Portraiture is a powerful medium, and, despite its universal popularity, it is still perhaps the most elusive genre in photography. The best portraits are touched by nuance, mixtures of feelings and emotions, subtle signals of communication, and connections that can be felt indirectly from the subject via the camera and photographer through to us, the viewers.
And because photography is such a generous medium (as Lee Friedlander once famously put it) every aspect of a great portrait contributes to its success — the level of intimacy, the direct or indirect gaze, the environment and surroundings, the light (of course), the level of honesty and trust, and the degree to which a psychological mask is in place, or dropped, to reveal something true and real.
The 38 winners, jurors’ picks and finalists presented here represent a wonderful range of styles and approaches to the art of portrait photography. The members of the international jury met for multiple hours (via video) to discuss these photographers and many others. At times the discussions were quite passionate, and with this final selection, we believe these photographers all capture and convey something true about their subjects.
Here you will discover several variations on self-portraiture (indeed, all three of the top winners in the singles category this year are self-portraits made by female photographers). Other portraits are conceptual, trying to deliver social messages about groups of people or cultures while depicting specific individuals. Some are formal, staged photos, while others have been captured in wonderfully fresh candid moments.
These winners and finalists hail from 19 countries on five continents, and depict people coming from diverse sets of circumstance. In all of these wonderful examples, a profound sense of humanity comes through. We hope you will take the time to savor each of these to find some personal connections and inspiration.
— Jim Casper, on behalf of the jury and the whole team at LensCulture
This image stopped me in my tracks. I wanted to know who these boys were, with their intense eye contact and poised bodies, every bit of energy concentrated in their lightly closed fists. This portrait of the three Donoghue brothers is part of Joseph-Philippe Bevillard’s documentation of the Mincéirs, or Irish Travelers, a nomadic ethnic minority for whom boxing is a favorite pastime. I couldn’t help being reminded of another photograph of three young men with equally steady gazes, confident poses, and prominent hands — August Sander’s “Three Young Farmers on the Way to a Dance” from 1914. Even if separated by a century and very different social concerns, both photographs address the potentiality of the young men depicted and what the future might hold for them.
I loved Rhiannon's work because of what it represents for me. It strikes such a chord of freedom in a world that has been prosecuting and causing harm to the Black body for generations upon generations. Intertwined with this freedom comes the power in iconology of the durag that the man in wearing in the frame. Over the last decade, it has gone from just a mere piece of fabric that we use to get waves or keep you hair "looking decent under a fitted" to this idea of Black empowerment as well as bringing one’s whole self. I can go deeper into this, but just an amazing frame that I need to find out how I can get a copy in my house.
Tajette O’Halloran’s series stood out for me in the tension between the suggestion of a gritty documentary project that are in fact tableaux scenes, or what she calls ‘constructed realities’. There is a sustained filmic point of view that progresses a fragmentary narrative apparently drawing on the artist’s own suburban youth. We see allusions to sex, teenage pregnancy, isolation, boredom and poverty — but there is tenderness, intimacy, beauty and longing too. Colour — red for the most part with flashes of orange, blue, pink — pulse through the twilight sequence. I thought of points of reference including Carol Jerrems, Tom Hunter and Trent Parke. The series intrigued me as a kind of re-staged self-portrait conflating memory and picture making, biography and story-telling in a way a work of literary autofiction might.
Michal Solarski’s long-term project “Rest Behind the Curtain” explores the holiday culture in the Eastern European States and the former Soviet Republics and does so with great sensitivity. The photographer invites us to reflect upon the habits and rituals typical of tourism in these regions by using highly evocative imagery. Be the subject an individual or a landscape, the overall feeling is that of nostalgia and a sense of belonging. Each photograph acts as the access key taking the observer into a dreamscape where the border between reality and memory is blurred. It is like finding yourself in a suspended time that has the same power of childhood memories.
Grigralashvili's image from her personal project "Women with Headscarves" struck me as an incredibly strong portrait with a rich underlying narrative. I was pulled in by the subject’s piercing stare, the bright outfit chosen for the sitting, the women’s expressions in relation to the subject, and the grounding contextual environment. As I continued to observe, more details emerged and a story unfolded. That is what a good portrait does — it captures our attention and keeps us engaged, inviting us into the subject’s world.
Alice De Kruijs builds a bridge for the existential matters of the inhabitants of the island state Tuvalu and reinforces the impression of a great distance to the isolated people through a sculptural staging of the portrayed human beings: the exotic person is left to himself or herself, and appears in this way of staging like a human being put on display in a diorama of an ethnological museum.
For me, this portrait by Oleg Videnin is a perfect example of the generosity of photography — it conveys so much within a single frame. There’s a wonderful mixture of joy and pride and delight in the expression on the girl’s face and her body language as she carries a heavy jug of fresh milk from the barn while the inquisitive friendly dog gets excited by what she’s carrying. Then, as you continue to look at the photo, you notice more of the setting and surroundings, including the cart and horse behind her, and the little child in the background coming closer to see what is going on. It’s a sweet moment of real life in a world that seems far away.
