In its 14th year, the National Photographic Portrait Prize had a lot of challenges to overcome.
Disasters and plagues of all kinds cast a pall over the “rich tableaux of humanity, a reflection of the year that was”, according to National Portrait Gallery director Karen Quinlan, who judged the prize with National Gallery director Nick Mitzevitch and photographer Bill Henson.
But the winning image, of drought-stricken Forbes district farmer David Kalisch immersed in a cloud of swirling orange dust, also held the promise of better days.
Beyond the resilience shared by Australian farmers, the photograph by Joel B Pratley included “ethereal light, offering some hope”, said Quinlan. She called the image “extraordinarily powerful”, representing “a person completely surrounded by a power greater than himself”.
The photograph was taken as part of a Rural Aid project documenting the impact of intense drought and Pratley, who was present via Zoom from Redfern to accept the prize, said that he’d been caught in a whirling storm of sticks, dust and whipping wind that felt like being on Mars.
The National Photographic Portrait Prize has been announced, and it's a powerful winner for troubled times. We're at the National Portrait Gallery and talking fake QR codes, NASA and snowdomes.
Posted by The RiotACT on Thursday, July 29, 2021
But Kalisch strides on resolutely, walking not the blurred horizon and uncertain future.
“David’s composure during the storm was surreal because he is just so used to it,” Pratley said. The caption for Drought Story reads, simply, “Sometimes you think, why am I here?”
The 2021 Highly Commended prize was awarded to Julian Kingma for his portrait Tom at the Drain, a gently eerie rendering of a child clinging to a stormwater drain outlet with water curling into the distance beyond him.
“After the harrowing fires of the summer of 19/20, closely followed by the pandemic, it felt imperative that in 2021, we acknowledge the seismic events of this period,” Karen Quinlan said at the prize announcement.
“Accordingly, we’ve titled the prize Living Memory – a way to look back on, reflect and consider these challenging times. We anticipated photographers would respond well to this theme because of this exposure to some of the most extraordinary moments they, or those they know, have experienced.
“Today, we launch an exhibition of portraiture that captures everything from the catastrophe of drought and bushfire to the intimate moments of lockdown. Themes of isolation and solitude permeate the exhibition, but the bright celebration of identity that resonates through every year of the prize is highly visible in this unique collection.”
The National Photographic Portrait Prize has steadily grown in size and influence as a document of Australians and how we live.
There were many reflections of trauma this year. Canberra photographer Dion Georgopoulos, who was also Walkley nominated for his bushfire coverage, was hung twice for his portraits of Cobargo’s Salway family and the aftermath of the Wandella fire.
Canberra photographer Marzena Wasikowska evokes the pandemic’s tumultuous, isolating effect with an image of her daughter and granddaughter in front of brooding skies at Tathra in A Covid kind of day. Elsewhere, cross-cultural weddings, proud Indigenous women, tattooed and mullet-ed shearers and all manner of Australians are celebrated.
Acknowledging the impact the pandemic has had on the creative community, supporting payments were made available for transport and freight costs. In addition to the winner’s cash and equipment prize, two finalists will receive mentoring and workshop access.
Two new Distinction Awards were awarded this year, for Lismore artist R J Poole for his portrait Great Conjunction and Jessica Hromas for Mark and Saskia cool off. The Art Handlers Award and the $5000 People’s Choice Award will be announced at a later date.
“I feel really overwhelmed. My feet haven’t touched the ground,” Joel Pratley said, thanking the Kalisch family, his fellow photographers, Rural Aid and everyone who contributed towards the photograph.
“I didn’t think I’d win, but I believe in this image, and I’m glad others do. The job was to show how tough farmers were doing … I was a small piece of that puzzle”.
‘Living Memory: National Photographic Portrait Prize 2021’ is at the National Portrait Gallery until 7 November. All works from the exhibition are also available to view on the NPG website.