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Taylor Wessing portrait prize: another animal, another girl with red hair

Was Jooney Woodward's shot of a red-head holding a guinea pig really the best of the 6,000 entries? And what makes her think it's an 'unsettling' work?

Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize – in pictures

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Last year, the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize shortlist courted considerable controversy by including Panayiotis Lamprou's explicit photograph, Portrait of My British Wife. In the end, though, Lamprou's intimate image came second to David Chancellor's more stately portrait, Huntress With Buck: a deftly composed image of a flame-haired teenage girl, aptly named Josie Slaughter, on a horse with a dead deer draped over the steed's neck. As portraits go, it managed to be traditional and dramatic, but I would have much preferred to see Jeffrey Stockbridge's more edgy portrait, Tic Tac and Tootsie, winning.

This year, though, the shortlist provided no controversy and little drama. It has just been won by Jooney Woodward for Harriet and Gentleman Jack, a portrait of a another flame-haired girl who is cradling a guinea pig. (At this rate, next year they will be inundated with portraits of red-haired teenage girls with animals.) Woodward describes her portrait as "unsettling". Well, it's a nice pic: the girl's hair and the guinea pig's fur complement each other nicely. And there's a scratch on Harriet's hand that suggests Jack may be no gentleman. But "unsettling" it isn't. The bigger question is: was this really the best of the bunch – a total of 6,000 entries by over 2,500 photographers?

I must say, the same question entered my head when I initially saw the shortlist back in early September. I could see the craft of Jasper Clarke's beautifully understated portrait of Wen, an artist in her studio; and the edginess of Jill Wooster's Of Lili, which stood apart with its raw, almost aggressive, energy. The rest, though, were driven by good intentions – Andie by David Knight, Christina and Mark, 14 Months by Dona Schwartz – but good intentions do not necessarily make for good photographs.

I was not the only one disappointed at the dullness of the selection. Over at the National Journal of Photography, a blog on the shortlist drew an avalanche of negative comments, ranging from "Is it me? Am I missing something?" through "I am speechless, is this really the best of the best?" to "Yawn yawn".

For once, I found myself in some agreement with the online naysayers. Where's the excitement, the sense of mystery, not to say confusion, a great photographic portrait should inspire in the viewer? With one exception, Jill Wooster, it was safe, undemanding work, technically brilliant but lacking any glimmer of emotional power. If the judges concurred with Woodward's "unsettling" verdict, they really do need to get out more. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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