Magdalene Keaney is Senior Curator, Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, London, where she is responsible for the care and development of one of the world’s largest and most significant collections. Her work encompasses acquisitions, commissions, displays and exhibition development. At the NPG Keaney has curated the 2019 and 2020 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibitions, Ethan James Green: Couples and Inspiring People: Collecting for the future. She has written widely for exhibition catalogues, books and magazines notably around fashion photography and contemporary practice. Recent publications include: 100 Fashion Icons (National Portrait Gallery, London, 2019) and contributions to publications including Cindy Sherman (National Portrait Gallery, London, 2019), Know my Name (National Gallery of Australia, 2020), and A World History of Women Photographers (Editions Textuel, 2020). She is currently working on a major representation of the NPG’s historic collection for the Inspiring People redevelopment project. Previously holding curatorial roles at the Australian National Portrait Gallery, London College of Fashion and the Australian War Memorial her expertise spans nineteenth century to contemporary and she is particularly interested in women’s practice.
Brent Lewis is a photo editor at The New York Times working on the Business Desk, where he assigns visual coverage of technology, the economy, and auto industry. He is also co-founder of Diversify Photo, a platform and resource for art buyers, creative directors and photo editors to discover photographers of color available for assignments and commissions.
He was previously a photo editor at The Washington Post and was the senior photo editor of ESPN’s The Undefeated, where he drove the visual language of the website based around the intersection of sports, race, and culture. Before turning his life over to photo editing, he was a staff photojournalist with stints at The Denver Post, The Rockford Register Star and the Chillicothe Gazette. Through the years his photos have been used by the Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, Associated Press, Forbes, and Yahoo! News.
Chiara Marinai is a Senior Visuals Editor at Vanity Fair where she produces photo and video content for print and online. She leads VF.com’s creative concepts for awards season portrait booths, including the annual Oscar party, and overall visuals for the site.
Virginia Heckert has been a curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum since 2005, where she also served as department head from 2014 to 2018. In addition to organizing monographic exhibitions on Sigmar Polke, August Sander, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Irving Penn, and Ed Ruscha from the permanent collection, she has collaborated on presentations of the photographs of Lyonel Feininger and the Bauhaus and Ray K. Metzker and the Institute of Design. The exhibitions Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography (2015) and Cut! Paper Play in Contemporary Photography (2018) addressed the materiality of contemporary approaches to the medium of photography. She is currently working on the exhibitions Mario Giacomelli: Figure/Ground and The Expanded Landscape, both drawn from the Getty’s permanent collection. Prior to joining the Getty Museum, Virginia was the inaugural Curator of Photography at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, FL (2001-2005), and held fellowships at the Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the Berlinische Galerie, Berlin. She received her PhD from Columbia University, New York, with a dissertation on the German modernist photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch.
Since 2015 Francesca Marani has been part of Vogue Italia’s photography department. She is a contributor to Vogue.it, photo editor for the PhotoVogue platform and co-curator of the Photo Vogue Festival. Francesca also manages the production of Vogue Italia’s photographic exhibitions and creates digital contents for Vogue Italia’s Instagram account. In 2018 she curated a talk series about contemporary photography at the Affordable Art Fair (Milan), she co-curated the exhibition “Italian Panorama” at the Armani/Silos and was a juror of the Ooshot Award (Paris). Over the past few years Francesca has been a portfolio lecturer for the Blink Portfolio Review (New York) and a juror of the Photolucida’s Critical Mass. In 2019 Francesca took part in “Scouting for India”(Mumbai), the Vogue Talents’ project in collaboration with FAD International Academy. In 2020 she was a member of the jury of Fresh Eyes (GUP magazine), PHmuseum Women Photographers Grant and Photoville FENCE. Francesca regularly collaborates with several photography festivals and schools as portfolio reviewer and lecturer.
As Creative Director, Roman has established plainpicture as a very popular alternative source for photography. With a credible and unconventional portfolio, plainpicture steers away from the current photography mainstream and focuses on targeted editing to develop its ambitious and challenging collection. It is an inspirational source for all creatives from the advertising, design and publishing fields, including a special collection, «Rauschen», dedicated to book jacket designers. plainpicture has offices in Hamburg, Paris, London and New York. Topics of interest: «We look for photographers who want to provide us a part of their photographic work for exclusive and worldwide sale: both for commercial use and for editorial use, as well as for bookcovers.»
Jim Casper is the editor-in-chief of LensCulture, one of the leading online destinations to discover contemporary photography from around the world. As an active member in the contemporary photography world, Casper organizes annual international photography events, travels around the world to meet with photographers and review their portfolios, curates art exhibitions, writes about photography and culture, lectures, conducts workshops, serves as an international juror and nominator for key awards, and is an advisor to arts and education organizations.