Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize: In Conversation with Clementine Williamson

by Blandine Hausermann



Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2021. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery © David Parry




After a digital exhibition in 2020, this year the eagerly awaited Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize returned once more as a physical exhibition. The show took place at Cromwell Place while the National Portrait Gallery is closed for major redevelopment works. It was a real pleasure to wander around the gallery space and explore and be immersed in these unique and once again fascinating portraits and stories. Despite the uncertain state of the Covid pandemic, the exhibition still dazzled us with its diversity and depth of portraits displayed. It brought together a total of 54 portraits chosen from submissions by 2,215 photographers coming from 62 countries around the world. Clementine Williamson, who has been working at the National Portrait Gallery since 2013 as exhibition manager for the competitions, unveils in this interview behind the scenes of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, touching upon her role, the competition process, the actors involved, challenges and highlights.




Can you talk a bit about the history of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait competition? When and why was it created?


The annual Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize showcases new work that has been submitted by some of the most exciting, international and contemporary photographers. Since the competition began in 1993, it has remained an important platform for portrait photographers and offers an opportunity for celebrated professionals, emerging artists and amateurs alike.



What are the requirements to enter the competition?


The competition is open to everyone aged 18 and over from around the world. There are some standard rules that the photographers need to take into account before entering; for example, we ask that their work must have been completed within the last year; and that they have a signed model release form. Another key requirement is that all photographs entered must be portraits. The photographers can interpret the word ‘portrait’ in its widest sense of the word, but we do ask for an emphasis on people’s identity as individuals.



How does the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize process work?


The competition process starts with call for entries; a six-week timeframe where people can register for the competition and upload their images via our website. At the end of this period all images are viewed digitally and anonymously by a panel of judges, who collectively select a shortlist of works to be viewed physically at a judging venue in London. It is at this stage that the final exhibition and prize-winners are selected. What follows is the organisation of a physical exhibition where the works are condition checked, framed and finally installed ahead of an official Awards Ceremony where the prizes are announced. The winner of the first prize receives £15,000. The second prize winner receives £3,000 and the third prize £2,000.



Who are the judges? What is their background? Is it the same judges each year?


To ensure that the competition remains fresh and reflects a range of views, the judging panel includes new members each year. At least one non-visual arts expert is included alongside artists/photographers and the Gallery’s Director and Curator of Photographs. These panellists represent a range of professions, from historians and journalists to writers, who all bring a wealth of experience and insights to the judging process.



How does the selection process work? Is the selection solely based on the photographs?


The first stage of judging takes place digitally. Although this has happened remotely in recent years (due to the pandemic), we usually like to bring all of the judges together to view the portraits online, allowing them to discuss each image and make a selection as a team. The shortlisted photographers from this round are then invited to send their prints to a location in London a few weeks later. This final stage is often fast paced and always exciting, as it’s the first time the judges and the team working behind the scenes get to see the photographs in the flesh. There is much discussion and debate, but by the end of the day, the judges make their final selection and choose their three prize-winners. Judged anonymously, the diversity of styles in the exhibition reflects the international mix of entries as well as photographers’ individual and varied approaches to the genre of portraiture.



As exhibition manager, could you talk a bit more about the actual organization of the competition/exhibition? How long does it take? Who are the different actors behind it?


From the point of the first submission being uploaded to the opening of the exhibition to the public takes around seven months. In relation to the other exhibitions that take place at the National Portrait Gallery, this is a quick turnaround. There are so many people involved in the exhibition process; the most important of all being the photographers who enter, without whom the exhibition would not exist. The judges also play a key role. Ensuring that our panel is diverse and dynamic helps to provide a different perspective and makes each year’s selection so individual and unique. Within the Gallery there are over ten different teams of people who come together to deliver the exhibition – from press and communications, who publicise the competition and provide the photographers with a platform on which to tell their story, to the art handlers who are essential to the management of the judging sessions and the final hang of the show. We have a publication team who work within an incredibly tight timeframe to produce the exhibition catalogue and our operations team who manage the onsite exhibition, ensuring that the gallery spaces run smoothly and that each visitor as an enjoyable visit.



What is the kind of budget behind an exhibition like this?


