LONDON RESEARCH TRIP – National Portrait Gallery

During Spa Week I didn’t manage to book into any Workshops as they were all full up by the time I got to them, and with my mental health and anxiety being so prevalent, in all honesty I felt unable to sign up to many of them anyway.

I decided instead to go to London for a research trip, which I felt was really making use of my time alongside working on my project. Although the work I was seeing might not be completely relevant to this current project, I am aware our next project is about portraiture and so visiting the portrait gallery was feeding into that.

Thursday 8th November, 2018

London on your own is so different to London with others.

For a country girl like me, used to tiny villages and forest reachable within a few minutes, London is a metropolis of sound and colour and smells, a rush of humanity with a common goal; to live.

My goal was to see art, to see photography, but also to experience London with just myself for company for the first time. I spontaneously booked tickets before checking anyone was free, so I decided to not let fear stop me; I was just going to live. With no one to guide you around, pictures are more spur of the moment captures, a look up from a google map, desperate not to get lost. Moments of familiarity allow for more freedom – you can’t get lost crossing a straight bridge, or waiting to cross a road, instead I absolutely dwell in languages, accents, noises coming from every direction, a harmony in the key of humanity.

Getting lost in colours and blurs of lives passing by me, I am in awe of the idea that every life is three dimensional, every life is full of concerns, happiness, hate; love. I am in London not only to see art, but also to experience what getting completely caught up in life can feel like.

I had planned to visit 6 galleries, or at least, had interest in them – National Portrait Gallery; to see the ‘Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2018’, the National Gallery; to see 17th Century painting to study the lighting techniques, wouldn’t be too difficult to get to these two – a stone’s throw away from each other. I had also considered the Saatchi Gallery, to see the ‘Black Mirror’ exhibition, the Victoria and Albert museum to see the newly opened photography wing, and the Photographers Gallery to see the photos of Roman Vishniac. I didn’t manage to get to these three, instead travelling over to the Barbican to see ‘Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant Garde’ and then to the Tate Modern to meet a friend.



The main exhibition I had planned to see was the Taylor Wessing…The images I saw last year stuck with me, the exhibition catalogue a firm favourite if I need physical inspiration, so I just had to go back. The exhibition this year boasted a completely different feel – of course the climate of photographic focus has shifted slightly alongside both societal and political happenings in the year since the exhibition was shown. Last year the exhibition held images of ‘political’ and humanitarian standing – the refugee crisis was rightly so, at the centre of documentary images shown in the exhibition, and I was touched and often moved when viewing these images. This year, I found the stand out word to be ‘power’, the images empower the subjects, especially subjects that could also be captured in a light that would show their vulnerability as a weakness. Voices and stories are told through captions, and with some of the images I found myself understanding the power of words – the image could not stand on its own, the caption giving the voice to the subject. Some images however stood as their own story – their colours, vantage point giving us the atmosphere, framing giving us a slither of reality for the subject. The exhibition was moving, gave me a sense of true vulnerability but also a glimpse into the world of documentary photography in the constantly changing world around us.

I found that the images that stood out to me were the candid shots – living life and capturing that instead of the more posed and styled shots. I feel these candid shots give a sense of true life, a viewpoint to the person; I found it slightly more difficult to identify this within the more stylised images.

Joey Lawrence, Portrait of 'Strong' Joe Smart, 2017.Shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2018
Joey Lawrence – Portrait of ‘Strong Joe Smart’ from his series ‘Tombo’s Wound’.

For example, the image that greets you into the gallery is one of childlike wonder and exploration. With a muted almost monochromatic palette, this image by Joey Lawrence capturing ‘Strong Joe Smart’ with his mask of grass (which he insisted he keep on for the shoot) captures a sense of power and determination in this little boys eyes. The depth of field omits the focus of the leaves right in the foreground of the image, instead focusing on the boy, giving a real sense of depth, the background aswell extending out way past the subject. Just such a beautiful picture.

There are too many images within the exhibition for me to go through and pick out the ones I felt a deep connection with, but I found the common theme was a sense of reality, shrouded slightly by moving, muted colour palettes and a way into seeing the subject as a person; not just another story on the front page of a magazine.

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Greta and Guenda by Guen Fiore.

My favourite image from the exhibition (the one above a close second) was Guen Fiore’s ‘Greta and Guenda’. I almost drooled all over this image, the breath-taking simplicity, intimacy and balanced skin tones are so beautifully captured. The tones within Fiore’s work suggest the use of film, the tones I can identify as perhaps a Kodak Portra 400 film? There is no further information around her technique though, so this is only a guess.

Her further work is touching and oh so beautiful, capturing gazes and non-verbal hints to make alive the emotion and allow that recognition within you’re a deeper self. The strong gaze within this image is perhaps one of ‘hurting’, the subjects look sad, but could also be neutral, annoyed frustration. The fairly monochrome palette and the very close crop brings an intimate feel, the closeness and trust you can gather from the image, not just with each other but also with the photographer boasts of a family portrait painting in the style of the pre-Raphaelite’s perhaps.  It is just plainly a captivating image to me.

Images such as the ones below I include due to the depth of story you can gather by just looking at the images. You can take so much from a simple glance. I also include them because of the colours; beautiful tones again, the colours almost melt together, but each plays a part within the representation of the scene.

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Gary, Cigarette, from the series The Hawks Come Up Before the Sun by Kovi Konowiecki
Runner Up, from the series Double Jab ABC Show by Sam Wright
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Darrin Zammit Lupi – Part of a photojournalism series.
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Kurtiss Aaron Lloyd – Portrait of Charanpreet Singh Lall, first Sikh to wear a turban during Trooping of the Colour. 



Also being displayed at the NPG unbeknownst to me was an exhibition named ‘Black is the New Black’ bringing together ‘exceptional figures from the world of politics, business, culture, religion and science to celebrate black British achievement today’ (Quote lifted from leaflet). Hand in hand with Simon Frederick’s BBC Two documentary of the same name in 2016, the exhibition is strikingly powerful, boasting of the ‘largest group of portraits of Afro Caribbean sitters in the NPG’s Collection’ (quote lifted from leaflet).

The images are taken close to the sitters, intimate and striking faces portraits are collectively displayed in a style that I don’t usually like, images stacked on top of each other with a sheet and numbers to guide you to captions. I found it worked in this exhibition though, as each subject has a different and poignant story to tell.

The shooting technique is soft and gentle, a red/burgundy background goes well with the skin tones and a very low depth of field puts exact focus onto the main features of the sitters faces.

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Thandie Newton

This image of Thandie Newton shows strength in the vulnerability of the pose, head bowed, subtle smile, the light is soft and creates subtle highlights on her face. This image was perhaps my favourite, I can sense a theme within myself of loving work that shows a deep vulnerability and humanity, however subtle. Within the second image of Laura Mvula, the vulnerability is not shown as soft, but in the defiance of the strong gaze into the camera. The lighting here is more direct, a much more direct lighting perhaps being cast from above.

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Laura Mvula 

I found this exhibition powerful, and so fitting alongside the Taylor Wessing Prize, which forefront both political and social issues in our society, I find that the power within these beautiful portraits by Simon Frederick a joy to view, and even more so as I didn’t expect to find the exhibition!

I enjoyed the both these exhibitions, also free to wander around the rest of the building, I found myself rushing to get onto the next gallery!

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