Jordi Ruiz Cirera, Margarita Teichroeb from the series Menonos, 2011
Ask ‘What is captured in a portrait?’ and more questions arise thick and fast. Successful portraits, if one believes Henri Matisse, are contingent ‘on the projection of the feeling of the artist in relation to his model rather than in organic accuracy’.¹ What does ‘accuracy’ mean when a portrait is photographic?
These days to put faith in the photograph as a truthful document seems more than a little archaic. We accept that images are not factual records, but what about the potential of a photographic portrait to communicate a feeling or emotion? Can we take something of the person’s personality from an image? Surely that’s open to subterfuge too? I’m reminded of Roland Barthes’s failed search for a photograph of his mother: ‘I never recognised her except in fragments.’²
I hated having my picture taken for years. In writing these notes it occurred to me that this was partly because I never really recognised myself in photos. The moment always seemed as if it had been caught and mangled by its record. Portraiture offers only an impression – regardless of whether the likeness is moulded in clay, paint, silver nitrate or, as is more likely the case today, in pixels.
This sense of impression often remodels us as a characters or characterture. At the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, figures turn and look out from the devices used to frame them. Trapped – viewing and being viewed – an exchange which has been, and continues to be, much commented on, and I see little to be gained from adding to those debates, except to ask: in theorising this experience what is lost? What escapes if the act of responding to images in language constitutes an act of elision?
Antonie de Ras, Displaced Migrant Worker From Libya #1 from the series Trapped in Transit, 2011
As part of an art historical education one learns to apply constructs and divides such as gender, class, race, and sexuality as cartographic techniques. And though I would not disagree that the production of these maps is important, the acts of layering them upon one another and stealing from other disciplines in order to reveal new territories for discourse is more productive. From this, we may venture into terra incognita.
Portraits intervene in the categories that bind and separate people. These categories, which constantly renew and reform, are our evolving territory. Trapped as we are in our boxes of skin and flesh, we view in relation to ourselves first. Perhaps, because of that, we are all, to some extent ‘boxes of deceit’ – a term artist Gustave Metzger directed at the museum, but I apply it here because I find myself wondering to what degree each of us are comprised of selves displayed and stored; lives lost and won.³ I cannot suggest how one might attempt to capture that in a portrait, but many of the entrants in the prize have succeeded in doing exactly that.
The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, on tour from the National Portrait Gallery, will be on display at M Shed, Bristol until November.
 Cited by John Klein, Matisse Portraits, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 26.
 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucia: Reflections on Photography, (London: Random House, 1993), p.107.
 Metzger, Gustav ‘Manifesto World’ (1962) in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings ed. Stiles, Kristine and Selz, Peter (LA: University of California Press, 1996), p. 403.