Things to do in Canberra: National Portrait Gallery

Things to do in Canberra: National Portrait Gallery

When Canberra is mentioned in conversation it is common to hear, aside from a groan, someone remark ‘…there is just nothing to do there’. It’s one of the most curious mythologies about Canberra because well… there is no other city in Australia so dedicated (in purpose as well as passion) to the business of doing.

Despite this the perception remains. My hunch, after a couple of months here, is that the tag has little to do with actual doing… after all; how much doing do you actually do in a day? Days off in Sydney / London for me consisted of the most blissful progression of brunch, stroll, shop, stop, lunch, amble, peer, pause, beer. Very little doing. But, and this is crucial, a lot of absorbing.

Ambulating in the atmosphere.

And while the air is good in Canberra, the atmosphere is definitely distinctly thin. But as to things to do? Canberra has that covered.

One excellent doing thing is the National Portrait Gallery. I like to do this after the National Gallery of Australia (next door) as the NGA is a more mammoth beast (and has a vastly superior collection… not that anyone is suggesting they compete). The NGA can flood you, visually, and when that happens the Portrait Gallery is perfect for a post-flood meander. It’s only about 6 rooms including a terrace café that serves wine (passable) and wedges (excellent).

When my dad was up from Melbourne the other week we made a pit stop here. It was delicious. It also had a delightful surprise – the National Photographic Portrait Prize was on.

Now I’ll be honest; I am forever getting confused between this prize and that and which one means ‘more’ or whatever but as a general guiding principle it seems logical that ‘National’ connotes ‘big-deal’. I know when I start my art prize it will be the National Adulation of Henrietta Portrait Prize. Okay okay, that might be excessive; I’d probably accept entries in genres aside from portraiture.

But back to the matter at hand: the National Photographic Portrait Prize.

Good news first. It’s a tidy exhibition and one to which you could definitely do justice on your lunch break from government-induced-monotony (I’m not being mean, it is Canberra). Even better news; there are several good photos, several more genuinely intriguing stories and a couple of actually standout good shots.

I have to disclaim at his point that I have no technical expertise in photography, my exposure (ha pun) having been limited to the fact that for several years I did have a step-dad who was a photographer. He did help me buy an excellent camera. Which I have never taken off ‘auto’.

Disclaimer disclaimed, we can get down to my real issue with this exhibition. It boils simply down to the fact that a lot of the photographers (including the winning snapper) entered photos of their children. Not to diminish the progeny but surely, in this great and varied nation of ours, there are people taking decent photos of people they haven’t birthed?

After all, one can only look at some many slightly grainy shots of sullen teenagers accompanied by the whimsical prose of their parents before one wishes to be gently sick down ones own front in order to leave quick smart.

You doubt me? The below are all word-for-word shown alongside photos (unshown, for the sake of kindness) in the exhibition.

“His eyes convey the vulnerability of all children”

“She stands on the threshold of young adulthood”

“Metamorphosis from teenager to adult”

“…want to draw him into my arms and protect him from the world”

“What this transition means for me both as a mother and a photographer”

If your shirt is still clean you may have a gold star.

Surely such self-indulgent rubbish should be restricted to private (hopefully drunken) reminiscences between co-parents and not glibly shared as justification for shaky artistic pursuits? I will concede that the winning shot, though still of multiple small children (in a tree!) is distinctly less Anne-Geddes-meets-Avril-Lavigne than the other odes to procreation showcased and, perhaps, it deserved the nod on that basis alone. 

It’s more likely though that it got to be the money shot off the way the dappled light sliding through the fig tree plays with the vintage lace dress worn by the little girl before skirting off the apple-round bottom of the even smaller little boy standing barefoot at its base.

It’s not a bad shot. The gradient in the monochrome is pleasing... it would look good above your couch. 

Awkwardly for me, the best photo in the whole show is actually of a child.

But it’s not taken by the subject’s parent. Titled 'Health' by Matthew Abbott, the work is captioned “during an outing with his carer” and features the most troublingly sad stare of any pre-pubescent child I’ve ever encountered. It's the kind of work that stays with you (I can still see Heath's gaze two weeks later) and not the kind of work that you’d want on your wall. But it is the kind of work that should have won. At the very least, it should not be the only one of its kind or calibre on display.

You can catch the 2016 National Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Prize until the 26th of June and it is free entry for all, all day, every day. Get at it.

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