By Dougie Herd
Forty years ago, the American writer Susan Sontag published one of the 20th Century’s most influential collections of essays: On Photography. It resonates still in our new age with our gazillion selfies, countless Pinterest pages and more than half a billion Instagram accounts.
In the renowned first essay of her collection, ‘In Plato’s Cave’, Ms Sontag famously wrote,
“photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and … an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as an anthology of images.”
What then should we make of the 49 images from the finalists in the National Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery?
First, I’m glad to say, these are photographs that truly are worth looking at. There isn’t one among them that won’t provoke some sort of response from the viewer; not one that doesn’t pose some sort of question (and offer gloriously diverse answers) about what it means to be Australian, to live in Australia, and to be part of the decorous clamjamfrey of our nation’s people rubbing shoulders together in this great southern land. (Forgive me for ‘clamjamfrey’. It’s a word from my Scottish roots suggesting a riotously diverse conglomeration of folk of every type assembled in one place. Add ‘decorous’ and it fits this show).
If the exhibition doesn’t quiet fulfil Susan Sontag’s “sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads” that’s because no single photographic enterprise could ever do so. But if you want to look for and at contemporary Australia – to see its people, old and young, city-dwellers and country folk, from all sorts of backgrounds, traditions and heritages – these photographs are a very good place to start.
There is on show here an Australia that is not without its challenges, difficulties and failings but which also encompasses solidarity, imagination and the possibility of progressive development. And, because it’s a portrait show, there are Australians — from the country’s peerless First Peoples to its most recent arrivals — each with a unique story, all with resilience and personal autonomy, all sharing their unquestionable individuality with us, and each one presented by a skilful and creative photographer.
Among the 49 photos on show – all of which I admired in one way or another – my personal favourites were those that invoked in me some sense of a story. That’s probably my fault, of course, reading into the images too much of my own anxieties, hopes, fears or dreams. But we all bring our own baggage to the act of viewing. Always. And if the photos in front of us stimulate a response that’s no bad thing: as long as we don’t attempt to impose any suggestion of unquestionable truth upon the images we produce as photographers or subjects, or receive as viewers. All we can say for sure (and sometimes not even for sure) is, ‘here is what the photographer made of this person in such and such a place at a particular time’.
If Philip Myers’s mesmerising photo of Tom E Lewis makes me imagine I’m also seeing something like the return of wily Odysseus to Ithaca that’s my fault, not the photographer’s or his subject’s. If I read more than I could ever know into Natalie Ord’s spellbinding portrait (my favourite in the show) of mother and mental health advocate Annette Baker, I apologise to both of them but, when your partnership produces a portrait of such power, how could I not get carried away with myself? And even though I’ve not smoked for almost forty years, who wouldn’t want to share a ciggie and a neighbourly chat with Paul in Bankstown after viewing Lyndal Irons’ priceless image?
But that’s just me. If you can, try to see this marvellous photo exhibition. And make up your own mind. It will enrich your life.
On now at the National Portrait Gallery until 18 June then touring to the Blue Mountains Culture Centre, the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, then Devonport Regional Gallery. Details here.
National Portrait Gallery Online Exhibition here.