Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2010

An impressive selection of images from Britain and abroad at the National Portrait Gallery.

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Tony Blair # 1 from the series Tony Blair by Kalpesh Lathigra © Kalpesh Lathigra

The above portrait of Tony Blair, from June 2010, seems to tell us more about the former Prime Minster's current state than any number of words could. He looks haggard, battle worn and manic. A man disillusioned, some might say; a fallen Mayor of Casterbridge for our very own 21st century. Where formerly there was passion, now there seems only to be a kind of maddened desperation in his eyes.

This striking image didn't, however, win the 2010 Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize and the £12,000 award that goes with it. That honour went to David Chancellor's extraordinary photograph of a young American huntress, "Huntress with Buck".

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Huntress with Buck from the series 'Hunters' by David Chancellor © David Chancellor

It shows 14 year old Josie Slaughter, taken by her parents to South Africa to hunt for big game. The high contrast between the beauty of the auburn hair of girl, buck and horse and the African light on the plain, with the underlying brutality of the image is both visually arresting and narratively compelling, almost forcing the viewer to demand to know more about the picture's context. Taken in July 2010, with vivid medium contrast Kodak 160VC 120 film, it forms part of Chancellor's series of photographs Hunters and is featured on the front cover of this month's British Journal of Photography.

There are, however, more irreverent pleasures to be found within this exhibition, such as Jonathan Root's tender portrait of David Hockney in his Yorkshire studio, "David and Ruby". Hockney stands, cigarette held aloft, in a paint flecked pinstripe suit, a daffodil resplendent in his lapel. His dog, Ruby, looks placidly on. It seems to say, "Take me or leave me; I really couldn't care less", and gives us the artist in all his smoky, well-tailored but, nevertheless, scruffy splendor. It's a stark and lively contrast to the austere, almost statuesque nature of Lathigra's Blair.

And then there is Iranian-born photographer Ramin Talaie's superb "Haitian Women", taken in February 2010 in Haiti, showing an elderly earthquake survivor, scarred but still smiling. Talaie's photograph is a powerful visual testament to the indomitable nature of the human spirit; the solitary women in Holbein red stands tall and proud, grasping a tree trunk with one hand, seemingly holding it up rather than being supported by it.

The international scope, searingly high quality of the selected photographs and constant journeys in terms of theme and subject, from the political to the personal, from the downtrodden to the great and the good, all serve to make this a fine exhibition and a timely reminder of the fecundity of the British photographic scene.

Until 20th February 2011

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit