Commissioning Photographic Portraits for the National Portrait Gallery, London – Talk by Anne Braybon, Commissions Manager

This was a one hour lunchtime Talk on 13th May 2014 by Anne Braybon organised by the Lightbox Gallery,Woking. I wanted to go because I am interested in Curation in general and in the commissioning process.

The focus of this talk was Road to 2012  a Project celebrating all those who collectively contributed to the making of the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics.

The Road to 2012 website contains a lot of information about the project and the photographers involved., including an audioblog by Anne Braybon. It’s different though to be there and listen to someone talking with such continuing enthusiasm about the project which was over three years in the making and using the talents of such different photographic styles.


Anne told us a little about the National Portrait Gallery to set the scene. The Gallery was set up in 1856 with portraits selected on ground of authenticity and celebrity as opposed to excellence as a work of art. There’s more to read here. The collection of photographic portraits grew to the extent that a department of film and photography was opened in the 1960s to promote photography as a genre. Anne told us that the curators filter acquisitions, gifts and commissions and portraits, then go to the Board of Trustees for final acceptance. She was appointed as Photography Commissions Manager in 2005 and her first commission was Defying Distance, 18 Portraits by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin of key figures  in the world of telecommunications, including the ‘backroom boys’.

Road to 2012

This constituted a chronological body of work following all the stages across three years. Seven photographers were involved in creating these portraits that provide a representative record of contribution towards the Olympic Games, with 115 portraits capturing a social and political moment, whilst celebrating photography as well. Anne explained that she always began with in-depth research on who was involved in each sport. She had to say who was and who wasn’t included and had to be logical and work to deadlines.. Here’s an audio blog of her talking about this.  An Exhibition was held every Summer during this time and there were also final and Touring Exhibitions.

The collection is here.  Anne said she chose photographers with a combination of different styles and ways of working that interested her and that were representative of contemporary photography. The Commission site no longer shows their work, but the photographers were:-

Brian Griffin – 2009
Bettina Von Zwehl – 2009-2010
Finlay MacKay  – 2010-2011
Emma Hardy- 2011
Jillian Edelstein – 2011-2012
Anderson & Low – 2011-2012
Nadav Kander – 2011-2012

I’ll write a little about each below and link with websites, plus provide links to Youtube videos made by the National Portrait Gallery where the photographers talk about their work and approach to the Commissions.

Brian Griffin 

Video here.  I looked at Brian Griffin’s work during the “People and Place” Module. His work is varied but I was surprised when Anne described him as drawing inspiration from paintings as I missed that. There’s an article here where he talks about his inspiration and  says that he uses fine art as inspiration and makes a monthly pilgrimage to the National Gallery. He has a way of composing subjects that add fluidity to an image as here.

Bettina Von Zwehl

Has a new website ‘under construction’ but there’s a Video here. She refers to how closely Anne Braybon was involved in the project, and how she had never worked out of a studio before so she created a studio outside and enjoys working in that way now. Anne also described how Bettina used a 10×8 film camera, with short range focus and used a postage stamp on the forehead for absolute focus. Anne particularly referred to the portrait of Tom Daly and how it is almost forensic in the quality of stillness and portraying concentration rather than action. Bettina says in the video that she thought it would be interesting to work away from the ‘sporty’ action, and chose specific clothes for some of the athletes without making it into a fashion project.

Finlay Mackay

Video here . Energetic, colourful and vibrant work.  Anne told us he is interested in ‘figures in a landscape’ and did a lot of work in post-production stitching images. In the video he talks about the stitching and the number of lights he used to make the portrait look like a painting and give it edges.

 Emma Hardy

Video here where Emma says she wants to see as much of the person as possible and looked for places where people find ‘space’. E.g. she wanted Paralympic swimmer Chris Holmes, who is blind, to be in a sensory space and was able to borrow someones garden swimming pool. Anne described how Emma used a film camera in natural light; had a wet darkroom and hand printed and retouched the images. She showed us a portrait of Christopher John Allison, a London Met Policeman in uniform (without a jacket) holding his hat and standing by a table tennis table.

Jillian Edelstein  

Video here where Jill says how she wanted to be involved in such an agent and the Commission provided a way of being part of this large arena. She wanted to give power  to people not in the public eye and make images like a film still, as this one of Jan Mathews.

Anderson & Low

Video here . Anne told us that this team have explored physical stamina and endurance for years and they draw on painting and sculpture in their work. They used one assistant on the Project and, unlike Finlay MacKay, didn’t stitch images together but positioned everyone as here . In the video Anderson & Low say how they want to find some aspect/essence of an athlete’s situation and bring it out. They are interested in ‘truth’ – a way for the image to say more and so photographed in places of training rather than abstracting the sitters from their environment.

Nadav Kander

Here  is the NPG video of him talking about his approach to his work and the Commission itself. He talks in such a thoughtful, measured way and I imagine he is very calming as a portrait photographer. His work on the Commission was done in his studio.  He chose to do his four portraits of athletes in black and white as this one of Lawrence Okoye and then colour portraits of each of the 12 torchbearers full length, against a grey backdrop, off the ground and at an angle so that it looks as if they are floating – as here .


I was surprised by how much information Anne crammed into a relatively short talk that sent me off searching to find out even more about the project and photographers. She was so obviously immersed in every aspect and I understand she was present in every shoot. I’m also impressed by the way in which this Project did celebrate all who contributed to the London Olympic Games and the commitment of the individual photographers to this concept.

I was also surprised by the extent of the power held by a Commissions Manager.   They are obviously people near the top of the list to be ‘courted’ if a photographer wishes to become better known, more widely recognised. Some time ago (26/2/14) I read an interview with Clare Grafik, Head of Exhibitions at the Photographers’ Gallery who talked about the way in which well-known and emerging photographers are invited, profiled and included in their Exhibition Programme. There are so many avenues – Graduate Shows, self-published Photo Books, smaller shows, Portfolio Reviews, peer communication networking, emails from artists. Many of these have been recently discussed on a recent WeAreOCA post by Sharon Boothroyd.

Watching the videos gave me a fuller picture of the way in which working on a Commission can challenge photographers’ working styles (pretty much like being a photography student and having to fulfil an assignment ‘brief’!). I learned ways in which they adapt to conditions and fulfil a commission whilst using their own creative vision. Thinking about consistency in a series. I didn’t see much of this in individual photographers’ portraits, e.g. Emma Hardy’s portraits were in both portrait and landscape format and as diverse as the individuals portrayed. I only wish that I could have included examples of some of the portraits here rather than providing links so that I can demonstrate the breadth of styles.

I wondered whether there were arguments and dissension in the background and who made the final selection. If only there had been more time or I had pushed my way to the front of the queue of people wanting to ask Anne Braybon questions at the end of the Talk. I hope I get the opportunity to go to more talks by Curators and Commissioning Managers because it’s seems a fascinating world.