Uncomfortably Close: Richard Learoyd’s, Presences

Courtesy Richard Learoyd—Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Courtesy Richard Learoyd—Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Rachel, 2009

In British artist Richard Learoyd’s new portrait series Presences, his minutely detailed life-size prints bring the viewer uncomfortably close, invoking a dichotomy of intimacy and loneliness.

Courtesy Richard Learoyd—Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Richard Learoyd's Camera

Using the most basic form of photography, the camera obscura, Learoyd marries old technology with new: strobe lighting, state of the art optics and Ilfochrome printing to create unexpected voyeurism. “I suppose people see it as alternative process,” says Learoyd, “but I see it as an alternative use of modern materials.”

Each of Learoyd’s unique portraits are born through a laborious commitment of both physical and mental stamina.  Models arrive at his studio prepared for a full day, and often two, of sitting still under hot lights. “The way I do things is like taking one photograph and the exposure is 8 hours, the whole day is the exposure,” says Learoyd. “There is hardly anybody who works in studios in the context that I do because it’s painful. Its difficult. It’s a brain ache.”

Some models have been participating in these marathon sessions for more than five years. “I like to work with the same people,” says Learoyd, “because the process is awkward and difficult and it takes a while to teach people how to do it.” Often, they are friends of friends with the sort of timeless features and style that won’t date the images down the road. In the closed world of the studio, he plays the role of therapist for some, for others he is just an eccentric. But at the end of the day, Learoyd is careful to keep his distance. “I don’t socialize with them,” says Learoyd. “I don’t mingle.”  He sees the relationship as productive without the muddied distractions of friendship.

Courtesy Richard Learoyd

Inside Richard Learoyd's camera—showing the projected image.

The collaboration produces a one-of-a-kind, direct positive print, with no negative. Editing is done as each picture is made: “I decide if something is good or bad, then I live with it.” He destroys the discarded images by slashing them, spray painting them and rolling them up wet. “You have to be brutal with yourself. It’s only you who can make those decisions and I make them instantaneously. ” says Learoyd.

Learoyd’s portraits question the ability of the viewer to truly know another person. “There is a closeness people crave from others that is always thwarted,” says Learoyd. “Quite often I think we’d like to merge with others, but there’s always something in between. In this case, its the surface of a photograph.”

Learoyd’s Presences will be on view at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco from May 5 to June 25, 2011.

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