In 2014 David Titlow won the prestigous Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. We recently caught up with David to find out more about his controversail winning photograph and how the award has impacted his career.
“Like a Crusty Caravaggio”
(If you haven’t already entered this year’s prize, check out theprintspace’s unbeatable Taylor Wessing print offer.)
In 2014 fashion and commercial photographer David Titlow won the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. From a humble background studying graphic design and screen printing, then delving into the realms of music where he formed a band and toured the world, Titlow’s un-staged photograph of his newborn son is an image filled with warmth and love, depicting that moment between family members as they pass the new arrival from one pair of loving arms to another. The child’s name is Konrad, thus the title of the photograph: “Konrad Lars Hastings Titlow”. The big beaming eyes of Konrad as he meets a dog for the first time are heart warming. His expression and gaze fixed on the dog are the centre point of the photograph and there is something special about this image both for Konrad and his partner.
Speaking to theprintspace in an exclusive interview, David explained how this photograph came about:
“It wasn’t set up, so I hadn’t gone out with the intention of photographing something that would have such a big effect on me. I was in Sweden, where I go every year with my girlfriend and it was a big summer party out in the woods. We couldn’t go to party that particular year because of just having Konrad, so we turned up the next morning when everyone was a little hungover.
I always take my camera because there are always good things to shoot – there are some really great characters there. My girlfriend’s sister was holding Konrad on the sofa, and looking at the scene with just my eyes, not the camera, the light was really beautiful so I started shooting with this old Lumix which I use for my blog, desperately lowering the speed on it as I knew I had something nice, shutting it down and shutting it down again, trying to keep the camera still. It was just the perfect moment. I know it looks set up, but honestly it wasn’t. I remember thinking that I’ve got to get the least noisy version of this scene. When I got back to the house and uploaded the photographs straight away, I could tell instantly I had captured something special.
I don’t really take photographs like that commercially, but I’ve got tonnes of images like that which I use for my blog. It was just one of those moments. That’s why you should carry a camera around with you because you never, ever know what is going to happen. I certainly wasn’t expecting to win the Taylor Wessing Prize!”
This spontaneous photograph isn’t the usual fare for the Taylor Wessing Prize. We’re offered the regulars, interesting and deserved photographs in their own rights, but there comes a time when change is needed. Titlow’s photograph offers the regular faces of the Taylor Wessing Prize audience something different.
What makes this image all the more fascinating is that it demonstrates how, when a few simple things fall into place, composition, light and mood, it can result in a photograph that has plenty of loaded messages, but remains in its purest form, a joyous photograph of a child encountering a dog, perhaps for the first time. In contrast to the spontaneity of this photograph, we asked David if, when shooting portraits commercially, he approaches the subject with a more preconceived vision of the end result?
“Funnily enough, usually not. If you’re shooting with a celebrity for a portrait or something, you are confined by what the magazine wants, by their idea of how they want the image to look, so you’re stuck with that and don’t really know how much the subject is going to give you or what mood they are going to be in. I tend not to think about how I’m going to do it, but I have lighting in mind for sure and possible locations, which could really work for that particular subject.
I remember shooting Gary Oldman for Esquire. I was so excited about shooting him – he’s a bit of a hero of mine – so I was nervous and got a little nauseous before the shoot. I set up four different scenarios in the studio, four different corners, as I only had an hour and a half with him and I remember saying ‘Look I’m just going to start shooting and you can just walk around’. He was a little confused, but I told him to trust me, and once he had seen the shots, he started to embrace the process. So there’s structure, but there’s also spontaneity within that structure.”
Comparing David’s professional work to his winning image, one can certainly see the contrast. With every photography award with a large audience there is always going to be controversy over the winner. And one could argue that heated discussion over who should or shouldn’t have won is a validation of the relevance of the award.
It has been widely commented that Titlow’s photograph echoes the paintings of Rembrandt, leaning towards a more classical style than the photo-realist portraiture more typical of the Taylor Wessing Prize. But Titlow is indifferent over the way people choose to read his image, what will be will be it seems.
“I’ve heard all sorts of stuff about the photograph. Most of it quite flattering. I’ve had some cool people who write some really good photographic blogs write some very complimentary words. I’m not great with all the art speak but if you wanted to roll with the ball you could have a total field day with it. The photograph is loaded. The main reason I took it was because I was drawn by the lighting and it was a special moment for my son, so the fact the people read so much into it is very flattering. It looks painterly in its most basic description, but you can invest it with all sorts of stuff if you really want. There’s the baby, three wise men, all sorts of nonsense. During the exhibition I overheard two old women who were painters saying, ‘oh what a lovely painting – I love it’, which kind of crossed that photography painting line, which was funny. If people want to compare me to a Rembrandt, that obviously fine by me. It’s a million miles away from what I do though.”