As I’m sure you can imagine, it takes a huge amount of effort from many teams to pull together an exhibition of this scale. In addition to the prizes, we have to consider the exhibition’s conception, design and build, and the ways in which we print, frame and display works. We’re extremely grateful to Taylor Wessing for their continued support of the exhibition and its prizes.



What is the role of exhibition manager?


I would say that the Exhibition Manager is the person behind the scenes pulling together all the pieces to make the final exhibition comes together on time and within budget. Many of the day-to-day tasks are to do with logistics, schedules and organisation, but one of the crucial parts of the role is being able to work as a team to ensure that all the different elements run smoothly. It is only with a collective outlook that we are able to achieve a successful exhibition for visitors, photographers and colleagues alike.



What is the difference between an exhibition manager and a curator?


While the Exhibition Manager’s focus is more on logistics and organisation, I would say that the Curator’s main role is to concentrate on the content and final vision of the exhibition. They play a pivotal part on the judging panel and have a huge breadth of knowledge on photography and its current practises, which help to influence the final form of the exhibition. Some of their responsibilities might include writing texts for the catalogue, liaising with the In Focus photographer and working closely with our design team on the final hang of the exhibition.



What led you to become exhibition manager? What attracted you in this role?


After finishing a BA in History of Art and completing various work experience roles in magazines and art galleries, I was very lucky to gain my first job in an art gallery. Although it was the commercial sector and not really the right fit, I learnt a lot and went on to work in several different roles including; Exhibition Assistant, Assistant Curator and Registrar at various public galleries. In 2013, I started my current role as Exhibitions Manager at the National Portrait Gallery. I was excited to take on the position as it involved working as a team and gave me the opportunity to be involved in more logistical and practical tasks, as well as building relationships with artists and photographers.



What are some important skills and attributes for this role?


I would say being flexible is key. Challenges can often present themselves unexpectedly and it is important to be able to change and adapt quickly (working in a pandemic has definitely highlighted this!). I think that being able to work collectively as a team is also important; I rely a lot on the amazing colleagues that I work with and the skills that they all bring to the final exhibition. It definitely would not be possible without them. Being able to support each other during busy or challenging periods is what makes the exhibition process so rewarding.



What is your link with the photographers during the competition process? How are they involved?


The photographers are of course key to the whole competition. We try to offer as much support and guidance as we can at the early stages of submissions; for example, some photographers may want to know more about the process or to check that their entry has uploaded successfully. I also keep them updated on all of the stages of the judging and notify them if their work has been selected for the exhibition or a prize. For some photographers, this might be the first time they have ever exhibited in a gallery or taken part in a competition, so we try to make the whole experience as accessible and as enjoyable as possible.



What is your favourite part about your role? What have been some key moments and challenges?


In 2020 the competition took place digitally due to the pandemic so we were really excited in 2021 to have the opportunity to come together at Cromwell Place and work onsite as a team again. It was challenging at times. Due to the changing nature of the pandemic, we were at times unsure whether certain restrictions might affect whether the exhibition would be able to open. Thankfully, we were able to welcome our visitors to see the exhibition onsite at Cromwell Place and celebrate the Awards in person. Without a doubt, my favourite part of the role is seeing the exhibition come together during the final stages of the installation and to meet all of the photographers at the Awards Ceremony. It is a special moment, as it is when the past seven months of hard work finally comes together. Finally meeting the photographers and celebrating the exhibition collectively is a real highlight.



Having worked at the National Portrait Gallery for several years, have you seen any particular changes or evolutions of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize?


In the past few years we have introduced several new innovations to keep the Prize fresh and relevant. In 2017 we made a major new development to open up the competition to digital submissions. By making this change we were able to create a more accessible submission process, encouraging entries from emerging and international photographers. Prior to this we opened up entries to series or bodies of work by a single artist, to recognise that photographers do not just produce single images, but are also thinking serially and producing coherent bodies of work. Alongside this, we also changed the rules to accept entries including Polaroids, photogravures and tintypes; acknowledging the popularity of historical processes among contemporary photographers.


One of the most popular additions we made to the prize took place in 2015, when the Gallery established the In Focus display. This is where we invite an established contemporary photographer to exhibit a new body of their work alongside the competition portraits. Previous photographers have included Cristina de Middel, Ethan James Green, Rinko Kawauchi and Alessandra Sanguinetti.





Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2021. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery © David Parry'


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