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2021 National Photographic Portrait Prize winners

Sydney-based professional photographer, Joel Pratley, has won the 2021 National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP) for his image, Drought Story 2020.

Drought Story 2020 by Joel Pratley.

The photo shows farmer, David Kalisch, walking toward a dust storm at his drought-stricken farm in Forbes, New South Wales. Pratley shot the image in December 2020, while working with a film crew to make an ad for farm charity, Rural Aid.

‘David’s composure during the storm was surreal because he is just so used to it,’ Pratley said to the Sydney Morning Herald. ‘For me, it was just like being on Mars. The ferocity with all the sticks and stones flying around and the dust was incredible. We were shooting like mad when it came. Something as simple as walking off into the distance took on a whole new meaning.’

Pratley’s artist statement had far fewer words, and rather than explaining the background information he supplied a short sentence, ‘Sometimes you think, why am I here?’

NPPP judge and prolific contemporary photographer, Bill Henson, compared Drought Story 2020 to a painting by Belgian surrealist, Rene Magritte. ‘The longer that you look at the picture … the stranger it gets and the more mysterious it becomes.’

‘What I was looking for in a photo was probably was what most people are looking for – strength and gentleness, which is the great combination,’ he said. ‘It’s a tenderness, a grace, perhaps a quietness amid all the yelling and righteous grandstanding that makes up so much of public life these days.

‘That particular image contained a lot of that. It showed human nature is a very small part of nature in general. And I think it’s a great reminder of both the beauty and the terror of nature.’

Fellow judge and National Portrait Gallery director, Karen Quinlan, said the barren nature stood out and brought home a ‘sense of isolation’.

‘And I think for people who have been in lockdown, in particular, it’s one they will relate to,’ she said. ‘It’s this sense of isolation, and that feeling of the ground shifting under you all the time. The photo would probably work without the human figure as well. I think it’s just a really beautiful landscape, but we are into portraits here.’

For the first time this year the NPPP adopted a theme, ‘Living Memory’, to acknowledge the ‘seismic events’ of last year.

Pratley has won $30K cash and $20K in Canon gear. He intends to donate some of the prize money to Kalisch’s drought-affected farm.

The NPPP Highly Commended Award was given to Torquay-based photographer, Julian Kingma, for his image, Tom at the drain 2020.

Tom at the drain 2020 by Julian Kingma. ‘Isolation sent children into new territory: what to do with themselves; how to negotiate their four walls, sometimes battling anxiety; how to find playfulness; and resisting constant screen time. Tom needs to be on the move, to create worlds within worlds. He was diagnosed with ADHD, so lockdown was particularly challenging – being told to stay home and stay indoors was excruciating for him. Yet I found optimism within him when making this portrait. While the world retreated, Tom was reminding me happiness always exists within the simplest things.’

The Distinction Awards, a new initiative with a mentorship prize up for grabs, goes to NSW photographer, R.J Poole, for the image, Great conjunction, and Sydney freelance photographer, Jessica Hromas, for Mark and Saskia cool off.

Great Conjunction by R.J Poole. ‘The purpose of entering a lake is not to ‘know’ the lake, but to luxuriate in the water – to feel the cold against our skin, the weight of our body disappear. It’s not about working the lake out. Likewise, art is not a test of intellect so much as an experience. It is not a concept or a measure of how much we know, so much as an emotional exchange, a sharing of things held in common between an artist and their audience. It’s like a spiritual connection that ultimately changes the way we feel, and helps us become weightless.’

The jury panel selected 79 finalists, which is showing at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra until November 7, and will then tour the country.

‘These photos come back to something which feels – authentic is almost isn’t a good enough word for it. It’s almost as though really good pictures always recommend the truth,’ Henson said about the finalist images. ‘They have something about them that feels true. These situations send everyone back into themselves in different ways. That is one of the great gifts of any interesting art. It does send you back into yourself. Because there’s no correct way of looking at Rembrandt or listening to Mozart, there’s only your way.’

Mark and Saskia cool off by Jessica Hromas. ‘Mark Rushton swims with his husky dog Saskia off the rocks at North Bondi. With forced lockdowns and big changes due to social distancing rules brought in to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, people spoke of a return to basics and an appreciation for the simple things in life. This portrait of Mark with his dog celebrates the good things in his life: a beautiful beach by his home, and the special relationship he has with ‘man’s best friend’, his dog.’


Photo contest criteria

Organising group: National Portrait Gallery
Status/Objective: Reward Australian portrait photography, curate an exhibition of finalist images.
Entry fee: $30 per entry.
Prizes: Grand prize is $30K cash, plus $20K worth of Canon gear.
Sponsors: Canon Australia.
Judges: Bill Henson, Nick Mitzevich, and Karen Quinlan.
Number of entrants/submissions: Over 3000.
Categories: No categories.
Exposure: Promoted online by National Portrait Gallery, as well as appearing in national touring exhibition.
Affiliations: Canon Australia.
Transparency: As run by a leading cultural institution, it’s extremely transparent.
Communication: Contact Us page available.
Estimated Gross Revenue: $30 per entry x 3000 entries = $90K.
Copyright standards: No copyright clause visible in mentioned in T&Cs.
Something else: The selected finalists are required to print, frame and deliver their work to be shown in the exhibition. So there is an additional expense for winners!
Overall rating: With a grand prize worth $50K, it’s one of the biggest photography prizes run by a leading cultural institution. Having different guest judges (Henson, Mitzevich) ensures the prize changes from year-to-year. The finalist exhibition looks fantastic, with a broad selection of images on show. It’s a great contest, although with $90K revenue NPG should probably pay to print and frame the exhibition!

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