Shortlist announced for Taylor Wessing portrait prize

Images of surfers, boy in school uniform and orthodox Jews will compete for prestigious photography award

A disorientating image of modern-day Californian surfers that looks as if it could be from the 19th century has been shortlisted for one of the world’s most prestigious photography awards.

The National Portrait Gallery in London announced that three photographers will compete for this year’s Taylor Wessing portrait prize across a strikingly diverse range of subjects: surfers, orthodox Jews and school uniforms.

The US photographer Joni Sternbach is nominated for a series called Surfland, in which she uses early photographic processes to give contemporary images a Victorian feel.

She will be represented in the annual prize show with a photograph of a solemn couple, Thea Adler and Maxwell Schultz.

Joni Sternbach's #1 Thea+Maxwell
Sternbach’s #1 Thea+Maxwell was created using early photographic processes. Photograph: Joni Sternbach/PA

Sternbach said the photograph came about during a talk and book signing in California last February. “My hosts and I planned a shoot prior to the event and they arranged for several local surfers to have their portraits taken. Maxwell was the first to arrive and he brought along his lovely girlfriend, Thea.

“For me, this photograph represents many of the challenging aspects of creating a portrait. I was in an entirely new location and faced with people I’d never met before. In this spectacular environment, I aimed to create a dynamic complexity within the picture that was both unique to that person and also understandable to others.”

Sternbach, who was born in the Bronx in New York, is a visiting artist at the Cooper Union art school and a faculty member at the International Center of Photography and the Penumbra Foundation, where she teaches courses in wet plate collodion, a 19th-century process.

She is one of two US photographers on the shortlist. The other is Kovi Konowiecki, who was born and raised in Long Beach, California, and initially pursued a career in professional football.

Konowiecki, once part of the youth academy at 1860 Munich, played in Israel before returning to the US and then moving to London, where he studied for an MA in photography at the University of the Arts.

He is shortlisted for two images from his series Bei Mir Bistu Shein, which portrays orthodox Jews from around the world.

Konowiecki said the project was “an attempt to both strengthen my ties to my family’s history and shed light on the traditions of a people that seem strange to modern society”.

Tilly and Itty, Beitar Illit by Kovi Konowiecki
Tilly and Itty, Beitar Illit, one of two images shortlisted from Kovi Konowiecki’s series Bei Mir Bistu Shein. Photograph: Kovi Konowiecki/PA

He added: “The project started by contacting members of the Jewish community from where I grew up, and evolved into travels across the world to capture orthodox Jews who, although they live thousands of miles apart, are bound together by history, tradition and a set of values that serve as the cornerstone of the lives of many who live in today’s society.”

The third nominee is the Swiss-Italian photographer Claudio Rasano for an image of 18-year-old South African student Katlehong Matsenen. The picture is from a series called Similar Uniforms: We Refuse to Compare.

Rasano said he was exploring issues of individuality. “Children themselves have been known to rebel against uniforms, especially as they approach the awkward age characterised by the need to fit in and the desire to stand out all at the same time.”

Matsenen 2016 by Claudio Rasano
Matsenen 2016 by Claudio Rasano, from a series focused on uniforms. Photograph: Claudio Rasano/PA

The shortlisted photographs were chosen from 4,303 submissions entered by 1,842 photographers from 61 countries.

The annual prize, which began in 1993, is considered one of the most prestigious photography awards in the world and is judged anonymously. It is open to professional and amateur photographers.

After the winner of the £15,000 prize is announced on 15 November, the shortlisted works will form part of a wider prize show at the National Portrait Gallery between 17 November and 26 February.

Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the gallery, said: “In an exhibition remarkable for its range of subjects and styles, the quality of this year’s shortlisted works reflects the outstanding level at which photographers across the world are working today.”


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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