20 June 2023

Slow and collaborative claims the National Photographic Portrait Prize

| Dione David
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Shea Kirk stands by his black and white photographic portrait of Emma Armstrong-Porter

Shea Kirk won first prize at the National Photographic Portrait Prize for Ruby (left view). Photo: Mark Mohell.

In the days of digital photography and instantaneous art, slow and steady won the race for the 2023 National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP).

Shea Kirk’s portrait of friend and fellow NPPP finalist Emma (Ruby) Armstrong-Porter claimed the top prize.

The black and white image depicting Ruby from the waist up, gazing earnestly out, was described as a slow, complex, technically perfect work that’s very much a collaboration with the subject.

“It’s not only beautifully technically realised but has been created almost in homage to those really early photographic practitioners,” senior curator and judge Joanna Gilmour said.

“It dismantles every misconception about photography – that it’s instantaneous, that it’s all digital now. Shea’s process is the absolute opposite. It’s really considered, it’s art historically informed, and as you can see from the result, it’s a real process of collaboration.”

Titled Ruby (left view), the winning photo is half of a stereoscopic pair from Kirk’s ongoing series Vantages.

“Over the past six years, I have been inviting people over to my home studio to sit in front of simple backdrops and make portraits,” Kirk said.

“Working with a dual large format rig I put together, I capture two perspectives simultaneously on individual sheets of black and white sheet film, resulting in a stereoscopic ‘left’ and ‘right’ pair, or ‘views’ of the subject. An honest portrayal of the sitter, not reducing them to a single vantage point.”

Shea said the process for these portraits “feels like a ritual”, including a meditative, methodical process for preparing the gear.

READ ALSO NPG art handlers have picked a favourite from the 2023 National Photographic Portrait Prize, and it’s stunning

The shoots themselves can last up to nine hours.

“Each meeting unfolds differently, allowing the exchange the time it needs, never rushing,” he said.

“An important aspect of portraiture for me is that the people I work with are offered a space where they feel comfortable to be themselves. I’m very conscious of safety and people having a voice, and I am also very aware of the inherent power dynamic at play between photographer and subject. I do my best to level that out as much as possible.

“Working this way truly is a collaborative effort. We don’t watch a clock and there is no set list of shots. We chat and feel things out together … We often spend a lot of time just ‘being’.”

When things feel right, the gear is prepared so Shea can stand beside the camera, regarding the sitter with his own eyes rather than a camera’s viewfinder.

For Shea, photography was originally a tool and one step within his once-preferred practices of drawing and sculpture.

“The transition for me came after I exposed my first roll of black and white film, which a friend then showed me how to process. It was a life-changing magical moment, fusing alchemy and expression,” he said.

A photo by Renae Saxby of Kine, Rembarrnga and Dalabon women Cindy Rostron on the road in remote Central Arnhem Land

Renae Saxby was awarded the Highly Commended prize for her work Bangardidjan 2022. Photo: NPG.

Though Ruby is now the artist’s good friend, the winning photo was taken during their first meeting.

She said Shea’s portrait reflected their changing attitude to their body and how it fits within society.

“I’ve always struggled with the size of my body, from being extremely underweight to now being overweight,” she said.

“Over the past few years working with other photographers, making portraits, I’ve been processing my feelings about the transformation. I’m starting to feel more at home in my big queer body.”

Established in 2007 by the NPG to support and celebrate photographic portraiture in Australia, the NPPP has become the highlight of the Gallery’s calendar.

This year, NPPP judges selected 47 finalists from a pool of almost 2400 entries.

Renae Saxby was awarded the Highly Commended prize for her work Bangardidjan 2022, a photo of proud Kine, Rembarrnga and Dalabon woman Cindy Rostron on the road in remote Central Arnhem Land.

David Cossini’s portrait of Ugandan man Godfrey Baguma, titled Ugandan Ssebabi, took the 2023 Art Handlers Award.

READ ALSO Albury museum director to be new face at helm of National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery director Bree Pickering said the NPPP didn’t require fame or prominence from its subjects.

“The NPPP really goes to the heart of our mission, which is to reflect Australia back to itself,” she said.

“What you see in this show is everyday people captured living their lives. It’s a really beautiful way to understand the diversity of this country, our shared humanity…

“Often we say a photograph captures a person, but when you’re in this exhibition, it’s a relationship between the person being photographed and the person taking the photo. You can really see when someone knows what they’re doing with the camera that they can draw out moments and elements of our humanity in such a brilliant and poignant way.”

The National Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition is open daily until Monday, 2 October. Admission costs $15 for adults, $12 for concession, $10 for Circle of Friends and under-18s are free. To book or for more information, visit the National Portrait Gallery.

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The runner up seems much stronger to me. Also, take your hat off.

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