National Photographic Portrait Prize 2017

The Blue Mountains Cultural Centre is the first stop for the touring exhibition of the National Photographic Portrait Prize 2017. The intent of this annual event is to promote the very best in contemporary photographic portraiture, and it is open to aspiring and professional Australian photographers.

This is the tenth year of the prize, and the entries are judged by three people: two from the National Portrait Gallery and one from outside the organisation. There are forty-nine works which make up the finalist collection this year, and three photographers had two works apiece in the final selection: Charlie White, Brett Canet-Gibson and Peter McConchie.

This was the first time that I had seen the prize on tour, and it is a startling reflection of contemporary Australian society. The exhibition features people from many walks of life, with a few familiar faces cast among the portraits. Some portraits are striking for their simplicity; others have telling details in the backdrop and immediate surroundings of the shot.

In the exhibition catalogue, Sarah Engledow notes in her introduction that this year’s submissions (there were thousands of them), featured recurring themes including levitating elements, people photographed underwater, women crying and women wearing hijabs. There were also lots of beards. Engledow encourages reading the artist’s statements which accompany the submitted works as they provide insight and context, sometimes with humour.

There were many arresting portraits in the final selection. ‘A Moment‘ by Millie Brown, capturing a moment of stillness with Peter in a rock pool in East Arnhem Land; ‘Fifteen‘ by Fiona Morris, featuring aerialist Wonona with circus tents in the background; ‘The hermit‘ by Alex Frayne, with Royce Wells dwarfed by bamboo, “one of the most stubborn, brainy, wise, misanthropic and loveable minds I have had the pleasure to know.” I loved the wealth of homely detail in the portrait of Nell in ‘Ninety-nine-and-three-quarters‘ by Nic Duncan, and the framing of Nell’s eyes with the magnifying glass provided a different focus.

One of the finalists, Terry Hartin sums up the essence of portraiture: ‘It is always a collaboration between the photographer and the subject to achieve the best result.’

The exhibition is on display at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre at Katoomba until 13 August.

{Photo: Blue Mountains Cultural Centre]