Portrait Salon: where rejected Taylor Wessing works are given a new home

Credit: Francesca Jones

Considered one of the most prestigious annual photography competitions Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize is lesser known for the consortium of rebuffed portraits it leaves outside the doorsteps of the National Portrait Gallery. James O Jenkins and Carole Evans set up Portrait Salon in 2011 as a recycling hub for rejected works of the Taylor Wessing prize. In this interview, James explains why he and Carole decided to start Portrait Salon, what makes for a good portrait, and how they experiment with exhibition spaces.

Portrait Salon is quite an entertaining response to the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. What led you to create it?

In 2011 I entered it and I didn’t get in. I tweeted something about it and Carole got in touch and said ‘me too.’ It’s an annual thing where, when photographers get rejected they take to Twitter and social media and say, ‘Meh. Didn’t get in again.’ I hadn’t actually met Carole, but we discussed the idea of setting up an exhibition of everything that had been rejected. Then we met up and decided to start it – it was low budget and we got some flyers. When photographers went down to Elephant and Castle to LCC to pick up their rejected prints we handed out the flyers. We got a really good response in that first year. I think people were really grateful to have their work recycled. A lot of photographers get their prints done, and it’s really expensive. It’s £25 a print to enter. Maybe it’s £27 now. Then there’s the printing costs, putting them in acetate sleeves, and postage. The bill can rack up. You can enter six portraits, so a lot of people spend over £200-£300 getting it done.

Is Portrait Salon a completely different process in terms of cost?

Yes. It was free before, but we’ve had to start charging to cover our costs. Basically, photographers pick up their rejected work and often it will go into storage or under a bed, so this was a way of us giving rejected work another home.

There’s a refuse of competitive work in almost every creative field, and you’ve acknowledged that in one area of photography. Is it just an indicator of subjectivity? 

Sometimes I think Taylor Wessing are looking for certain things, which is why there’s been a thread of redheads, or twins, or kids holding animals. I think they have checklists – there’s always celebrity, travel, and iPhone pictures. There are categories that the judges fulfil. It’s very subjective. That’s the same with Portrait Salon. Every year we get a selector in and it’s been interesting to watch them over the last six years take on the challenge of doing that. It’s obviously different for Portrait Salon because the judges feel a desire to be fair and show an array of what’s been rejected. It’s more of a rewarding process whereas the National Portrait Gallery has a more tight and exact process.

Credit: William Green

Each year you have different selectors for the exhibition; is there a certain criteria you look for in selectors? 

We pick them, but there’s no criteria. We always want to have someone we feel is going to have a good eye, who works in the industry and has been involved in competitions, and knows about the photo industry. This year we’ve got Julie Cockburn who works with photography – she’s a visual artist. She does a lot of shows and is represented by Flowers Gallery and The Photographers’ Gallery. We really like her work and we’re looking forward to seeing what she selects.

What makes a compelling portrait?

Ummm…well the Taylor Wessing prize defines what a portrait is if you look at the small print. I think it says something like, ‘must be a depiction of a human.’ Every year Carole and I have a think about what is a portrait and what isn’t a portrait, and it is open to such wide debate. I have a couple of rules of what is and what isn’t a portrait. I think the whole thing with the National Portrait Gallery of it having to depict someone is a good starting point. But, then it can go off in so many different strands. It’s hard. I think the Taylor Wessing prize is about, ‘is it a good photographic portrait? Is it depicting someone who is good enough to tell a story, or hang on the walls of the exhibition there?’ Whereas we get so much stuff that comes in and it maybe isn’t portraiture.

Credit: Alma Haser

Credit: Dave Imms

What is quite refreshing about this is that you exhibit Portrait Salon in various locations around the country. Is that to rectify what some might perceive as exclusivity surrounding the Taylor Wessing prize? 

A little bit, although they tour their show as well. It’s been all over the place. We also found initially we were getting a really good reception when we took Portrait Salon out of London and people were thankful for it being in Wales and Scotland, etc. But also it’s partly to do with the fact that there’s a really thriving photographic scene outside of London. I think a lot of people in ‘Bubble London’ forget about that.

