The John Kobal Foundation / Independent on Sunday Photographic Portrait Award

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PERHAPS it was the curse of Demi Moore - so famously photographed naked and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair last year - or maybe because a naked pregnant woman seems like a safe bet when it comes to the combination of tenderness, daring and directness that often makes a good portrait, but naked pregnant women were hugely in evidence, usually in colour, among the entries to the first John Kobal Foundation / Independent on Sunday Portrait Award.

The award was launched in January, in memory of the late John Kobal, whose collection of Hollywood photographs and memorabilia created the largest cinema film library in the world. It was open to all photographers over the age of 18, and we thought we might get about 500 entries, with a significant number of loving but duff snapshots of pets and relatives. What we got were nearly 2,500 photographs, many of them loving, but few of them duff. The standard was very high: hundreds of first-class prints running the gamut from weird processing and colour techniques to old- fashioned black and white; the definition of 'portrait' stretched from reportage to still life.

Going through the pictures, it was hard to know whether to be pleased or sad. There were so many good photographers out there (we didn't know who they were until we'd finished judging) but in a market where television and video are taking over, and the price of film and processing is soaring, how many of them were struggling to survive?

As it turned out, quite a few weren't professionals and sensibly hadn't given up their day jobs. The seven finalists give a fairly representative cross-section of entrants, from a 58-year-old typographer who takes pictures as a hobby, to a 27-year-old photography graduate from the Royal College of Art.

The best 100 pictures were of such a high standard that Angela Flowers, one of the five judges and a trustee of the Kobal Foundation, gave her West End gallery so that another 50 could be exhibited in addition to the 50 originally planned. After the prize-giving at the National Portrait Gallery on Tuesday, these pictures will be on show from Wednesday at the Zelda Cheatle Gallery, 8 Cecil Court, London WC2 and Angela Flowers, 5 Silver Place, off Lexington Street, London W1 until 10 July. A catalogue is available by post; see page 64.


3000 pounds



Although it looks like a typical bourgeois family portrait, it isn't. The boy is not part of the family; the camera in the picture isn't taking it; the construction deliberately echoes Velasquez's 'Las Meninas'. Sivan Lewin (behind the camera) is 27 and has just got her MA in photography from the Royal College of Art. 'I'd been looking into the idea of voyeurism,' she explained, 'and studying Dutch painters, the way they handled domestic interiors. I used the reference to Velasquez to explore the relationship between photography and painting, but not to add 'weight'. You don't need to know about Velasquez to understand it.'


500 pounds each



Richter, 36, lives in New York, has been a professional photographer since his teens and works for magazines including the Traveller and the New York Times. This picture of the writer and photographer Eudora Welty is from a series of portraits of the founders of the Fellowship of Southern Writers which he is turning into a book. 'I made her wear an overcoat,' he says. 'She asked me why, and I told her it implied an event, a suggestion of something that extended the timescale of the photograph. 'Oh,' she said, amused, 'nobody will know if I'm coming or going'. '



Thompson, 30, was a maths student who dropped out and became a photographer. 'I wanted to photograph Derek Jarman, and sent him some of my pictures. He invited me to Dungeness. It would have been obvious to photograph him in the garden (Jarman has a famous one), but pictures are often stronger because of what you leave out. I use a large format camera so the subject has to sit still for two or three seconds. You can put a camera right up close to Derek's face and he doesn't flinch. I think he's a brave and strong person. There's a sadness in the eyes, don't you think?'



Fearns, 39, is an experimental film-maker and photographer who trained at the Slade. This portrait of his daughter is stuffed with art-historical references: a nod to Raphael; 'bits of Titian' in the backdrop, and the terracotta head which is, he says laughing, 'closely modelled on my wife'. As artist-in-residence at his local school he used painted backdrops like this one in his art lessons. 'I wanted to give the portrait a more timeless quality you associate with painting, to remove Libby from a specific place and moment, to make the whole composition of interest for people who don't even know her.'


MAYA, 1990

In 1964, Sue Snell was one of the founding fashion editors of Honey magazine; she went on to work with Shirley Conran on the Daily Mail Femail pages, turned freelance and is now a costume designer for film and television and takes photographs in her spare time. 'I find taking pictures of people quite difficult. I love landscape, and for a long time that's what I stuck to, then, about two years ago, I felt more confident and started on some portraits. In this picture I wanted to give a feel of Maya, the real person, but also to give her a slightly stylised quality, so it would be a portrait that would last. You could say this is Maya in her own landscape. (And thanks, to Hugo Platt, my printer.)'


250 pounds each



20 AUGUST 1991

Robert Hallman came from Germany in the 1950s and worked as a printers' compositor. He became a designer and typographer and now works in a London advertising agency. Photography has always been a hobby, and his landscapes have illustrated two books. He is now preparing a book of his portraits. This one is of his firm's accountant and her little boy (the baby was another boy). 'Maybe if I'd trained as a photographer I'd have lost interest,' he says. 'If I made my living at it, I couldn't take the kind of pictures I do now. My daughter's taken to it, though. She's a photographer.'




Every year, the French newspaper 'Liberation' sends a photographer of its choice to do a Cannes portfolio. Last year they sent Richard Dumas, 32, who works freelance for them and lives in Rennes. He has a PhD in robotics, and spent two years doing scientific research before putting together a book of rock portraits - 'the Stray Cats, Simple Minds, Stranglers . . .' and making photography his career. 'I had an appointment to photograph Zoe, John Cassavetes's daughter, but she was waiting with her mother, and she is so beautiful. I asked her to be in the picture too. It was the best part for me.'

(Photographs omitted)