THE winning portrait in this year’s National Photographic Portrait Prize marks a return to the National Portrait Gallery’s early practice of contesting the very nature of portraiture.
Alana Holmberg’s work, “Greta in her kitchen, 36 weeks”, shows the artist’s own pregnant sister, partly viewed from the rear and reflected in a kitchen window. It’s an images which, National Portrait Gallery senior curator Christopher Chapman says portrays “a gentle moment of peaceful reflection”.
Holmberg receives $30,000 cash prize and $22,000 worth of technical equipment courtesy of Canon.
The highly commended award went to Alex Vaughan for the portrait “Sumbawa pride – life on a boat with eleven kids”, which similarly contests conventional views of portraiture in depicting a large group. She wins an EIZO monitor valued at over $3000.
This is the first portrait prize for new National Portrait Gallery director Karen Quinlan, who emphasised that the prize was open to both professional and inspiring photographers, this year attracting 3113 entries, from which 40 finalists were shortlisted.
Chapman, who spoke on behalf of his fellow judges Anne O’Hehir and Hoda Afshar, told media earlier in the day that the National Photographic Portrait Prize was undoubtedly the most popular exhibition for the gallery each year.
In spite of the focus on re-interpreting portraiture, the enormous popularity of this prize show, which Chapman said was easily the most popular annual exhibition at the gallery, maybe put down to the preponderance of serious close-up portraits, such as that of writer Helen Garner in her kitchen or indigenous identity Tracey Briggs.
The exhibition still devotes its greatest space to portraits of individuals, often seen in critical moments, as with the image of a young Pakistani immigrant, nose bandaged after a violent, racist attack.
Background imagery plays a large part in this year’s shortlisted works. A woman is shown celebrating her 30th birthday with all the party paraphernalia around her. Other background images include a washing line, the Mona Lisa and an industrial landscape that the photographer believes looks like a scene from a Hayao Miyazaki film.
One striking wall features a trio of photographs displaying an internalised, lyrical quality – a young boy bathes in a pool. Julian Kingma’s portrait of his son Willem suggests his anxiety and his artistic dreams, and the art handlers’ prize-winner, Elizabeth Looker’s intense work, “A calm so deep”, suggests an inner life.
The 2019 National Photographic Portrait Prize, National Portrait Gallery, daily, February 23 to April 7. People’s Choice voting opens to the public on February 23.