Regarding your own work, how do you avoid producing homogenous portraits? Sometimes photographers can develop certain habits that make their photos uniform.

I think that’s a good thing sometimes because that shapes someone’s style. I think a lot of photographers would like to have that look where it’s undeniable when someone sees it. With my stuff a lot of it is commission where I have to follow a style instruction about what somebody wants or it has to fit into a publication. That’s good and bad I think.

How experimental is the process of deciding how to present the exhibition each year? You’re doing an outdoor exhibition this year.

What we wanted to do is have a fresh approach to how people see it every year. We obviously want as wide an audience as possible, but also to place a portrait into situations or spaces that haven’t been used before. I think there’s something a bit stale about the white wall gallery look of an exhibition. That’s maybe where Taylor Wessing fails a little bit. You go in there, for me, you could be looking at past years. There’s nothing that new about it. But, it’s their space that they use and that’s fair enough. Also, there have been years where we’ve shown a lot more than they do because we feel there’s a lot of quality that gets rejected. National Portrait Gallery only select under one per cent of what they receive, so there’s a huge amount of work that goes unseen that we try to celebrate. We’ve shown it all over the place. Last year we showed it all around Clerkenwell in shop windows, so that was sort of a good way of putting work around one area of London. In 2015 everyone who entered had one portrait chosen so there was a huge amount of work – but it was a sort of ‘happy birthday’ thing for us – and we sent part of it over to Reminders in Tokyo.

Was that something you initiated yourself or did they pick it up?

Yumi Goto who runs Reminders has been a supporter of our work and she was happy for us to show there. We had friends in Tokyo who helped out. 2014 was a good year where we got taken all over the place in print – it went to Parkside in Birmingham, Oriel Colwyn – a photo gallery in North Wales – Fuse in Bradford, Edinburgh, and it started off at Four Corners, London. There are a few places that have been helping us out.

Credit: Paul Plews

How influential have your sponsors been to the longevity of Portrait Salon?

They’ve been great, because they’ve supported us and been able to give us advice. Metro have been very supportive – they’re almost a sounding board for us with our initial ideas and they often put us on the straight and narrow. Each sponsor brings something different – Hat Margolies at Lucid Rep, Emma Taylor who is at Creative Advice Network and Warren and his team at Stanley’s Post. We’re really pleased to have them on board and we hope they enjoy being part of it.

Looking at the previous winners of Portrait Salon, is there a particular one you love?

We’ve only done winners in 2015 where we did a physical vote, but that was quite telling. When we were doing the count it was pretty obvious who was going to win. Alan Powdrill won that, funnily enough with a portrait of a ginger-haired lady. Joanna Fullerton-Batten came second, and then Phil Sharp. Last year, we did an online vote and it was a bit more unexpected. It’s good to see what people vote for.

Credit: Phil Sharp

What’s the creative relationship like between Carole and you? 

We seem to work really well, which is part of the success and longevity of Portrait Salon. It was obviously an experiment, as we had never met, let alone worked with each other. It’s a very easy-going relationship. We seem to be on the same page with a lot of ideas. To be honest Portrait Salon has its own road that it goes down and we just help facilitate it. It’s a pretty basic concept – we want to show the best of what’s been rejected. The way that we keep it going is to change the way things are shown and make sure everyone knows what’s going on every year. Portrait Salon is down to the photographers getting involved. We’re pretty happy with it and how we work with each other. It’s in everyone’s mind that if they’re going to enter Taylor Wessing there’s a big chance they’ll get rejected, but there’s always a home for their work at Portrait Salon.

What are your ambitions for Portrait Salon in the future?

To keep going. We’ll be around as long as Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize is around. Maybe Portrait Salon will become its own thing. I really like the idea of Portrait Salon being this recycling centre for work that would go unseen or get destroyed.

To submit your work to Portrait Salon visit, portraitsalon.co.uk. Submissions close on September 11th, 2017*.

*Portrait Salon will notify photographers of selection on October 6th. Portrait Salon outdoor exhibition will be held on November 16th.