By Tamsin Kemp
One of the first things that strike you upon stepping inside this year’s National Photographic Portrait Prize is the potent sense of community.
“The thing that’s important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.” – Diane Arbus
Moving through the galleries is like being introduced to friends of friends at a party. The absent, but vitally present, photographers are the ones with the motioning hands, saying ‘over here! come meet my mother, my hero, my son, my mate, my neighbour…’
No one feels removed from us; everyone feels a part of the gathering. Welcomed and welcoming.
This is not to suggest that all the images are all feel-good and happy days. Many are confronting, poignant, and uncomfortable.
As diverse as they are in mood, style, and influences, what each has in common is the notion of invitation – come closer, let me tell you my story, they say.
The narrative that struck me again and again, was that of tender vulnerability, coexisting—in wonderful and perplexing human fashion—with profound strength.
The overwhelming sense I was left with was a ‘come as you are’ feel.
Every story here goes far beyond the frame, no matter how humble the sense of the image.
Such as with Jay Hyne’s Dave, and Adam Ferguson’s painterly image Ukrzaliznytsia (Ukrainian Railways) employee, Sumy Oblast, Ukraine: both of these photos capture their pensive sitters in muted tones, inhabiting rooms that are plain, unextraordinary.
Yet, it is clear, partly from the finely considered composition and incoming light, reminiscent of a Vermeer painting, what lies outside of this humble space is of greatest significance.
Visiting the exhibition in NAIDOC Week, I was pleased to see so many First Nations people as part of the storytelling, both as subjects and photographers.
Although, I would have been better pleased to see more representation behind the camera. Most of the images of Indigenous Australians were taken by non-Indigenous people. This is not, in and of itself, necessarily problematic—respect is clearly evident—but it feels to me like a disconnect. An imbalanced gaze.
But I am utterly absorbed by the Indigenous women especially. There is a directness, a sense of intricate and deep knowledge being protected and continued.
This is no more beautifully expressed than in Brenda Croft and Prue Hazelgrove’s blood/memory: Brenda and Christopher I, where the two appear immediately connected in love, learning, and a shared journey. Referencing Croft’s long and diverse family history is the use of tintype to create an image that speaks of other times and places.
It is important to acknowledge the disquiet present, in different ways, in some of the portraits of Indigenous Australians, as with Charlie Bliss’s The Bamugura, where we meet Susan Balbunga, Warrawarra cultural leader and master weaver. The bamugura (conical mat) she is weaving takes months to construct but will last decades. The setting, the craft, her slender hands, are all richly seductive.
But this initially heartwarming image carries a sorrowful tale. Susan Balbunga is one of the few remaining people with the knowledge and skill to make a bamugura, so there is also a terrible sense of loss here. Of disappearance.
There are other images that touch on everyday concurrences of joy and grief.
Such as Sarah Enticknap’s gentle image Mum helping with canvas, where the almost childlike quality of the expression is devastatingly explained by the artist sharing that her mother has Alzheimer’s. We know, now, this person is in the process of slowly disappearing, and the artist is in the process of slowly grieving.
It is so intimate: the backyard gum, the early evening light, galah pink.
We must never forget what artists gift of themselves to us, the viewer. It sometimes costs a lot.
Family, and family history, is another pervasive thread throughout the exhibition. And it is a broad family brush we see at work. From the clearly related Anne Moffat’s Self portrait with my mother and sister, the three of them charmingly serious under their eucalypt; Charlie Ford’s graceful Aunty Helen; and Sammaneh Pourshafighi’s psychedelic celebration in Portrait of My Mother As An Ethno- Futurist Icon, a fabulous illustration of a matriarch well in command of herself.
To the broader family represented, our chosen family, to the ones whose lived experience includes being othered. Bruce Agnew’s KAHA, David Cossini’s Ugandan Ssebabi, and photographer/
costume designer Gerwyn Davies’ Mirror II are just some of the entries that speak for the advantages and necessity of Inclusion.
Ugandan Ssebabi won the Art Handlers Award, and it certainly is one worth spending time with; the story is just as powerful as the image.
There’s much in here that celebrates queer culture, honours cultural heritage and diversity, honours age, and resists social awkwardness around difference. It’s the best part of this chosen family.
One of the portraits that poses questions about what we do, and do not, celebrate effectively but without fuss, is the winner of the 2023 Portrait Prize, Shea Kirk’s Ruby (left view).
The image is one half of a pair, capturing Kirk’s friend and photographer, Emma Armstrong-Porter (a finalist themselves in the prize; I’ll leave you to go and find their work). The piece is part of an ongoing series from Kirk, showing ‘simple’ portraits that convey an intimate trust between photographer and subject.
There is a Diane Arbus type quality to his work, both in the raw way the images are developed and presented, and the frankness of his subjects. Kirk’s use of the large format camera provides a strikingly detailed image, where the subtleties of the skin take on a mesmeric quality. The nakedness creates all kinds and ways of being unsure.
It’s an image that will not allow itself to be easily read. It demands our participation.
As always, it is difficult to highlight several works when there are so many noteworthy images in the exhibition.
The aforementioned are ones that spoke to me personally, but my exhibition companion and I voted very differently in our People’s Choice.
I will happily reveal I voted for Renae Saxby’s Bangardidjan, which won the Highly Commended prize. It is at first unassuming. Yet the young woman at the image centre is commanding and vital.
Who will speak to you?
The National Photographic Portrait Prize runs daily from 10am – 5pm until Monday, 2 October at the National Portrait Gallery. Tickets are $15 Adult, $12 Concession, $10 Circle of Friends (Under 18s free) and are available via portrait.gov.au