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An Interview with Richard Learoyd from the Archives

In Aperture magazine #199, from 2010, writer Peggy Roalf interviewed Richard Learoyd about his life-size portraits made with a room-size camera obscura, on the occasion of his first U.S. solo exhibition. This fall, Aperture will release Day For Night, a deluxe monograph of Learoyd’s photographs, to coincide with a solo exhibition of the artist’s work at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. “Time, motion, speed—some of photography’s attributes that are enhanced by the effect of a frame, and that often distance this medium from painting—are absent,” Roalf writes in the introduction to her interview. “But the massive scale and surface quality of Learoyd’s portraits share features with both the painting and the photography of nineteenth-century France; they have an intentionality that is imposed by the maker rather than received from the sitter. This is perhaps why his photographs invoke the sublime.”

This article originally appeared in Issue 13 of the Aperture Photography App.  

Harmony in White, 2012


Peggy Roalf: I was reading an essay by Mark Haworth-Booth recently about William Henry Fox Talbot. He was onto the magic of photography and talked about his invention as if it were a fairytale, and about nature as “a field of wonders past our comprehension.” I was wondering, have you found inspiration in Fox Talbot’s work and writings?

Richard Learoyd: I think many contemporary photographers would be foolish to deny the influence of Fox Talbot. Andreas Gursky and the Prada series, for example, or Robert Mapplethorpe’s ladders, and now Hiroshi Sugimoto with his new positive images.

I often muse over what might have come about if Fox Talbot had not invented the means to reproduce photographic images as multiples; maybe a completely different way of seeing would have emerged, leaving photography as a more singular viewing experience, where the value of the photographic object was maintained. But what Fox Talbot did was to introduce larger issues of mortality and religion into photographic imagery. The sometimes clumsy symbolism—which could seem irrelevant in our time—undoubtedly speaks of someone inventing a new visual language. The ladder rising into the blackness of a hayloft (from hisPencil of Nature) is a strong influence; for me it is the first word in an emerging photographic language.

I see my work more in the lineage of the French—referring to daguerreotypes: those non-reproducible photographic objects whose multi-planed surface and miraculous depth of field fascinate me. With my work I am interested in the moment when the image becomes dye and color, when the illusion of it being a reflection or projection breaks down. I think you get that sense with daguerreotype images: you see the object before the illusion. With my pictures, the illusion is very strong and breaks suddenly, and often only momentarily, which is something I like.

PR: The nature of film photography today generally excludes any sense of the surface from its describable qualities. When and how did you realize that you could bend traditional photographic processes to create the sense of mass and volume that’s evident in your photographs?

Agnes in Red Dress, 2008

RL: I was lucky enough to be in the generation before computers became the norm. I studied at Glasgow School of Art under Thomas Joshua Cooper, who is a wonderful landscape artist. During that time the frontier seemed to be a place of ideas realized with persistence and craft, where all was valued until proved useless. I look back at the time I had there and realize that’s when my life really began.

I first started experimenting with the camera obscura, or the room-camera method that I use now, during my postgraduate year at Glasgow. It was Cooper who lent me the lens from a nineteenth-century portrait camera he had in his office. At the time postgraduate students were given studios; this enabled me to experiment with a different set of ideas instead of being out in the world searching for something to photograph. Until then, my work had been landscape-based; it was fairly quiet and thoughtful, almost reticent in a way. I suppose something in me craved a sense of power or directness in my work that I felt was lacking in my landscape photographs. Working with the camera obscura seemed to satisfy this need.

For the next several years I taught photography at a university and worked as a commercial photographer. At a certain point I had learned what I could from that and it was time to get on with being an artist. In 2004 I built the first version of the camera I use now, as an extension of the work I had begun fourteen or so years earlier. But now I knew what I was doing. I was inventing photography for myself in a way that I could, and began making the photographs I had imagined could be made. I don’t know why, but the camera obscura seemed to me the most natural of methods. The apparatus I use consists of a lens, some lights, and a processing machine. The process has certain built-in qualities to do with physics and optics, but the most important quality for me is that it is capable of producing photographs that fascinate me, that match my vision.

It is an incredibly restrictive process and there are many things you simply can’t do. It’s slow and painstaking, with much that can go wrong. The method gives parameters of what you choose to photograph. It’s very liberating to have limited choices, and the technique offers immediacy as it jumps past the printmaking process.

Man with Octopus Tattoo, 2011. All photograhs © Richard Learoyd

PR: At one point you mentioned that people in charge of their bodies, such as dancers, seem to have a different center of gravity. How does this observation manifest in your work?

RL: One thing that this process, at best, can do is to translate weight, density, and mass—not only in a physical sense, but in a more psychological way. When a picture is successful, the mental state of the sitter seems to radiate from that person’s physicality.

PR: The surface quality of your photographs is remarkable, in its sharpness, and in the way that you adjust the focal plane to shift back and forth within an extremely shallow range. Can you point to a moment when you found that this was possible on a large scale?

RL: While I must admit to disliking the use of shallow focus in most conventional photographs today (it seems like a device within a device), I think a big influence on my understanding how the focus issue could work for me was revisiting some early Lewis Baltz pictures of scrubland. Don’t ask me why, but they stuck in my mind. The minute depth of field in these pictures is part of a restrictive practice; it’s quite simply physics. Every artist, whatever their medium, has to deal with the rules of the universe. I think the secret is to accept it and move on. For me, in my work, the implication or meaning of this shift between extreme sharpness and blur is an emerging and submerging of a person’s consciousness, and emphasis of their immediate presence.

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