Underwater fine art photographer, Beth Mitchell, has won the Brisbane Portrait Prize $50K Lord Mayor’s Prize for her image, No Land in Sight.
Mitchell lives between Brisbane and Melbourne, but became trapped in the southern city due to the Covid-19 border restrictions. Frustrated with being stuck in the most locked down city in the world, the photography plunged herself into the freezing Port Phillip Bay water at St Kilda and captured the winning image.
‘Frustration is present as I step into the freezing waters on yet another miserable winter day locked down in Melbourne,’ Mitchell wrote in her artist statement. ‘Unable to travel back to Brisbane, the ever evolving knowledge of a growing divide among people politically, socially and environmentally bears down on my mind increasing the need to create something meaningful and purposeful. Yet without creative freedom or a solid future, it seems the hope of restoration is up in the air so I focus on weathering the storm of my mind. Untouched and uninterested in beauty, I realise that seeing myself objectively as a muse at such a mentally turbulent time for so many, produces beyond a portrait, perhaps a capturing of distilled grit and courage against the beauty & cruelty of a blank horizon.’
Brisbane Portrait prize director, Anna Reynolds , highlights the ‘strength and gravitas’ in No Land in Sight, calling Mitchell a pioneer of a ‘new approach to digital technique’. ‘It is rich in symbolism and evokes both the complex emotions surrounding isolation and lockdowns while commenting on broader questions of the human spirit,’ she said.
National Portrait Gallery Australia director and 2021 judge, Karen Quinlan, said Mitchell’s ‘conversation about nature and the human condition’ is engaging, a ‘brooding self’ with ‘gothic beauty’ and ‘ethereal qualities.
‘The blue translucent backdrop of a moody sky and sea contrasts perfectly against the heavy Kabuki style makeup upon the floating face,’ Quinlan said. ‘Together these simple elements reinforce a powerful nature that challenges our vulnerability. The chemistry of the water and the body is symbolic of our shared fragility and strength.’
The Brisbane Portrait Prize is open to any two dimensional artworks, meaning photography competes with paintings, drawings, collages, prints and other mediums. With photography considered by many as having less artistic merit than other mediums, Mitchell’s win shows its growing acceptance within the arts.
‘To be selected among such an impressive range of portraiture is something my younger self would never have believed possible,’ Mitchell said. ‘I’m rendered speechless.’
Gold Coast-based photographer, Russell Shakespeare, won the $10K Accenture Digital Award for his photo, The Artist Judy Watson. This award is designed for any digital still work, with Shakespeare’s image showing Australian Waayni multi-media artist, Judy Watson.
‘Russell Shakespeare’s photograph… is quietly mysterious. The black and white portrait skilfully frames the sitter within an unrecognisable construct of concrete, bricks, and mortar,’ said Quinlan. ‘Judy Watson plays herself, outside of the studio, within a backdrop that is haunting and alien. This is a setting far removed from the beauty of Australia’s natural environment. With eyes closed and a swathe of hair masking her face, we are left to imagine what the sitter is seeing. This subtle and evocative portrait of one of Australia’s most highly regarded artists references indigeneity and notions of loss and dispossession.’
Photo contest criteria
Organising group: Brisbane Portrait Prize
Status/Objective: ‘Encourages excellence, creates opportunity for artists and increases engagement in the arts, by providing space for artists to explore contemporary portraiture, encompassing notions of story telling in the digital age.’ By the way, you must have a connection to Brisbane to enter!
Entry fee: Entry $65 per entry.
Prizes: A prize pool worth $90K, with the grand prize winning $50K cash.
Sponsors: Sponsors across numerous categories, including the Brisbane City Council (top prize), IT company Accenture, Courier Mail, and others. The Star Entertainment Group is also a presenting partner.
Judges: National Gallery of Australia director, Karen Quinlan, is the chief judge. The finalist judges are Avril Quaill from the Queensland Museum Network and Campbell Gray from the University of Queensland Art Museum.
Number of entrants/submissions: 766
Categories: Eight categories.
Exposure: Winning images show in a free print exhibition at Brisbane Powerhouse, and receive media exposure.
Transparency: Comes off pretty darn transparent.
Communication: Readily available.
Estimated Gross Revenue: 766 entries x $65 per entry = $49,790.
Copyright standards: Entrants retains copyright.
Overall rating: This contest is now in its third year, and looks to be establishing itself as a leading annual portrait prize. The board consists of people holding important positions in Brisbane. The prize pool is nice. Not really much to complain about – a good one!