Richard Learoyd: the full picture

Sandra S. Phillips

Jasmijn towards the Light, 2008 Jasmijn towards the Light, 2008

Richard Learoyd
Jasmijn towards the Light, 2008
Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco

[…] There is something undeniably present about the people he photographs: they are more alive, more beautiful, more defenseless and even more vulnerable than the people we usually see in photographs. I am referring to his large color photographs, taken with a room-sized camera obscura. This is because they are one-off photographs, with the person placed in front of the lens, and when the lights are turned on the life-sized image is directly exposed onto the photographic paper. There is no negative. What we can observe hanging on the gallery walls is the very paper which was exposed inside the camera obscura.

In fact, regardless of their size, (life-size or even a little bigger, and made this way with the clear intention of questioning the authority of painting), these photographs go beyond the refined familiarity and even the security that painting provides, and create a more elemental and even more ritualistic visual experience. The way in which they are produced has much to do with their strength and with the unsettling closeness we feel when facing them, as if we were emotionally connected to them.

[…] These photographs are unique: They cannot be reproduced in the same way as traditional or old photographs, because there is no negative. The life-size image of the subject is exposed and developed directly onto the photographic paper. For Learoyd this was not something he had planned, but rather, technology led him to this point. Once Learoyd has chosen the model and decided on the exact pose, he inserts a type of mobile machine into the camera itself to focus and adjust the image while he directs the subject not to move. After these final adjustments to the camera and lens, he positions a sheet of photographic paper, with a flash that lights up the subject for a few seconds, during which time the model must stay very still and not smile, and then the exposure is done. The photographic paper is removed immediately and developed. The entire process takes roughly twenty minutes.

[…] His early interest in movement, arising from a dance commission, evolved into an investigation into stillness, movement detained for a brief moment in front of the camera, the model holding their breath, often with their arms wrapped around themselves to make sure they do not move. This palpably alert state confers on the models a psychological presence in the images, something which few other photographs share, except perhaps for the daguerreotypes of the 19th century, whose models went to the same lengths to hold their poses.

Learoyd has found inspiration in the key elements that other artists have contributed, such as the impeccable work of the portrait painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres or Edgar Degas' psychological portraits.

[…] Learoyd is interested in what photography can be, what it can reveal, what it sees. He uses modern and sophisticated optics to capture every eyelash and every pore. Thanks to their sheer size and intensity, his photographs convince the viewer to keep looking. It is wonderful to contemplate them as a whole, but also to examine their finer details: the wonderful light, the unbearable and magical reality these images invoke, the special translucent quality of the person's skin, their bright pupils with an inner gaze, as if the sitter had been surprised while lost in thought, although looking outward. To really understand these photographs you need to see them for yourself […]

Extract by Sandra S. Phillips, Richard Learoyd: the full picture, text included in the exhibition catalog. Sandra S. Phillips (USA) is a writer and the curator emeritus of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA).