When Richard Learoyd describes his experiments with the camera obscura as “an anti-digital therapy,” he sets himself opposite the compulsive image takers and re-takers. This is a man who, over the course of an entire year, made just nineteen pictures. Using a camera obscura he constructed himself and a process that was not certain to produce good photographs, if any, Learoyd operated under the strong possibility of failure. This might have put off other artists, but not so the person who argues, “If you don’t work, you can’t work,” and who began this project without knowing exactly what kind of images he wanted to make, only that he wanted to make them.
As far as his art goes, it seems Learoyd is used to uncertainty, having come of age at a time when photography was excluded from the realm of fine art. He completed his graduate studies at the Glasgow School of Art because it was the only program for the medium across all of Europe. The artist did not see many of his works finished in person until coming to install his second solo exhibition at Fraenkel Gallery. His process is two-fold and the outcome not entirely under his control. In the tent-like structure he built in anticipation of this body of work, he opens the shutter and exposes a master sheet of contact paper that he then sends to be printed in New York. There is incredible restraint and anticipation in this process of creation, shipping and waiting. After much searching, he found the lens for his camera obscura through the internet. It was being used as an ashtray somewhere in Eastern Europe. Each contract print measures up to 80 inches on its longest side and this size confers an objecthood rarely found in photography.
Acting on a desire to escape his studio, Learoyd drove thousands of miles back and forth across the English countryside in search of landscapes he couldn’t name, journeys that led him to places he already knew. His works deny our expectations as their subjects did his. Rife with contradiction, they are staged and incidental, nineteenth century and contemporary, unplaceable and achingly familiar. The von der Becke family (partial) shows one of the artist’s usual models standing in a ray of sunlight, her parents all but hidden in the depths of the entrance to their home. The point of view belongs to a tourist passing through a small town, a family friend who stands too far away when asked to take a picture and a person experimenting with an awkward new technology. The ghost of Henry Fox Talbot lurks.
There are other haunted works. A murder of magpies is a truly unusual studio portrait. Strung up by wires that continue beyond the composition, this cluster of birds is all wings, feathers and odd angles. This is the record of a catastrophe, a hopeless entanglement, a mid-flight collision. In a quieter image made in the field, a magnolia bough appears against a stretch of grass, suspended by threads from the branches of its tree. Like the closing paragraph of a tense chapter in a book, these photographs give pause. “What I wanted this show to feel is odd,” says Learoyd. “The language to make the picture is something I’ve been looking for.”
The exhibition runs through October 26. For more information visit here.
Contributed by Ariel Rosen