An interview with AA Photo Librarian Valerie Bennett about her image being chosen for the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery
18 December 2014 National Portrait Gallery, London   Entering into the 7th year of the Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery being sponsored by law firm Taylor Wessing LLP, the prize and its accompanying exhibition has become an annual fixture in London’s calendar of events as well as an internationally recognised award within the profession. Showcasing interesting portraits as a medium for storytelling, the competition is judged anonymously which means that it includes both seasoned professionals and experimental amateurs, a cross-section not usually experienced at most photography exhibitions.   Rather than capturing the iconic, the famous and the well-known, what really stands out in the exhibition is how the images create intimate windows into specific stories, moments and lives, celebrating the quotidian rather than the spectacle, the captured moment rather than the constructed view. Valerie Bennett, photographer and Head of the AA Photo Library has her portrait of Roz Barr Architects featured in this year’s exhibition. In the text below she describes the composition and story behind the photograph as well as the role portrait photography has played in her career.   Can you describe the visual composition of the photograph that was selected for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition? The composition is symmetrical, with a focus on the centre. I see now that this is a theme running through most of my photos whether it is a door, a staircase or a penguin. This photograph in question is really as much a picture of the door as it is of the people standing in front of it.   I originally wanted everyone to stand on the sections of floor that still exist in the other half of the church, but we weren’t allowed to go over there because of the delicacy of the mosaics beneath. The door is so striking because of its size so I thought that was the next best location. I saw that I could climb up onto the altar to get a shot with the door exactly in the centre. I just asked everyone to spread out and stand in different ways which didn’t take very long to organise. I took the same shot ten times hoping to get one that worked.   What’s the story behind the photograph? Was it difficult to shoot or did you already have an idea for it? I realised that by accident I had started a series of photos of AA graduates, so when I bumped into Conrad (Koslowsky, AADipl2013) and Max (Hacke, AADipl,2013) in the summer I suggested a portrait. They asked if I was going to Venice as they had access to a wonderful church which was usually closed. I suggested that they bring the whole office so the portrait could become an official one of Roz Barr Architects. In my mind I was visualising them all standing at different points looking up at me, not in a line. I also thought I would be high above them, and that it would be a dark atmospheric picture.   I had been to photograph the AA’s Dom-ino in the morning and there were no Vaporetti running since the regatta was on, so I had to walk from Dorsoduro to the Giardini. As soon I got back Conrad texted me to say they were going to the church so I had to swap cameras and rush back across Venice. In my haste I left my tripod plate in my other camera. When I got to the church the interior was quite dark so I had to push the film from 125iso to 400iso, and hold the camera on the tripod with the addition of some Mexican chewing gum to try and keep it still. I didn’t feel at all confident about the outcome at that point.
What are the challenges of portrait photography? The main challenge is to get the subject to give you something of themselves and not pose, and to make them feel comfortable so they can do it. Most people are nervous about being photographed. This is very well described in the Taylor Wessing catalogue by Eamonn McCabe. ‘Taking a portrait of somebody is a very intimate process. Taking a portrait of somebody you have never met before can also be very intimidating. Add to this the setting of an unfamiliar hotel room and a nervy PR person on hand adding ‘You have just ten minutes. Oh, and by the way he hates having his picture taken,’ and your anxiety swells further. This is combined with the technical challenge of lighting and the constant thought running through your head: Will your camera actually fire when you see that ‘moment’ everybody talks about?’.   I prefer to take portraits with some context now, people in amazing spaces - so the place is as important as the person. At times I have been concerned that I never specialised in either architecture or portraits, since they are both interesting subjects to photograph. But maybe, with this image, I have finally found a way to combine them.   When did you first start taking portraits, and what are your favourite portraits that you have taken over the years? I started shooting portraits in the late 80s; Berthold Lubetkin for Arquitectura Magazine and Richard Rogers for Domus were the first. So I was really thrown in at the deep end. My all time favourites are the portraits of Colin Rowe and Mike Davies and now of course, this photograph of Roz Barr Architects is added to the line-up.
What does it mean to have your photograph featured in the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery? I have entered the competition nearly every year for twenty years or more, and even though I have eleven portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, actually having one on the wall is very exciting.   For more information: Visit the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2014 Exhibition (open until 22 February 2015) Valerie Bennett's website AA Photo Library Roz Barr Architects Valerie Bennett on AA Conversations