TEXT: FUNDACIÓN MAPFRE CULTURE AREA
Richard Learoyd (Nelson, United Kingdom, 1966) is one of the most interesting contemporary photographers of our times. Learoyd’s work is firmly rooted in the past, with multiple references to the history of painting, as regards both his themes and technique. Whether in color or black and white, his photographs are the result of an artisan process using a camera obscura of his own construction. From June 5 through September 8, 2019 at the Fundación MAPFRE’s Casa Garriga Nogués Hall in Barcelona.
Richard Learoyd is widely acclaimed for the unique photographic works he has produced for over a decade. While they mainly consist of portraits of clothed or naked models produced in his studio, he has also addressed other themes such as animals, landscapes or dark mirrors. They all receive the same serious, loving attention. Many of the animals are no longer alive, but wrapped in cables or stretched between wires in order to be examined. These are not your usual still lifes, but rather experiments, frequently playful and prolonged, using ordinary, yet often rare objects. The mirrors are perhaps the most abstract: they look like constellations from deepest outer space. He has recently produced large-scale photographs in black and white, and has even taken his enormous camera outdoors to shoot landscapes and old buildings he comes across in small Eastern European cities. In some cases, he returns to the same place to photograph them in different seasons of the year.
This exhibition presents Richard Learoyd at the peak of his career, with a selection of 51 color and black-and-white works that epitomize his oeuvre over this last decade. The exhibit also includes one of the landscapes shot in Spain (on the island of Lanzarote), commissioned by Fundación MAPFRE and incorporated into the Foundation’s Photography Collection to join two other works by the artist.
Richard Learoyd has spent around two decades taking photographs with his camera obscura: a huge studio camera of his own design based on ancient optical principles.
Photographs from the camera obscura
The English artist Richard Learoyd has spent around two decades taking photographs with his camera obscura: a huge studio camera of his own design based on ancient optical principles. This instrument has enabled him to produce pictures that possess a captivating uniqueness, at a time when photography has become ubiquitous and trivial. The people he portrays seem to inhabit a world with a particular psychological intensity and are examined under an extraordinarily crystalline, distinctive light. Even the subjects – sometimes rather unusual – he chooses for his still lifes possess exceptional, evocative beauty and tranquility.
The photographs he produces with this apparatus are basically as large as the camera itself. Both taking these photographs and studying them calls for a more careful, attentive way of observing, a more contemplative activity than the immediacy with which we tend to see and photograph the world. Learoyd has developed this camera of huge dimensions, yet at the same time quite flexible, so that it can be moved with certain limitations.
After composing the image, he places a sheet of photographic paper the size of his machine at the back of the camera, and creates a single copy. Despite its complexity, this technology enables him to produce highly characteristic works with unusual light and color qualities. There is nothing fortuitous about these photographs.
More recently, the photographer has expanded his technological horizon and designed a camera he can take outdoors to make a limited number of non-unique prints. Once again, they bear no relation to any other picture you may have seen before and address an extraordinary array of themes. Released into the wild outdoors, Learoyd has photographed very well-known places, such as California’s Yosemite Valley, and also less familiar territories in Eastern Europe. These new images seem to examine the situation of the modern world, breathtakingly beautiful and, at the same time, potentially destructive. They represent a release from the earlier limitations imposed by his selfdefined process, and are just the beginning of a new vision of a broader world.
Before experimenting with the magical color images for which he is so well known today, Learoyd was a landscape photographer who took classic, black-and-white photographs. He has recently managed to modify his huge camera obscura to take it outdoors and this change has enabled him to produce images brimming with the thrill of discovery.
Despite the fact that Learoyd’s photographs establish a dialog with the works of the English Pre-Raphaelite painters, it is the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron who is of singular importance to him.
While working to refine this process, his photos progressively turned into increasingly complex images. His early experimental works in black and white were very similar to his color photographs: for example, the nude portraits of Agnes and the tangled pair of magpies trapped in wires. These photographs were produced in the studio. When he moved outdoors, he discovered a discreet, mysterious bag with fishing nets on a beach in Portugal (The Sins of the Father); and he also came up with a family portrait in front of a manor house (The Von der Becke Family), a more ambitious image in terms of its composition. Lately, he has gone yet further afield: a lunar-like desert landscape on the island of Lanzarote and, even, the hybrid architectural forms in Eastern Europe (Gdansk, Poland). He also collects burned-out cars in the United States, which he stores in a warehouse in Texas to photograph their shells as metaphors of these disturbing times, like victims of some kind of holocaust.
Portraits and figures
While the people we see in Learoyd’s studio photographs look really contemporary, as though they had been sitting there a moment ago and were waiting for him to finish adjusting that curious, bulky camera, these human figures also have a timeless quality that harks back to the art of bygone times. Since antiquity, the visual expression has been dominated by both portraits and paintings of the human figure. In museums all over the world we find pictures of people dressed, naked or sitting patiently while an artist describes the elaborate embroidery on a dress, or the particular complexion of a beautiful young woman. In addition to analyzing the great Renaissance artists, Learoyd has studied such 19th century painters as Jean- Auguste-Dominique Ingres, an especially elegant portraitist. Ingres was also a grand master of the nude, and some of the paintings he did are echoed in this photographer’s images of human figures. Moreover, despite the fact that Learoyd’s photographs establish a dialog with the works of the English Pre-Raphaelite painters, it is the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron who is of singular importance to him.
But just as important as these artistic precursors is Learoyd’s distinctive personality, which transforms what he chooses to photograph with his particular form of perception. Learoyd’s studies of the human figure and his portraits are specifically aligned to the present: the feeling of remoteness, internalized emotions and the strange beauty of the bodies are testimonies to a present filled with anxiety.
Still lifes [interrupted lives]
Learoyd is particularly interested in the creation of still lifes, although his are substantially different from many of the classic expressions of this genre in the history of art. In the Netherlands, the 17th-century still life paintings were often an arrangement of luxury objects, and many included symbols of the passing of time, such as extravagant bouquets of flowers with hidden insects. The works of the famous 18th-century French painter Jean Siméon Chardin highlighted the simple pleasures of a modest life: freshly-picked cherries in a bowl or bread on a table, always depicted in a precise, exquisite manner. Later painters, from the Impressionists onward, also arranged objects in their studios in order to analyze them: Paul Cézanne and his modern followers liked to distribute apples around the table. Traditionally, still lifes evoked little emotion in the spectators contemplating them.
Learoyd totally revised the “still life” concept, placing special emphasis on the true sense of the term: these are pictures of lives that have been interrupted. Some bear a certain similarity to images with which we are familiar: the broken branches of wild apples, for example, appear unusually laden and fortuitous here, as though they had just been snapped off in a garden to be photographed indoors. Others are simultaneously beautiful and disturbing: a severed horse’s head, with its glossy white hair and shiny, dark dead eye in stark contrast with the deep red of the blood from its neck.
Learoyd had also arranged magpies and swans as hanging decorations; presented in a whimsical fashion… but dead. Some of his more original pictures are hybrid forms which he himself sculpted using creatures that were once alive: Fish Heart, for example, is formed by two organisms sewn together and suspended in the air.