So you want to win the Taylor Wessing?

19 April 2018

Region: Headquarters

So you want to win the Taylor Wessing?

Photographer David Stewart in conversation with RPS Vice President, Del Barrett ARPS.

It’s the time of year when the thoughts of portrait photographers turn towards the ultimate portrait prize – the Taylor Wessing.  A large cash prize and your image exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, what’s not to like?  But, be warned, as well as being a first-class photographer, you need to be pretty thick-skinned to deal with the public reaction.  Like the Turner prize, the Taylor Wessing courts controversy, but then all publicity is good publicity … isn’t it?

David Stewart (the first recipient of the RPS award for outstanding achievement and excellence in Editorial, Advertising and Fashion photography introduced in 2016) is something of a Taylor Wessing expert.  He’s been entering every year since 1996, and after one shortlisted entry (Alice and Fish was awarded fourth place in 2007) and fourteen further acceptances, he eventually won the coveted first prize in 2015.

I caught up with David recently, to hear about his Taylor Wessing journey and to find out what the rest of us could learn from his experience.

I start by asking him the rather obvious question of how it felt to finally win, after so many attempts.   “It was a surprise” he replies and explains that after being short-listed, he thought his image was the outsider as it was a group portrait whereas the other three shortlisted images were more traditional portraits.  “Also to have entered for many years the thought was never that you may actually win but just get accepted and exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery.”

David continued to enter each year.  He found it “a really useful learning process as it made you assess what work you had produced in that year. You learn from what you have done in the past and try to make better work with that experience.”  And although that philosophy certainly paid off in terms of photographic success, perhaps what he hadn’t appreciated before winning was how hateful the public comments would be.  Although the winning image will never please everyone, I am still surprised when David tells me that he found only 5-10% of the online comments were supportive and positive, but as he points out, most people only see the images online, which often don’t do justice to the prints.  Thankfully, he has a robust sense of humour and is happy to share some of the comments:

“I think his wife was a judge?”

“What sort of a photographer is he?  Didn’t even tell them to smile.”

“But it’s nice to see blind photographers competing on equal terms …”

“My husband saw this (he too, is a photographer who is in the RPS).  He said the rail in the background made them look like a kebab and the legs (human and table) were so indistinct as to be a muddled confusing image.  Also, the spacing is bad, crowding the whole picture in the lower 2/3 of the photo.  Now, that’s a photographer saying what he thinks of your “prize winning photo”. Personally I think any teenage girls would rather shave there heads than wear those grotty jumpers.”

So I ask him why he thinks the Taylor Wessing winner is always so controversial.  “Because the prize has a large cash element I think this is what puts it out in the public eye.  Everyone is now a photographer and so they all feel they are experts at judging.”  He also makes the point that social media now allows people to say online things that they wouldn’t actually say to someone’s face. 

Interestingly, the armchair critics might not have appreciated the reference in David’s winning portrait to his 2008 accepted image; namely the same five girls with the same poses in the same position.  The earlier one (below) shows the girls just before they took their GCSEs, the winning image shows them seven years later after they had all been to university. 

We then talk about the democracy of the competition and David agrees that anyone should have a go.  He points out that the first stage only costs the entry fee as submissions are now online.  “Only if you get through that, do you need to go to the expense of preparing a print – and getting over that first hurdle is something to be immensely proud of.”

Of course, what I really want to know is whether David has any tips for preparing for the Taylor Wessing.  And indeed he has:

  • Look through what you have produced in the year and pick the images that you feel are your best portraits.
  • Don’t try to shoot specifically for the competition by trying to work out what the judges may like.
  • If you get through the first round of judging and are asked to submit a print it then becomes all about how your print looks. It is harder to get the print to look good than it is to upload a digital file.  Everything can look good on a screen but at 20-30-40 inches printed it is harder to get right and then get the judges’ attention when alongside many other prints. To me there is often something extra added to the image if the print is good, and remember the print you enter will be the one displayed if you are accepted.

Picking up on David’s second point, I ask him whether he thinks that there is a particular style of portraiture that the judges prefer.  He doesn’t necessarily think that this is the case, but being a seasoned entrant, he has some intuitive ideas.  “First of all,” he says, “there is no one style that succeeds, as all sorts of different styles get through.”  He does think, however, that the judges tend to favour content that is culturally relevant to the time so that puts a mark on that particular year’s exhibition.  As he points out, they can only choose from what’s entered so if there is a conflict somewhere in the world many pictures are entered with the same subject matter just as there are always images of celebrities. He also believes that portraits using natural light, rather than studio setups, are more successful, because they tend to have more emotional content.  He then adds “I once did a workshop with photography teachers at the NPG where they were all asked to pick their favourite picture from that year’s exhibition. When I saw the selection, all the ones chosen were shot on film. Maybe a coincidence, but also I think people are put off by over digitised retouched images as they feel like something that has come from the commercial world.”

I must admit, I had no idea that the winner of the Taylor Wessing was not allowed to enter the contest for seven years, so it will be 2022 before David can enter again, by which time the five girls will be approaching thirty – will that be his next submission?  And for the answer to that question, we’re going to have to wait a few years…

All images © David Stewart (Top image - winner of Taylor Wessing Prize in 2015)