Hey Guys, Andy here. The shortlist for the Taylor Wessing Photo Portrait Prize 2023, hosted at the National Portrait Gallery, was recently announced. The competition invariably attracts eyeballs and column inches but for all the kudos attached there is also more than a fair share of head scratching at the selected images. The Taylor Wessing house style is one that neither have I been attracted to nor wished to emulate. However what is my style and where does that path lead today?

Taylor Wessing, like a lot of competitions, is pay to play and the winners, by and large, conform to a distinctive style. That is to say you have to pay to enter images and if your work does not fit the house style you may as well be pouring your money down the drain as they will never win. Common accusations levelled at competitions is that they are money making scams, winning photographs are safe choices or winners are already well known and win due to name recognition rather than the quality of their submission. It is for this reason, I believe, my We Are Here project with Dr Sara de Jong earned bronze awards and honourable mentions but never a gold; the portraits are striking enough to deserve recognition but too far from the beaten track to merit a win.

I grew up loving photography and, in particular, fashion and conflict photography; I was attracted to the glamour of the former and the visceral reportage of the latter. My book shelves today reflect this with, for example, books by American fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon sitting next to Vietnam Inc by Philip Jones Griffiths, a book which is considered to have been crucial in changing public perceptions of the conflict. There is a certain logic and symmetry that both my life and my photography followed this dual path with my service in the British Army followed by becoming a menswear photographer.

Tom Ford
Editorial fashion shoot included in Tom Ford 002

Last week I was struck by a comment by Edward Thompson who remarked;

“I love looking at photojournalism from the 70s, 80s and 90s… I love how that work gets exhibited at top galleries and museums as now it’s seen as significant. But what are they going to do in 20 years time? If you haven’t noticed no one’s supporting photojournalism now!”

I share Edward’s lament that photojournalism, journalism that uses images to tell a news story, is in decline. I believe it has been for years. My path to photography is rooted in editorial, a genre of photography commonly used to accompany articles and interviews in publications, which barely exists today due to the slow death of print magazines. The business models of the internet and social media, which sees more advertising dollars spent online than in traditional print marketing, has led to the collapse of publications (remember Q Magazine?). This in turn has led to the decline of photojournalism and its various forms, which includes editorial and reportage, as it has failed to translate to online. Print has design qualities, requiring photographic considerations such as dead space and the direction of the image, which have not been adopted in the digital world; when was the last time you saw designed text overlaid onto an image online? What was once default in print simply does not happen in online. Candid photography, with the subject having no knowledge of a photograph being taken, has been swept aside in social media’s desire for everything to be about ‘Me’. And reportage photography has been dumbed down with the combination of increase in the speed of the news cycle and also the universality of cameras in phones which has led to the need for images ‘Now’, no matter what the quality.

NFTs what you wanted to know but didn't know where to start
Vivienne Westwood showing at Milan Fashion Week Men’s

My professor at university used to speak about the ‘slangification’ of a language; one generation’s slang becomes an accepted norm for the next generation. I hold my hand up, despite my deploring of consuming photography as small JPGs on devices I’m as guilty as the next person; while I love seeing print double page spreads, design, typography and how images flow and tell stories, I do not buy magazines and other titles which promote what I claim to enjoy. I used to buy National Geographic which, at it’s height in the 1980s, reached 12 million subscribers in the US. At the end of 2022 the magazine, which had chronicled the natural world for more than 100 years, had less than 1.8 million subscribers. Advertising dollars which supported photographers for up weeks, if not months, in the field producing work are just not there today with the title curtailing photo contracts, laying off staff writers in June. The disappearing of the magazine off newsstands in the US as of next year will be another nail in the coffin. Quality is being sacrificed on the altar of quantity and, more importantly, profit; why invest in relationships between a photographer and their works when you can offer exposure to a layperson taking snaps on their phone? It is worth noting in passing that Disney, the owners of National Geographic, has scrapped their recent big budget tv series Nautilus after filming wrapped as part of a tax write down.

Formula One World Champion, Mika Häkkinen, at the Mille Miglia registration in Brescia
Formula One World Champion, Mika Häkkinen, at the Mille Miglia registration in Brescia.

Maybe we are seeing the ‘slangification’ of photography but I, for one, find the wane of photography styles I admired and wished to emulate hard to take. My path to photography, through editorial, barely exists today. Few publications will send a photographer to cover a brand, a story or an interview; there is now an expectation for those featured to provide their own imagery which. By spending advertising dollars with Facebook and Google and not with magazines anyone who wishes to now be featured has to cover the photographic cost themselves in addition to their online marketing spend. The desire to be featured but failure to support the publication ecosystem has led to an increase in costs.

So what next? Rich kids and independently wealthy individuals becoming torch bearers for photography styles at risk of extinction? Kickstarter projects funded by communities who want control of the narrative? I believe we are increasingly seeing lowest common denominator visuals. To anyone claiming I am pointing the finger at new technology and bemoaning ‘the good old days’ read John McDougall’s excellent Twitter thread on how exploitative, to all concerned, fast photography is. One thing is for sure; until; we start rewarding quality and stop merely creating content this downwards spiral will continue.