Aesthetica Art Prize Judge: Phillip Prodger, National Portrait Gallery

Phillip Prodger, Ph.D. (Cantab.) is Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, London, overseeing acquisitions, research, loan and display of photographs from the 19th century to the present. He has joined the judging panel for the Aesthetica Art Prize, and will be casting his vote in selecting the winners for the Main and the Student Prize.

Prodger has held several curatorial posts including at the Saint Louis Art Museum, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Peabody Essex Museum, where he was founding Curator of Photography. Curator of numerous exhibitions worldwide and the author of fourteen books and catalogues, he is currently organising an exhibition about the portraits of William Eggleston. We speak to Prodger about curating as well as upcoming highlights from the National Portrait Gallery.

A: As Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, what drives your acquisitions strategy?
PP: The acquisitions policy is a little different from the exhibitions policy. In exhibitions, we have a lot of freedom to explore diverse issues in portraiture internationally and across time. But in terms of what we acquire, we focus on portraits of people who are making, or have made, significant contributions to British history and culture.

We are also interested in landmark works in the history of photographic portraiture in Britain. What that means is open to interpretation of course, but that’s one of the things that makes my job fun.

A: You are currently working on a William Eggleston exhibition. What do you hope to convey of his practice and influence through this presentation?
PP: By zeroing in on Eggleston’s pictures of people – he never was a formal portraitist, though he got close at times – our hope is to reveal a whole new side to Eggleston and his work. Bill has long maintained that the subject of his pictures doesn’t really matter to him, whether he is photographing a person or a lamppost, he treats them the same. Our show will be a great test of that idea.

A: What are the highlights from the upcoming exhibitions programme at the National Portrait Gallery?
PP: We have some really exciting things coming up, some of which will surprise. Of course the Gallery has a long and distinguished history of showing great fashion, glamour, and pop culture photography and we will continue that at a high level, with shows like this year’s Audrey Hepburn and next year’s 100 years of Vogue.

We’ve made some changes to the annual Taylor Wessing Prize, including the introduction of a curator-selected photographer (this year it’s Pieter Hugo). We’re going to be looking more and more at contemporary portrait practice and showing leading photographers from around the world—some of whom, like Eggleston, are household names.

A: What are your personal highlights?
PP: Personally I’m extremely excited about a project I’m working on now that’s more historical, about Robert Louis Stevenson’s life in the South Pacific. It will bring together photographs, paintings, drawings and incredible works of Oceanic art that Stevenson collected.

Increasingly we’ll be combining photography with other media in creative ways, and we’ll be thinking about film and video, too. Whatever we do, we want it to have a distinctive flavour, to advance conversations about photography, and address deep questions of representation and identity.

A: In recent years you have increasingly worked on modern and contemporary subjects, curating projects such as Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism and Ansel Adams, At the Water’s Edge. Are there other contemporary photographers who you would like to focus on?
PP: One of the great privileges of being a curator is the ability to meet, learn from, and interact with the great artists of our time. There are so many photographers I admire, I couldn’t possibly live long enough to work with them all. But I’m going to try.

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1. Suzanne Moxhay, Copse, 2014. Longlisted in the Aesthetica Art Prize 2015. Courtesy of the artist.