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Rob Palmer wins 2020 National Portrait Prize

Portrait and surf photographer, Rob Palmer, has won the 2020 National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP) for his image of Sydney chef, Josh Niland, titled The Mahi-Mahi.

The Mahi-Mahi. Photo: Ron Palmer.

Rob had been working with the celebratory chef on a cook book, during which Josh presented a massive mahi-mahi and the winning portrait was captured.

‘He was just about to show us how he dissects every part of the fish so that it’s all used and there’s zero waste,’ Rob told the Sydney Morning Herald. ‘It was just the moment where he was going to cut the fish up and he laid this giant mahi-mahi out and we were just like “wow, stop there”. Hold that, we need to light this, this is a stunning image.
‘It was this moment where it was almost like there was no one else in the room. It was just him and this fish. He had this affinity for the fish laying out before him.’

Rather than putting a lot of effort into composing and lighting the scene to place his creative ‘thumbprint’ on the photo, Rob set up the shot with just one light and said the image practically created itself, ‘it was almost my job to just document that’, and he got the shot in five to 10 minutes.

Judges commended the photo for its ‘majesty and power’, and ‘painterliness and composition’. ‘The sitter’s embrace of the fish so eloquently conveys his identity as a chef,’ they said.

As stated earlier by Rob, Josh is well-known for his approach towards zero waste. He uses all parts of the fish, including eyes, bones and scales.

‘The store’s airconditioned so they get a lot of longevity out of the fish once it’s out of the coolroom,’ he said. ‘But it was a big thing to make sure that he could dissect that fish down to the last eyeball and scale for us [to use] in his cooking, while making sure we weren’t ruining [the fish] just for the sake of an image.’

The Sydney photographer, who was selected from 2500 entries, has won $30,000 cash and $22,000 in gear. Check out his website.

Eileen Kramer is a dancer. Photo: Hugh Stewart.

The NPPP highly commended award went to Sydney-based portrait photographer, Hugh Stewart, for his image of 105-year-old dancer Eileen Kramer. The judges said they were drawn by the colours, and ‘her gesture made us feel the warmth of the sitter’s presence even though her eyes are closed’.

Hugh is a Kiwi, who relocated to Sydney but also works in the US. He’s photographed everyone from Johnny Cash to five Australian prime ministers, and of course everyday people.

Lastly, the NPPP Art Handler’s Award went to Melbourne photographer, Shea Kirk, for his photo Gemma Baxter (right view).

The image is part of Kirk’s ongoing series of stereoscopic portraits titled Vantages.

‘Working with dual large-format cameras to simultaneously capture two images from different perspectives, Kirk invites subjects to be photographed in his humble home-studio. Each portrait is exposed onto black and white sheet film through a slow and methodical process, enabling an intimate exchange that highlights the agency between photographer and subject. When viewed through a stereoscope, these dual-portraits can be seen three-dimensionally, rendering the subject hauntingly statuesque.’

Gemma, who operates a streetwear clothing label, said: ‘Getting older, our faces and bodies change – but slowly I think I’m feeling more and more proud of mine. A body that started a business, hauled fabric around the city, filled a room with machinery that I taught myself how to use. When I saw the image you took of me, I was kind of inspired by myself. It was a… lovely feeling.’

The 48 finalist images are showing in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra until May 10. The exhibition will then tour the country. Keep an eye on opening times, which may be affected by COVID-19.

See all finalist images here.

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