Richard Learoyd’s photographs are meant to mimic the way the eye sees the world — conically, with the center highly focused and the periphery gradually, subtly blurring outward, in both detail and consciousness. Although he does still lifes, his portraits, in particular, nudge viewers toward a more intimate encounter with his subjects, pushing the boundary of what a two-dimensional image can achieve in terms of our sense of physical closeness to another person. Using an archaic technique, a camera obscura room with pinhole light entry, Learoyd likes to experiment with calibrations of focus that yield a kind of poetics of optical vision. He says he gets a lot of heat from purists who quibble that his setup is not really a camera obscura — he uses special lenses, a flash, and light-sensitive paper (Cibachrome), for instance. But the principle is legitimately claimed. He is literally inside the “camera,” and the picture beams radially through a hole in a wall from a lit room occupied by the subject into a dark room, onto a board. (San Francisco–based John Chiara, last seen in a show at the Getty Museum, does something akin to this with a camera obscura chamber rigged on the back of a truck, though his exposures can take an entire day and he works primarily outdoors.)
Born in Lancashire, England, Learoyd became fascinated with camera obscura imaging early on, when he was 18 and attending a Glasgow art school. He went on to teach at university and work as a commercial photographer, but when he tired of that and decided to return to his own artwork, he began where he left off — perfecting the unique, inverted image that made it possible to project and fix pictures at a much larger scale, at a time when such controlled grandeur was almost nonexistent in fine-art photography. Some might argue that the granular detail Learoyd traps is beside the point for an artistic medium that ought to be more about composition, color, and perhaps images that are more expressionistic or semiotic. But there is a pleasurable truth in the quest for capturing life as seen by the naked eye. And besides, Learoyd is equally attentive to choice of subject, body language, quality of light, character, mood — elements that add up to a complex, expressive gravity that many collectors have been obsessively drawn to.
Learoyd’s models are actually found for him by hired scouts and have included passersby near his studio. Some have returned year after year, several of whom he has forged friendships with; others sit briefly and he feels he’s gotten what he needs from them. Learoyd’s warts-and-all aesthetic raises questions about the nature of beauty, particular female beauty. Much like the extreme close-up portraits of, say, Martin Schoeller or Nadav Kander, the high-resolution images may make for fascinating faces and gestures but perhaps transcend what we would think of as conventionally alluring. Almost all are of individuals caught in meditative, even a bit melancholic, poses. One might say the beauty is interior, and the reward for more reflective gazing by the beholder. There’s also a voyeuristic aspect to the work — the kind of momentary fetishizing that happens when we stare at someone on the subway. It’s an inevitable corollary to Learoyd’s primary mission: exploring the space between viewer and sitter as the gap that both separates and merges the two.
Richard Learoyd: Day For Night (Aperture).
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