27 July 2012
Portraits of Olympic and Paralympic athletes hang alongside those of Olympic caterers, torch bearers, architects and trainers. The Duchess of Cambridge is here, as is Levi from Repton Boxing club. This is the National Portrait Gallery's largest ever photographic commission, and it is truly inclusive. Nicole Fordham Hodges went along.
Gerald O'Sullivan and George Whitelock, Olympic Caterers, hold their slotted spoons with heroic belligerence before a huge dining hall in the making. Meanwhile, the extraordinary movement in Boris Johnson's ruffled hair comments on the half-unfurled Olympic flag behind him. In Jillian Edelstein's cinematic portraits, her exuberant stage sets add comedy and verve.
She depicts the Olympics as much in the dreaming eyes of artists as in the honed bodies of athletes. Martin Green, Head of Olympic Ceremonies, lies amongst flowers and gazes glassily at the sky, hand on his stomach, as if at a staged shooting. He says that the portrait 'captures the essence of the job. It is at once magical and terrifying.'
Fiona Banner and Bob & Roberta Smith, commissioned to design Olympic posters, are photographed in a Bethnal Green cafe. Smith in a brown leather jacket fades back into the wood panelling, echoing a sepia photograph of a moustached gentleman on the adjacent wall. As if he is also becoming history.
Many of Anderson and Low's photographs of top athletes are set in Constable-like landscapes. They seem to be posing against history itself. Athletes are formally and carefully arranged to show 'the stillness before exertion' of sport. For me this is too stage-managed. Except, perhaps, for the portrait of sixty three year old Anne Dunham, gold medal winner at the Beijing Paralympics. Shown on horseback against winter trees, she naturally carries her poise and her past.
Nadav Kandar's four portraits of young athletes are nakedly shot in black and white. The portrait of Jon-Allan Butterworth, ex RAF munitions officer now Paralympic cyclist, reveals a complicated interplay of contained vulnerability and strength. It seems to transcend its Olympic context to depict the strange heroic condition of youth itself.
In contrast Kandar's 10 portraits of torchbearers have been stripped of their context in a way I find uncomfortable. In these 'floating portraits' the figures have been cut out and suspended from the ceiling so that they hover above the ground, feet pointing uncomfortably down. This is intended to 'allude to their inspirational stories and the transformative experience of running with the torch'. Many of these spooky figures are holding on to a prop: a young woman checks a mobile phone, a centenarian keeps her paper hanky close. These are figures 'singled out' as inspiration. I don't like the way they aren't allowed to touch the ground. Or is this, in fact, what it's like to be deemed inspirational?
The accompanying exhibition '2012: A local story', suitably exhibited in the basement, brings this floatiness down to earth. A series of portraits by London photographer Catherine Green, it shows participants in sports communities throughout the Olympic boroughs of East London. It presents the open-faced, human-sized pride of Lauren from East London Disability Swim Club. It gives us the asymmetric vulnerable young face of Levi from Repton Boxing club, his oversized glove raised in a stab at competition. 'It's the best club in the country,' he says.
Road to 2012: Aiming High is at the National Portrait gallery until 23 September 2012. A selection of commissioned photographs will tour to Cardiff, Edinburgh and Birmingham.