A rare beauty

Edie Leggat’s parents have the recessive MC1R gene. Just like 40% of the UK population. Photo Alec Leggat

They say rejection is character building and that it’s something a photographer, or any freelance creative type for that matter, needs to embrace and learn from. Use it to build resilience, purpose and integrity into your brand, we’re told. Over 2,000 photographers submitted nearly 5,000 images to the 2015 Taylor Wessing competition at London’s National Portrait Gallery.[1] About 50 photographers were selected to have their work shown in the exhibition. This must have been a daunting task for the administrators and the jury of selectors. But it’s the National Portrait Gallery; we can be assured of a fair, transparent and anonymised process of judging conducted by a group of experienced and learned professionals.

The judges’ decision on the winning portrait in 2015 prompted what has become a predictable commentary amongst photographers and critics, reflected in the slightly jaded view expressed by photographers. Admittedly, they were the ones going through the character building process. Some critics found the winning entry quite ordinary and difficult to justify without also having on show the image taken seven years earlier, to which it refers. The winning photographer had submitted entries to the competition 15 times previously. Strong evidence of resilience there.

“First prize in this year’s contest went to David Stewart for a photograph of his daughter and four friends around a table scattered with sushi. It’s hard to see what makes this rather banal work the best photographic portrait of the year . . .” Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, November 2015

A critic from The Standard explained that “David Stewart’s winning photograph for this year’s prize is an odd choice. It’s a follow-up to a 2008 photograph of the girls in identical poses (not exhibited), in which they sit surrounded by fast food. As a pair, they reflect on the shift between adolescence and adulthood, youthful and mature taste, self-image. But on its own, while it’s diverting, I’m not sure Five Girls is a prize winner.”

Knowing the context of a single image helps the viewer determine its meaning. Understanding the context for the exhibition is vital to understanding the content of the exhibition. In the case of Taylor Wessing, it’s a product of The Academy, a combination of the selectors’ preferences, the formal selection process and the organisational values and remit of the institution presenting the work. The external sponsor also has a role, as well as its own motivations for contributing. That complex, or system, is particularly evident when you visit the space and view the exhibition. The professionalism of the presentation is of the standard you would expect from a national institution. The labels are clear and explanatory while adding a suitable level of background and context. The decision making process is anonymised and fair. The sponsor’s involvement is evident but not overbearing.

I found only one reviewer who seemed to see the winning image as a portrait of young people’s existential angst or uncertainty on the brink of adulthood. A quality that I would have expected a jury made up of older people to be concerned about — a projection of older-generation guilt at the mess we’ve left things in for our children, if that is indeed the case. The likely average age of the jurors in the 2015 competition was forty eight.

[1] http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/09/shortlist-for-the-taylor-wessing-photographic-portrait-prize-2015-announced/

Two redheads at the 2015 Taylor Wessing exhibition. Photo: Alec Leggat

The Ginger Trope

There’s a persistent line from photographers that says you have a better chance of being selected for the Taylor Wessing if your portrait is of a red-haired person, preferably twins and maybe with an animal included for good measure. This is probably as much evidence of the slightly jaundiced view of the refusés as it is an indication of the preferences of the selectors. A change in the membership of the selecting jury seems to have shifted the preference away from ginger sitters. However, the 2015 John Kobal New Work Award winning image, a cash prize of £5,000 awarded to a photographer under 30 years old selected for the exhibition, featured a redhead. And, there’s one redhead in the group portrait that won the 2015 competition.

I don’t know if anyone has compiled statistics on the incidence of red-haired sitters in the selected work for the Taylor Wessing exhibitions. However, I did a few simple calculations on the cost of submitting an entry to the competition. These are based on fairly accurate assumptions of the funds generated for the NPG and the suppliers associated with producing submissions. And all from the pockets of the applicants. Ticket sales is another source of income, of course, and one that will likely also include monies from photographers who submit entries to the competition. Altogether this is a good deal of money when you’re an aspirational photographer. I think it also feeds any disaffection there might be with the competition. But visibility is important when you are an individual promoting your professional services. And that’s a valuable prize in the Taylor Wessing competition whether you’re the winner, placed or are included in the exhibition.

Some numbers for The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2015

  • Submissions: 4,929
  • Likely cost per submission (including entry fee, estimated cost of printing the images, print protection and delivery): £62.50
  • Photographers: 2,201
  • Likely average cost per photographer: £139.96

But, with these numbers it is not surprising that there is a wealth of intriguing and compelling images that just don’t make it into the Taylor Wessing prize selection.

