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Richard Learoyd’s camera obscura portraits invite intimacy

Richard Learoyd’s camera obscura portraits invite intimacy

January 4, 2017 // by MOCA Staff

This is the text of one of the audio guides Paul Karabinis wrote and recorded for Retro-spective: Analog Photography in a Digital World. Listen to the recording here.

Richard Learoyd Jasmijn away from Light Jasmijn to the Light a
A couple views Richard Learoyd's camera obscura portraits Jasmijn away from Light and Jasmijn to the Light at the patrons' preview for Retro-spective. Image courtesy of Brandi Hill.

Jasmijn away from Light, 2010

Jasmijn to the Light, 2010

Photographic portraiture is believed to have a direct relationship to the reality of the subject. In the nineteenth century, the portrait, particularly the daguerreotype, was admired due to its realism and a general belief that the image was a direct transcription or trace of the subject.

Richard Learoyd's large and finely detailed camera obscura portraits question the causal relationship between description and identity. A camera obscura, or dark room, is but a box or room with a pinhole at one end that allows light to pass, creating a laterally reversed and upside down image on the opposing end of what is in front of the pinhole. The optical principle can be traced to the fifth century B.C. and is the basis of lens-based photography from its invention in the nineteenth century to the digital age.

Learoyd has built a large camera obscura in his studio. Models or objects are located in front of his lens and his camera is large enough to accommodate photographic paper up to 70 x 60 inches. Ilfochrome color paper is used to capture the image, lit by a powerful electronic flash. Invented in the mid 1960s as Cibachrome, the paper was used for making direct positive prints from transparencies. Purchased by Ilford in the early 1990s and renamed Ilfochrome, the paper's production ceased a few years later. Learoyd purchased a supply to last him for many years.

His large prints reveal no photographic grain and captivate us with their detail. Print size adds to this intimacy, as does prolonged viewing without the social constraints we have in real life. Despite this, we are left with pictures that describe everything but explain nothing. The critic Susan Sontag understood the irony of photographic description when she wrote, “There is never any real understanding in a photograph, but only an invitation to fantasy and speculation.” Learoyd says he hopes the portraits will prolong looking and inspire reflection, but he acknowledges that they “frustrate our desire to instantly understand a photographic representation of a person.” Frustration aside, his portraits reveal the endless fascination humans have for turning fact into symbol.




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