 26 or so middle-aged, and seven seniors; 19 photographs were of males, 25 of females, and the remaining contained both genders; 33 portraits were of white people, 16 of non-white, the latter including several first Australians; seven photographs were nudes, and of those most were women.

Census data released a few weeks ago tells us that Australia is an increasingly diverse place. Indeed, for the first time in its history more people are immigrating to Australia from outside Britain, principally from China and the Indian subcontinent. It is not an accident that a political megaphone now exists for white anxiety in the form of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and immigration minister Peter Dutton have lately taken to uttering the phrase “Australian values” as often as possible, serving up what amounts to a vacuous tautology in place of political substance.

To a degree, these immigration trends are reflected in the NPPP finalists, which include photographs of Australians who’ve come from Pakistan, South Sudan, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Similarly, a range of social issues with political overtones is addressed by these portraits. One portrait is of an anti-capitalist activist; another is of a woman who protects animals; another is of a homeless man; another is of two people from the Australian queer community; and still another is of a family who has recently immigrated. And that doesn’t even cover it all.

At the National Photographic Prize of Australia, 2017.

Stylistically, some of photographs are carefully choreographed, such as that of Richard Morecroft and Alison Mackay by Gary Grealy. Others are more spontaneous. Sometimes a moment is captured that seems authentically Australian, if I can put it that way, as in the portrait of “Eva and Finn” by Noah John Thompson. For a number of reasons, this is possibly my favourite portrait from the shortlist. The couple pose on the road in front of a large cloud of billowing smoke from a nearby controlled fire. The sun brightly illuminates the sky from behind. Eva is wearing a dark one-piece swimsuit, her long, damp hair gently fizzled by the wind; Finn holds her under his shoulder. Neither of them smile, but to me they give off a sense of wistful acceptance. The overall resonance of this scene recalls the bushfires common to Western Australia. In order to prevent the sky from being blown out, the exposure time for the photograph has been shortened. Hence the foreground is visible but dark, cast in the long, large shadow of the fire’s smoke. The shade in which the couple stand is of course both literal and metaphorical, the result of the sun’s position in the night sky and, I would add, an expression of humanity’s vulnerability in nature. It is a photograph that highlights both sky and land, two important themes in the Australian imagination. It thereby focuses on an intensely destructive, but ultimately creative, natural event (i.e. the fire). The effect is almost palpable. However, the fact that this happens to be a controlled burn only underscores the complex, seemingly self-destructive connection between humanity and nature today. As daily news alerts remind us, the age of the Anthropocene may already be over. With the stony cruelty of an apparent inevitability, the timespan in which humanity learned to exert newfound power over nature may be at once cosmically infinitesimal and demonstrative of the fact that natural knowledge did not yield collective wisdom. This is indeed a portrait of Australia, but it is also a telling portrait of the world.

Several other portraits on the shortlist blur the line between authenticity and spontaneity. Or perhaps I should say that by portraying their subjects out of keeping with their immediate temporal context, they reveal something else, possibly something even more telling, about them. In “A moment” by Millie Brown, Peter, a young boy, looks directly at the camera. The whole photograph is saturated by the beautiful browns of his immediate surroundings, including the rocks and the pool of water he’s standing in. Another Australian connection to land and water is being presented here, this time with specific reference to the first Australians and their decedents. Young Peter’s gaze is intensely serious. But the photograph’s caption tells us that this stands in sharp contrast to the scene he had been a part of a moment before. He had been playing in the water with other boys in the area (in the Northern Territory, East Arnhem Land). Apparently he simply adopted this passing pose when the photographer asked to take his picture, returning to the fun thereafter. As I see the photograph now and think about the gravity it seems to exudePeter’s quiet, sustained angerI connect it to Australia’s colonial history. Two words of Latin with tremendous baggage spring to mind: terra nullis.

