Above: A photo by Richard Learoyd. Credit: The Guardian.

The Learoyd Effect

The high quality digital photo-image has become a common currency among millions of social media users. Richard Learoyd's work offers a striking alternative to the social media image-feed. Learoyd's photos are made using a room-size camera obscura--his camera lens is built into one wall in his studio and it reflects an image directly onto another wall in an enclosed space. The photos produced are starkly and deliciously detailed and full of atmosphere; the pictures are compelling much in the way Walter Benjamin described as he looked at early photographs from the 1850s-1880s. As Sean O'Hagan has said: "Learoyd’s technical ability is matched by a more intangible gift which gives his images a sense of stillness and quietude that is rare. For me, Learoyd’s images evoke the hinterland between waking and dreaming, between the tangible and the oddly, unnervingly unreal. They hover there, reminding us of the sense of wonder photography carried in its early days: that alchemical power to captivate and transform." Learoyd's photos are captured moments as prints without a negative. A large sheet of photo-paper is affixed behind the lens capturing whatever is projected up. (A whole room is a camera.) With Learoyd's photo-process, it is not until the machine-processing of the large sheet of exposed photo-paper is complete that the photographer knows how the photo has turned out--so there is a lot of trial-and-error involved. As with many early photos, Learoyd's photos are unique--not "edition of one" as when a single print is made from a negative, rather the image is absolutely one-off. In his famous 1931 essay on the history of photography, Benjamin argued that efforts to re-evoke the charm and majesty of early photography by later generations of photographers could only really lead to cheesy photos rife with nostalgia and over-egged attempts at creating loaded-up atmosphere. Learoyd's photos are counter-evidence to that claim. In Learoyd's work what the viewer regains is something of the sense of awe of photography as a format for the portrait. As Benjamin also noted, sitters in early portraits from the nineteenth century--as Learoyd's are too--were surrounded in their repose only by a liberating quality of space and air (only later did the photo-caption, in newspapers at first, create a different dynamic under which the reader must process written information simultaneously as they make sense of what they are looking at). Of course, the "issue" with Learoyd's photos is that the uncanny penetrating effect of his images does not translate over when viewed as a small jpeg as per Internet reviews and articles, or indeed posts on Instagram: his photos have to be seen live--they demand to be seen in-the-flesh. In fact, as small jpegs his photos look quite uninteresting. Richard Learoyd is an exemplary fine-art photographer from a commercial gallery point-of-view too: there is none of the problematic "edition of 9 + 3 APs", or what have you, which has afflicted and rotted the photo-market over the last few years. (Edition of 9 for now but will it at some point be reprinted?) With Learoyd there's none of this, each piece is overtly singular and the prices can somewhat justifiably reflect this (i.e., a large portrait retails via Pace for about £100, 000).

(15 July 2019)