The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016 is the leading international competition, open to all, which celebrates and promotes the very best in contemporary portrait photography from around the world. Three photographers have been shortlisted, including Kovi Konowiecki. We catch up with the artist to talk about his work and the importance of the Art Prize in terms of career development.
A: Can you talk about the inspirations behind your shortlisted work and how the ideas came together for it?
KK: My shortlisted work comes from my series, Bei Mir Bistu Shein, which portrays Orthodox Jews in three different parts of the world: United States, England and Israel. When I set out to photograph faces of Orthodox Jews from around the world, it was an attempt to both strengthen my ties to my family’s history and shed light on the traditions of a people that seem strange to modern society. I wanted to provide an intimate lens into a group of people that otherwise may not be accessible. Interestingly enough, the idea for this project emerged while receiving my Masters in Fashion Photography, and I think these images also serve as an alternate and perhaps futuristic way of viewing fashion and fashion photography.
A: How do you think your work accesses issues such as identity and tradition within contemporary culture?
KK: The subjects of these portraits exist in a liminal space between history and modernity. This dichotomy – the old and the new, modernity and tradition – captures the essence of the subjects: people who define their lives by an idea that embodies the physical and the mystical world perhaps more than any other, Faith.
The colours and floral background of these images cause the photographs to take on a painting-like quality, highlighting the mysticism of the subjects and their association with a history and tradition that many may find unfamiliar. Simultaneously, the connection amongst the various members helps establish a sense of warmth and familiarity for the viewer, illustrating how the values of family and togetherness serve as the cornerstone of Jewish tradition, much like they do for the lives of many who live in today’s society.
A: Is there a certain way that you’d like audiences to interpret the piece, or something you’d like them to take away from it?
KK: I believe that everyone who looks at these photographs will have a different interpretation, and this is something I encourage. It all has to do with familiarity. What is mundane for some people might be epic to others, and I think this is an idea that complements these photographs. For some people, the images might be informative. For others, the subjects in these photographs are part of their everyday life. Regardless of the take away, I think the images operate on various levels.
A: How does the work compare to your overall practice?
KK: I am infatuated by people and that largely dictates my practice. The formal portraiture environment displayed in the photographs allows me to develop a close relationship with the people I photograph, both physically and psychologically. One of the individuals from the project recently passed away, and I feel as if it was a member of my own family. It is amazing the type of relationships photography can build.
A: What do you have planned in terms of future projects?
KK: I am currently in my hometown working on a project that tells an intimate story of growing up in Long Beach. I am working with landscape as well as portraiture. It has been fun approaching people in more of a street style context, rather than focusing solely on formal portraiture.
A: How do you think awards such as the Taylor Wessing Prize resonate in terms of career development through artist showcasing?
KK: It is very humbling to part of such a prestigious exhibition and to be shortlisted for the main prize. It is a great feeling to know that the work I want to create can be appreciated on a larger platform, and that it will be seen by many people. An award like the Taylor Wessing gives you the confidence to move forward and trust your ideas.
The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016 runs from from 17 November – 26 February before touring to venues around the UK. Find out more: www.npg.org.uk
1. Tilly and Itty, Beitar Illit, from the series Bei Mir Bistu Shein, by Kovi Konowiecki © Kovi Konowiecki.