James O Jenkins and his colleague Carole Evans founded Portrait Salon in 2011 as a response to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. A form of Salon des Refusés — an exhibition of works rejected from a juried art show — it provides a showcase of the best of the rejected images from the Taylor Wessing Prize. Portrait Salon refuses to take the same presentational approach as the National Portrait Gallery. Their 2015 exhibition aimed to show all of the rest and not just the best of the rest of those not selected by Taylor Wessing jurors. The show also “toured” to The Reminders Photography Stronghold Gallery, Tokyo in February 2016.

Sanchia, Abraham, Mae, Eleanor. Photo: Alec Leggat

Early on a Sunday morning, four friends winding down in our local park after a night clubbing in Peckham. Aware of the camera but engaged with each other, and a smart phone. My submission to the 2015 Talylor Wessing competition. They declined to include it in the show. Admittedly it has something of a red cast and there is a little subject movement. This portrait was shown in the 2015 Portrait Salon. An achievement of which I am unreasonably proud. This is partly because I submitted it to the Taylor Wessing competition in order to be eligible for the Portrait Salon.

Mutations and superpowers — The X people

While the salon des refusés approach adopted by Portrait Salon shows no preference for or against redheads, those with the mutated MC1R gene continue to hold an abiding fascination for portrait photographers. There are at least two photographers in the UK collecting images of redheads — Kieran Dodds with his Gingers series and The Ginger Project by Gabrielė Gurčiūtė. Lensculture.com lists 4 projects including one that records the rare beauty of “Their orange-red hair, their pale skin, their bright, light eyes [which] are just breathtaking and magical to me. At times they even appear translucent.” If photography is a window on the world then it’s a world with more redheads and people with albinism than the statistics tell us.

Redheads are quite rare in reality. It is estimated that between 1–2 % of the world’s population have red hair. That’s 75–150 million of the approximately 7.5bn populating the planet at the time of writing. Western Europe houses more redheads than anywhere else and Scotland’s population is approximately 13% ginger, followed by Ireland at 10%. In both countries 86% of people have either blue or green eyes.

Rarity can be dangerous and even life threatening. In Tanzania, people with albinism are valued in a different way. Mutations or defects in the genes affecting melanin production can lead to more or less severe forms of the condition. These can affect skin and eye colour as well as eyesight.

Often seen as zeru-zeru or “sub-human”, people with albinism in Tanzania can be kidnapped, killed and dismembered for their body parts to be used in potions by traditional healers.

Although redheads were once thought to be witches and their freckles a mark of the devil, for most in the developed world, bullying is the worst they are likely to experience. This is what prompted Gabrielė Gurčiūtė and her The Ginger Project. It seems that the people of Denmark are the most enlightened when it comes to attitudes towards redheads. They believe it’s an honour to have a redheaded child.

Not only are redheads rare and beautiful, but they are different in ways that are not as evident as their red hair. We all need a certain amount of sunlight to make vitamin D, essential for bone health. With their pale skin, redheads are more efficient at making vitamin D than dark-skinned people.

Even super heroines have their “Achilles heel”. Redheads are more sensitive to pain and require about 20% more anaesthesia than others. Their fair skin and sensitivity to ultraviolet light means that redheads should use sunblock more to help prevent skin cancer. And this may sound slightly sinister but people with red hair are more likely to be left-handed. Recessive genetic traits often happen in pairs so people with the gene for red hair may also have the trait for left-handedness.

Are blue-eyed redheads super rare?

Not if you live in Scotland or Ireland where blue or green eyes are common and where the highest concentration of redheads live. The combination of red hair and brown eyes occurs less often. Genes for hair and eye colour are found on several chromosomes. Traits like red hair and blue eyes arose in the same populations so they are found on the same chromosome. Brown hair and brown eyes are dominant traits and red hair and green eyes are recessive. The red hair and brown eye combination is rare since there is little chance that the gene for brown eyes will recombine onto a chromosome with the gene for red hair. For someone to have red hair and brown eyes, they would need two copies of the gene for red hair and at least one copy of the gene for brown.

Blue eyes are not blue in the same way that blue jeans are. They are like the blueness of the sky. This is due to Tyndall scattering of light in the cells in the eyes. The phenomenon is similar to that which accounts for the blueness of the sky called Rayleigh scattering. There is no blue pigmentation either in the iris or in the ocular fluid. So, Edie’s blue eye colour varies according to the light conditions.

Red hair and blue eyes are no longer particularly common in the subjects portrayed in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition, if they ever were. So, it’s unlikely to be the case that to have a chance of winning or getting selected for the exhibition you should find a ginger to photograph. Either way I have one in the family.

Not long to go now before the deadline for the 2016 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. I wonder what the ginger count will be this year.

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