The Big Issue : Edition 508
26 THE BIG ISSUE 29 MARCH – 7 APRIL 2016 ONE OF THE striking things about old photographic portraits, going right back to the first half of the 19th century, is that few subjects are smiling. There’s a practical explanation for this: exposure times were long, subjects were asked to stay perfectly still for a minute or more, and to request a happy face could be a bridge too far. This also explains why subjects were often seated – occasionally with something rigid out of shot to keep them still. Technology has changed that. Modern portraits can be taken in 1/500th of a second. Smile, no smile, moving, not moving...whatever. And photographers still try, in their own ways, to capture the essence of people in one image – even though the craze for selfies could have flooded the market for likenesses. Every year, the National Photographic Portrait Prize – administered by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra – offers an insight into trends in contemporary portraiture. This year’s contest, commendably democratic in that it is open to anyone, attracted nearly 2000 entries. From this field, 49 portraits were selected as finalists, to feature in an exhibition at the gallery (until 28 June) and then travel to regional galleries in NSW, Victoria and South Australia. What can be learned from the pick of this year’s crop? Simply, that there are as many ways to take a portrait as there are ways to hold and use a camera. Subjects can be happy or sad, and are not uncommonly paired with somebody else or even an animal. Despite the speed with which subjects can be freeze-framed, a minority are depicted smiling. Why? Perhaps to differentiate a “serious” portrait from the ubiquitous selfie or pictures dismissed as mere “happy snaps”. Black and white, for so long the only kind of photograph, is still first choice for many aspiring portrait- makers. This has had the paradoxical effect of making some colour portraits more striking, especially those that revel in vivid hues. Some portraits are formal; others capture candid moments. Some are taken in studios; others in backyards – and if there’s, say, a washing-line in the background, all the better. Compose a list headed “Rules of Portrait Photography” and you’ll find that half of the finalists have broken some of them. Which is something worth smiling about. by Alan Attwood » See also npg.gov.au.