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Face time: Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize gives exquisite collection of images a new lease of life

The portraits were entered for one of the world’s most illustrious photographic competitions

Nick Duerden
Sunday 18 November 2012 01:00 GMT

The Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize at London's National Portrait Gallery is one of the world's most prestigious photographic competitions, the winner netting both £12,000 and global exposure. This year, the judges received 5,340 images from 2,352 photographers and, such is its hallowed exclusivity, chose just 60 – a little over 1 per cent of entries – to exhibit.

What this means is that thousands of professional photographers receive a letter of rejection. For many who, like James O Jenkins, enter every year, it is a rite of passage: hope dashed by disappointment. "When I got my letter last year," says Jenkins, smiling, "I tweeted that once again I wouldn't be enjoying champagne with Taylor Wessing."

Over the following days, he received countless tweets from photographers in a similar position. Among them was one Carole Evans, who suggested they set up an exhibition for their fellow rejects, and call it Portrait Salon, in tribute to the Salon des Refusés of 1863, an exhibition of paintings rejected by the jury of the Paris Salon – the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Jenkins liked the idea, and agreed to help organise it, "as long as it didn't take up too much time, and wasn't k too expensive". It ended up taking a lot of time, and the pair found themselves out of pocket covering costs.

But the exhibition garnered much praise, and this year it returns, this time with Arts Council funding, and now even more popular: 333 photographers submitted more than 1,105 images, 74 of which will make the cut.

Unlike the National Portrait Gallery's equivalent, hopefuls can submit for free, digitally. As a result, the founders have found themselves helming an award of increasing import. While some critics considered Portrait Salon a publicity stunt, Jenkins reasons: "Our aims were pretty simple. If 99 per cent of photographers don't make the National exhibition, there must be an awful lot of really good out work there that still deserves to be seen."

The result is certainly an eclectic show, revealing subjects in all sorts of situations, at once simple and understated (a girl sitting with her camera), provocative (an older woman sitting in a towel, tattoos on show), and curiously melancholy (half-naked tribal girls in a supermarket).

One of the judges is Dan Burn-Forti, himself a successful veteran of Taylor Wessing's selection process, and regular contributor to this newspaper. "I thought it was a fantastic idea," he says. "I've often been underwhelmed by the National Portrait Gallery's offerings, thinking that surely there were better portraits out there. But then I guess that's inevitable: it's all subjective, isn't it?"

He and his fellow judges spent several weeks wading through hundreds of photographs, many of which had recurring themes. "There was a lot of old-person nudity," Burn-Forti laughs. "Really quite too much, in fact. And a lot of old naked people with tattoos. Who knows why?"

Those lucky enough to be selected now have a chance of reaching a wider audience themselves. But there is no overall winner – which pleases Burn-Forti: he has never been much enamoured with the awarding of prizes. "It's a ridiculous concept," he says. "How can you judge which is best when they are all so different? I can understand saying, for example, that Mo Farah is the best, because he is in what he does, but it's a little harder to quantify in art, no?"

He did, however, enjoy being a judge. "It made me think a lot about portraiture, but also made me question my own work," he says, "the kind of photographs I may take, and what I should avoid. I won't be taking any pictures of old naked people, for one thing…"

The selected images will be shown as a projection on the evening of 29 November in venues in London, Brighton, Cardiff and Leeds. For more: The second edition of the Portrait Salon newspaper will be available to buy on the night

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