The National Portrait Gallery's Helen Trompeteler on photography

The National Portrait Gallery's Helen Trompeteler on photography

By Rachel Segal Hamilton IdeasTap 02/07/14

Helen Trompeteler researches and curates exhibitions and liaises about new acquisitions for the National Portrait Gallery collection. Helen tells us what makes a great portrait and what the NPG is looking for...

As Assistant Curator of Photographs, you must spend a lot of time looking at photographic portraits. What makes a great one?  

A great portrait transcends excellence in composition and technique alone, and uses the rapport between photographer and subject to convey aspects of a subject’s life and circumstances. Photographs that stay with me often contain an exquisite balance between fact and enigma, and spark my imagination. 

How does the National Portrait Gallery acquire new photography for the collection?

The NPG’s remit is to promote an understanding of men and women who have contributed to British history and culture; that informs all of our collecting. New offers for the collection are discussed at fortnightly curatorial meetings by a panel of curators. We acquire new work from photographers at many different stages in their careers, through purchase, auctions, or gifts to the collection. Commissions – like Don McCullin’s series Faith and Church – also enable us to work with leading photographers to address specific under-represented areas in our collection.

How do you discover new work? 

Some photographers contact me speculatively with new work and I also have long-term working relationships with photographers who keep in touch about new projects. I keep up-to-date with photography being showcased by galleries and leading editorial magazines and publishers. Smaller independent publishers like Cafe Royal Books, GOST and HERE, often highlight projects that may not have reached me otherwise. I also enjoy following graduate events like Source Photographic Review’s annual online showcase. 

What mistakes do photographers make when approaching you? 

The most common mistake is that photographers submit work without first considering our remit. The NPG, the V&A and many museums publish their collecting policies and previous exhibitions online. If the work isn’t the right fit for us, I give recommendations, but I would expect a photographer to have first researched the gallery’s specialism as an organisation. 

Tell us a bit about how the NPG plans exhibitions 

Our exhibition programme reflects our remit and is often planned up to five years ahead. We have a long tradition of exhibitions that examine a major photographer’s contribution to culture and photographic history: Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson, Bill Brandt, Lee Miller, Angus McBean, Irving Penn, Ida Kar, Man Ray and David Bailey. 

Our exhibition programme is carefully balanced to include different periods of history and different approaches to portraiture. Some exhibitions are developed out of the gallery’s long-term internal research projects, and others originate from proposals from external individuals or organisations. 


Image: Man Ray exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

Image: Man Ray Portraits installation, by Tori Miller © National Portrait Gallery, London


Could you talk us through your curatorial process in relation to one particular exhibition? 

For Man Ray Portraits, [former NPG Curator of Photographs] Terence Pepper and I researched national and international public and private collections over several years, to determine the best possible vintage prints of the most significant portraits made throughout Man Ray’s career. 

We obviously wanted to display his most celebrated portraits made in Paris from 1921 to 1937. However, as with all exhibitions, it was important to contribute new research to this field. So we examined Man Ray’s lesser-known portraits of British subjects, his work made in Hollywood during the 1940s, late experiments in colour photography and traced the progression of his published work from avant-garde periodicals to acceptance into mainstream magazines. 

Producing exhibitions is a collaborative process. For example, I wish we could have done a major show on Michael Peto but we were limited by the space available. Instead the recent NPG display of his work became part of a season of exhibitions, including one at the New York Public Library. 

You also have a blog, Camera Portraits, and write for photography publications. Why is it important for you, as a curator, to do this?  

Working in a large institution, it can sometimes be hard for young curators to develop their own voice. On my blog I can discuss my research and projects that catch my attention. In my daily role I specialise in a specific genre, but I’m interested in all aspects of photography and its history. Working with publications like Photomonitor and Of the Afternoon is a wonderful opportunity to write about photography more widely, as in my recent features on Glen Erler and Todd Hido. 

You originally read Greek and Roman Studies at university. What was your route into curating photography 

My father was a photographer and teacher, so from an early age I was surrounded by photography. On graduating I worked for picture agency Retna before joining the NPG in 2002. I worked in image licensing and picture research for seven years, but wanted to move into a more creative and research-based role in photography. I studied for an MA in Museum Studies and volunteered on exhibitions before I was appointed Assistant Curator of Photographs in 2009. 

Any other tips for new photographers or photography curators? 

It takes time to build up your professional network, but these relationships will become one of the most rewarding aspects of your work. Make the most of the vibrant community of like-minded people out there who share your passions and commitment. Great organisations like Miniclick, Photoforum, and United Nations of Photography run regular free events on photography. Talk to your peers and contemporaries at every opportunity, learning from and with them will always be invaluable, at any stage in your career.


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Main image © National Portrait Gallery

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