The stance Titlow has taken is interesting. How much of our own interpretation should we load photographs with? Can we not simply enjoy a photograph on a very basic and fundamental level – on whether it brings us happiness, sadness, a range of emotions, or nothing at all? The photograph allows us that, but there is more here if you want it. How the photograph is seen often isn’t in the control of the photographer. One may be able to nudge the audience in a direction, but fundamentally what is visible and taken away from Titlow’s prize winning photograph is down to the viewer. When asked about why this particular photograph won out of thousands of other entries, Titlow’s response was typically down to earth:
“I think it’s the light and the subject matter. I don’t think it is particularly challenging, there’s no one looking at you and no eye contact. The portrait of Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi which was in the exhibition, that is brilliant, a really close up shot that is extremely confrontational. Whereas with mine, it’s not threatening. I suspect that I was fortunate in the fact that it was the last show for the longstanding director Sandy Nairn and as a result of this timing the winner garnered more attention than normal. Possibly the judges were responding to a lot of criticism from places like the British Journal of Photography et al in regards to what normally wins and decided to go for an image that blindsided everyone? I was told on the side that it was an unanimous decision. Usually it’s a ginger girl on the cusp of adulthood in a swimming costume holding a barn owl or something like that. Most people seemed to agree that it was a step in the right direction for the competition.
I think it’s a really off the cuff photograph, classic perhaps. Young people like it and old people like it. It’s not trendy and you can’t really date it and I think it sat well in the gallery because it looked like a painting. People had all sorts of comments; that maybe it was taken on a camera phone; it’s not really a portrait because nobody is looking at the camera; it’s just a picture of a dog; what is this? To me it’s just a simple portrait and the fact that all of the eye lines are in different places is what makes it. The two images either side of it don’t work at all, if you look at the strip of shots I took. You can totally see that that’s the one and the others don’t work. My girlfriend’s sister’s eye line in the shot is so cool and you can’t really see the other guy. Then there’s the beer cans and even Konrad wearing some weird palm tree jungle jumper. It’s like a crusty Caravaggio! Don’t quote me on that! Well I guess you can….”
Crusty Caravaggio or not, this is a photograph that has gone against the trend, and a brave and bold move on Titlow’s part for submitting it in the first place. When one hears the words ‘Taylor Wessing’, one recalls a certain style of portrait: a fixed gaze, a close-up portrait confronting and directly addressing the viewer. But on reflection, it is easy to understand why Titlow’s image won. It is subtle, yet accessible. In order to make good photographs, your work needs to connect with a larger community, not just the photographic one. This is exactly what this image does; it allows anyone to enjoy it. This should be obvious, but it’s often over-looked in favour of complex and academic images which can ultimately alienate an audience.
We asked David if this was the only image he entered or whether he also offered the judges anything in a more conventional Taylor Wessing style?
Kristoffer Knutson, Stockwell © David Titlow
From the series: If I dress like an MP I will become one © David Titlow
“I entered six images in total. Five of them were much more Taylor Wessing-centric. That’s why I was amused when I won it with an image nothing like what I thought would win – a group shot with no one looking at the camera. All the others were total Taylor Wessing type images. One was a school portrait, 70s style at my old school of a 6th form kid, another was a Swedish guy with his shirt off, in a cowboy hat in his living room. So I thought I’d stick the photograph of Kondrad in as a mate of mine said I’d probably win if I did, ‘yeah right I told him!’.
I did an A1 print as I was told the judges like big prints, because a lot of people don’t realise that whatever print you submit is the print they put up on the wall. You can’t submit a small print, win, and then re-print it and exhibit it bigger.”
So when it comes to the Taylor Wessing, it seems that the phrase “go big or go home” really does pay off. Perhaps offering the judges a mixed palette also worked in Titlow’s favour. But ultimately, what really made the difference is having the courage to present something genuine, without reference to preconceived notions of what a winning Taylor Wessing portrait should look like.
Thanks for your thoughts David!
If you’d like to learn more, David Titlow will present a talk and audience Q+A this Thursday at theprintspace gallery, speaking about his Taylor Wessing prize-winning image and his photographic approach, influences and inspirations. Places are free of charge, space is limited. RSVP here to secure your place:
7:30 – 9:30pm, Thursday 25th June
74 Kingsland Rd
Taylor Wessing Print Offer
And don’t forget! theprintspace are offering photographers anywhere in the world the opportunity to submit their print entries online for the Taylor Wessing Prize with each image coming with a free test strip, free display sleeve, labelling and free courier delivery service to the National Portrait Gallery drop-off site. Click here to see the details of the offer.
David Titlow is a Photographer working at the forefront of contemporary portrait, fashion and Fine Art disciplines, dividing his time between creating his own artwork and taking on commercial photographic commissions with the Skinny Dip agency.
Interview by Leo Scott @ theprintspace. Article by Harry Rose @ Darwin Magazine, a bi-monthly printed magazine which provides a platform for emerging photographers and new projects that have left an impression upon the photographic community.