Like any good portrait show, the Taylor Wessing Prize leaves you wondering about the ways we judge beauty, whether it’s a beautiful face or a prizeworthy image. In Carmen Ballvé’s lovely ‘Girls in Barracón’, Dominicana stands pensively beneath a washing line, her dark skin dappled (through injury? Disease?) in much the same way as the stained stone in the background.
A photograph like this pleases because fragility and grace pervade the entire composition. The beauty in this picture is so much more interesting than the inevitable photos of models whose blank visages decorate other parts of the show. Looking at two fully made-up ten-year-old Irish Traveller girls (in Paul Wenham-Clarke’s ‘Cindy & Shirley’) tells you more about our society’s fetishisation and sexualisation of female youthfulness than a hundred shots of clothes horses like Lily Cole could. Not because the girls are Travellers, but because their artificially enhanced, plump-cheeked loveliness is supposed to be what the rest of us are aiming for.
Distractions from the thorny issue of women as object include a Nazi war criminal’s aged son (Horst von Wachter, taken by Jill Edelstein), a fantastic Antoine de Ras shot of Paralympic star Oscar Pistorius in the dock and George, a watchman at a soon-to-be-shut-down factory who, as photographed by Miri Mor, seems imprisoned by fate, economic catastrophe and even the structure of the image.
Eventually, though, it’s back to the endless assessment of female beauty. Spencer Murphy won this year’s £12,000 prize for his picture of jockey Katie Walsh, her conventional loveliness both enhanced and made problematic by a spattering of mud. Portraits aren’t supposed to include dirt, in part because women aren’t supposed to be dirty. Or are they?