When I saw on The National Portrait Gallery’s social media that their ‘Hold Still’ Portrait collection had been launched this week, I was curious to scroll back through my camera roll and see which moments I had chosen to document. When the Lockdown was announced in March, I had videos of Boris’ statements, photos of empty shelves in the supermarket, and smiley pictures of me and my family cooking. As the months went on, I noticed that the novelty of this ‘new normal’ wore off and mask-selfies were replaced by tired pictures of me studying and big gaps of time where I didn’t take any pictures at all. So it is almost surreal to see that this experience was shared up and down the country, and that amateur and professional photographers alike had managed to transform these moments into evocative portraits of a nation in crisis.
Potential photographers were asked to focus their camera on the ‘three core themes’ of ‘Helpers and Heroes, Your New Normal and Acts of Kindness’. Curators included Kate Middleton, the National Portrait Gallery Director, Nicholas Cullinan and the Chief Nursing Officer for England, Ruth May, who brought together a body of work that achieves an astounding tonal blend and breadth of narratives in only 100 images. While some of the repeated motifs of staring through windows or the rainbow can feel overused or even a little contrived at times, images such as Sarah Lee’s ‘Joe and Duke Brooks, Locked Down, A Few Days before their 18th Birthday’, give equal weight to both form and content to create an effective portrait.v
You can tell this was taken by a Guardian photographer, the muted colour palette only heightens this sense of suspension, these young men whose futures are on hold, look out from their window in a place of waiting. The bewilderment in their faces is something we see across this collection, and speaks to me on many levels as a young person who has felt the boredom of the last few months but also the strain of tolerating sustained uncertainty. We see these men in an authentic and intimate moment of vulnerability, and we are invited by the photographer’s careful composition to enter into this liminal space with them.
The ghostly quality of the mottled glass feels mirrored by the eerie stillness of Julie Thiberg’s ‘Empty’, a portrait of her son Leo looking blankly out of frame surrounded by empty shelves. Even thought this was taken on a phone by a first time photographer, it has equal depth of emotional resonance with Lee’s portrait, and reinforces the power of photography as a truly democratic medium.
Capturing the extraordinary in the ordinary is what gives this image its power, but equally impactful is the staged image taken by a schoolgirl. Joy Nottingham’s ‘The Struggle’ feels like a homage to the renowned self portrait photographer, Cindy Sherman, with Joy’s empathy for her sister and the thousands of other healthcare workers across the country extending so far that she puts on a nurses uniform and embodies their sacrifice. Her hair gives her away as a young student yet her steely expression is one we see mirrored on the portrait of key workers across this collection, with the power of the look rendered most skilfully in Joannah Churchill’s ‘Melanie, March 2020’. Melanie’s furrowed brow and fierce eye-contact is all this image needs to make it pierce you, with the quality of the light and the way it bounces off her PPE giving her an almost other-worldly quality.
The National Portrait Gallery commissioned ‘Melanie’ to become a hand painted mural, which is on display now in Manchester, with a nationwide exhibition of ‘400 outdoor posters at 112 locations in over 80 towns, cities and communities in the UK’ supporting the online collection to spread the collection to as many people as possible. You can follow where these murals and posters are across the country and find artwork near you through @nationalportraitgallery Instagram, and read more about the story behind each image through the interactive online collection on the National Gallery Website.
For me the most moving image from the collection is Ali and Leigh Harris’ portrait ‘The First Kiss’, where we see Ali kiss her new-born baby through her face mask and a sheet of plastic.
The inability to touch loved ones is a thread that runs through this collection, with Lesley Garven Auchineck’s ‘Long Awaited Cuddle’ also depicting family being reunited through the barrier of plastic and is a highly skilled image, but something about seeing a baby encased in plastic and separated from their mother feels intimate and heart-wrenching. With mothers still giving birth in masks and further restrictions threatening a second Lockdown in the UK, this collection feels more resonant than ever.
View the online collection here: https://www.npg.org.uk/hold-still/
Keep up to date with the national exhibition and artwork near you: https://www.instagram.com/nationalportraitgallery/