Sunday 17 February 2013
Not too sure why I turn up every year to see the National Portrait Gallery's annual photographic portrait exhibition. It happens in the middle of winter, when something colourful and engaging is welcome. Entry is very cheap, whereas the cost of seeing most exhibitions - and a lot of other things - in central London is ever-more alarming. As a whole, the exhibition always disappoints me, but there's generally something in there that doesn't. All of that was true this year. Seeing on the same day the NPG exhibition of portraits by Man Ray (worth the shocking expense in this case) only underlined the disappointment: portrait photography in our super-sophisticated, technologically overachieving, endlessly referential and self-referential times ain't what it was and can't seem - for good or ill - to settle on what it might become instead. But it has its moments and its stars.
As ever, viewed en masse, the photos selected from the thousands submitted left me kind of choked and repelled - it's the massive display of specialness, paradoxically, that always disappoints me; the chosen ones are somehow always too emphatic, too perfect, somehow very static. But amidst it all there were some gorgeous and memorable photos. I'm an unashamed fan of those that draw on the heights both of technology and of an artistry beyond the technical to create portaits that appear truly 'painterly'. The best of these, have, along with silk and velvet textures, deep colours and a lovingly crafted aura of timelessness, a resonance that makes them much more than derivative. One of these was the portrait by Georges Pacheco of 'Amelie nursing her children' - it's the second one in the series featured here on his website, but I like them all. Another was Michael Birt's portrait of writer Hilary Mantel on the beach. (These images are so prominently copyrighted that I don't dare to post them here - it's ten or eleven along in his 'writers and directors' series here, so a bit of an effort to find, but worth the effort). In a life-size print, this one is really powerful, with its still but dynamic pose and dark, masculine, old-masterly colours. Of course, it finally strikes me, it evokes Holbein's famous portrait, above, of the man Mantel is most famous for writing about, Thomas Cromwell.
This year's surprises were a polaroid photo by Alice Pavesi Fiori and one taken with an i-Phone by Nathan Roberts. They both stood out for me as movingly immediate and subtly beautiful. Here is a different kind of sharpness that is also soft and a happy contrast to all the overdefined technical perfection on show.
These four photos, at least, have stayed with me powerfully since the exhibition - nothing like the substance and significance of Man Ray's work, but a more perturbing pleasure in a very different context.