Teen Photographers Win Spot at National Portrait Gallery

Winners of the museum’s Teen Portrait Competition discuss their portraits and the stories behind them

McNeal Mann’s winning portrait, ”Alma Seco,” was taken in a broom closet at her school in Anchorage, Alaska.

When the National Portrait Gallery announced its teen portrait competition, McNeal Mann, 14, wasn’t sure she wanted to enter. She had created her own self-directed photography class at school and was enjoying portraiture in particular, but her teacher’s suggestion to submit something went more or less ignored until right before the deadline.

One of only two winning entries to be displayed in the museum in spring of 2013, Mann’s portrait was a bit of a creative lark as well.

“The picture was actually taken in the gym broom closet,” says Mann. “I needed somewhere dark and it was really the only space I could find.” 

She chose her friend, Tziporah Lax, as her subject. Lax had been telling Mann, who goes by Mickey, what a great day she’d had working with clay. “The idea popped in my head to paint her face with clay,” Mann says.

“I asked her to wrinkle her face to look sad and mad until she had made all the faces and emotions she could make,” explains Mann. She says she was struck by the visual impact of the dried, cracking clay.  “Just by painting her face, she can look wise and the wrinkles are her proof.”

The hard profile and heavy shadows are softened by the contours of the sitter’s face, catching the light. ”The image, to me, is glowing,” Mann says. “The expression that Tziprorah gave me was really an expression that radiated happiness and realness at the same time.”

This was Mann’s first time ever entering an art competition. “This was just another day at school for me taking pictures in a broom closet. Now it will be in the Smithsonian. Creativity sometimes just happens I guess,” says Mann.

Allen Chiu’s “Untitled 412″ was taken on a deserted street in Providence, R.I. 

For Allen Chiu, 17, creativity happened at 5 a.m. on a deserted road in Providence, Rhode Island. He was there attending a summer arts program at the Rhode Island School of Design. “The streets are pretty much empty and there’s a surreal nature to the atmosphere,” says Chiu.

Chiu tells people he had the street closed down for his shoot, “but the real reason is just that it was really early.” Though Chiu has been interested in photography and portraiture for two years, this was his first photograph with a concept behind it. Meant to represent choices, the picture includes his friend at the program standing in a sea of chairs. Each chair signifies a person, friends and family members, far away but still involved in the decisions we all make.

Chiu says most people have responded positively to the image, except one in particular: his mother. “My mom really doesn’t like the photo,” he says, “She doesn’t find it interesting.”

That didn’t stop him from entering the photograph in the contest, or from writing about it in college applications. He wants to keep working with photography and become a graphic designer at an ad agency. Hoping to marry someone just as enthusiastic about the arts, he says, “My wife and I can just talk about our favorite typefaces all day.”

View the 20 Honorable Mention-winning portraits here.

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