Tomorrow a beautiful new series from the American photographer goes on display at the National Portrait Gallery, as part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition
American photographer Ethan James Green rose to prominence with his black-and-white portraiture of young people in New York City: a first monograph, Young New York, published by Aperture earlier this year, collected these images, the majority of which were photographed among the parks and housing projects of the city’s Lower East Side. The subjects, who connected to Green in various ways – from the city’s fashion and art scenes to social media – primarily came from New York’s youthful LGBTQ community, united by a rejection of conformity, in its various guises. “It is about me having fun with friends and allowing them to be seen as they want to be seen,” Green said at the time.
Now, a new untitled series by Green goes on show as part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2019 exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery, which opens to the public tomorrow. It marks Green’s return to the personal subject matter and style of Young New York, having spent the past year capturing increasingly high-profile figures – among them Joaquin Phoenix, Rihanna and RuPaul – for publications including American Vogue, Vanity Fair and W (Green has also contributed to both AnOther and Another Man, recently photographing Ashton Sanders for the cover of the latter). This new series, made up of eight monochrome portraits, each of a New York-based couple, is this year’s ‘In Focus’ display, a part of the Taylor Wessing exhibition which celebrates the work of an internationally renowned contemporary photographer. Now in its fifth year, ‘In Focus’ has previouly highlighted the work of Pieter Hugo, Cristina de Middel, Todd Hido and Rinko Kawauchi.
“The Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize generates so much interest in the photographic portrait so the ‘In Focus’ display is an initiative we developed to further celebrate and enrich that by inviting a notable artist working with portraiture, in the broadest sense, to show new work,” Magda Keaney, senior curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, tells Another Man. “The work isn’t part of the prize but I think it becomes a real anchor point for the photographers in the prize... It’s a chance not only to see a prominent contemporary photographer’s work but also to consider how it is evolving, because [we choose] images that have not been exhibited or published previously.”
Green himself describes the series as “like chapter two of Young New York. They are all people I have remained close to after the book.” “It’s the start of a new work around couples,” expands Keaney, “the images are still portraits of his friends and they retain the same scale and black and white format.” Titled only by the subjects’ first names, each pair holds each other in embrace, while holding the camera’s gaze – a signature of Green’s work which suggests the complicity of his subjects. Such complicity is crucial: Green will show his subjects their photographs on a screen during the shoot (he photographs digitally) allowing them to make suggestions, or alter their poses, in order to make the process feel like a collaboration between photographer and sitter.
As to why Green’s work felt prescient to our current moment, Keaney explains: “I nominated Ethan on the strength of his debut publication with Aperture, Young New York,” she says. “I just thought it was a really beautifully resolved first book; I loved that he had taken on what is a fairly well trodden photographic starting point – a project documenting and ennobling his community and friends in New York – but made such a unique, personal and authentic body of work. I found them captivating – sensitive, tender and intimate, yet with a really interesting counterpoint of formality compositionally... I personally think the way they represent and celebrate diversity and marginality and young people is really vital, living as we are through such a conservative period globally.”
They set the tone for this year’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize – which began in its current iteration in 2008 – an annual competition which celebrates the best in contemporary photographic portraiture internationally. “Series are prominent this year. There are only one or two portraits of well-known sitters,” says Keaney. “Many photographers have entered work using the medium to explore complex personal or socially engaged issues or to question cliches around identity and diversity, be that gender, class, age, sexuality or cultural background.”
A ceremony last night saw Los Angeles-based photographer Pat Martin receive the top prize for two works from a portrait series of his late mother, Goldie. “I began this project when at the 11th hour, and needing to reconnect, I chose to focus where I was fearful to look,” he said. Ireland’s Edna Bowe and Britain’s Garrod Kirkwood took home second and third prize respectively.
Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2019 exhibition runs from November 7, 2019 – February 16, 2020.