On the lighter side, consider “The gin-soaked effervescence of Libby and Maeve” by Patrick Boland. The two cabaret performers are also presented in a serious pose, though somewhat mockingly. The photograph is in colour, is oriented vertically, and shows the women wearing similar black dresses, gin cocktails in hand. You can almost feel the warmth of the place, and the delicious relief an alcoholic beverage so often brings in Australia’s unforgiving heat. The duo were performing a show called “Mother’s Ruin” about the history of women and gin. A mirror on the wall reflects the entirely appropriate setting of a bar. This scene calls to mind the kind of establishment that Mrs Pickles, of Tim Winton’s much-loved Australian novel Cloudstreet, might have visited. Indeed, this photograph could feature in a “people’s history of Australia,” dedicated to the ways women of the past found of getting on and getting by.

With “KueiThe Sea of GazellesSouth Sudan to Oz,” by Kellie Leczinkska, I think part of what we’re seeing is a fascinating, thoughtful, even beautiful inversion of a classic European painting: Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring.” In this case the photographic portrait is of a new Australian from the South Sudan, and part of its import is precisely the way in which it challenges the self-representation of European colonial societies. Kuei was born in Bahr el Ghazal (“Sea of Gazelles”) and settled in Australia after spending years in a refugee camp. She has a similar expression on her face as in the Vermeer painting, and it’s probably significant that she’s facing the other direction, a quite literal inversion. Kuei is also wearing a stunningly rich blue scarf, covering her hair in a fashion reminiscent of the Vermeer painting as well. Although it’s not clear if this clothing is Kuei’s normal apparel, or if it is perhaps a more deliberate attempt on the part of the photographer to remind us of the moral resonance we still understandably but perilously attribute to appearance (something explored in other photographs on the shortlist), the portrait also differs from Vermeer’s painting in being a nude. Perhaps a final inversion is implied here, this time of the many different ways European settlers pictured colonial subjects nude in their attempt to classify and control difference.

Another stunning portrait from this year’s selection is “Return,” by Philip Myers. The actor Tom Lewis stands in a vast expanse of light blue water. The caption tells us he’s returning to the land of his Murrungun ancestors to learn their songs. Processed in colour, oriented horizontally, the line separating the sky and the water nearly disintegrates in a haze of whites and greys. Tom pulls a small white boat by a rope, wearing a partly wet long-sleeved white collared shirt and dark slate shorts. Standing ankle-deep, the water extends in all directions. Tom looks at the camera in anticipation, combining exhaustion and excitement together in a way that communicates expectancy. When I look at this portrait again I feel as if I’m being invited along, given a chance to share in a journey home, with all the weight and possibility that that entails. All life on earth emerged from the water; it is a place of birth, death, and rebirth; it is the site of cycles of creation and destruction. Tom ventures forth, walking in/on water, reaching for the shore. He’s forging a new connection to his ancestral past. Eventually, he’s going to sing a new song.

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As John Berger reminds us in Ways of Seeing (1972), we “only see what we look at.” And to look is to act; it is to chose and to see in a particular way. When it comes to images, how we see is a way of looking. Even if we’re looking at a photograph, the world in which that photograph is placed shapes the way we see it. Someone else’s vision, captured in a photograph, becomes embedded in the world we are living in and looking at, the world we are seeing in a certain way. The way in which we contact the world, looking at an image, is constituted by the way we think and live assumptions about beauty, truth, tastes, status, and so on. Berger’s essay is an attempt to shake us as viewers from our aesthetic slumbers. My echo of the famous Kant-Hume connection here is intended. For in the same way Kant reflected critically on the conditions of the possibility of experience, Berger wants us to look at art with a critical eye, examining the ways in which it brings the world together. All too often, he wrote, images classified as great art were either conceived or interpreted as direct or roundabout ways of justifying the ruling class. Visiting the NPPP of Australia was not only a rich aesthetic experience but a fresh reminder of how art composes a society’s portrait.