Ethereal beauty

Success has given Richard Learoyd the chance to leave commissioned work behind and cross over into the art world. Clare Dowdy profiles a photographer experimenting with camera obscura to create stunning results

Richard Learoyd has made the step that any number of photographers would give their eye teeth to make. He’s stepped over the boundary between commercial photography and art, and has made such a success of it that he’s all but left commissioned work behind.

Now, his shots – mostly portraits – are one-offs, held in collections at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and sell for $35 000 (£23 500) a pop through the McKee gallery in New York. It’s a far cry from the world of the annual report shoot. Of course, that world can be fun, glamorous and lucrative too, but Learoyd is now better described as an artist than a photographer, and it’s a role he much prefers.

Interestingly, he started out in fine art, so this is perhaps a return to his true sensibilities. After graduating in fine art photography from Glasgow School of Art in 1988, he took a succession of artist-in-residence positions. However, he says, ’It was a small market in the early 1990s.’
So instead, he turned to education, teaching photography for five years at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art and Design, as it was called then.

He didn’t move into commercial photography until he relocated to London in 1996, when his wife got a job there. ’I fell into it,’ he says, with his first commission being a catalogue for Liberty, commissioned by his friend Morag Myerscough. Other projects followed from similarly creative consultancies, namely North, Sea Design, Cartlidge Levene and Made Thought.

It’s an impressive client list, but while Learoyd was what he calls ’relatively successful’, it wasn’t giving him much job satisfaction. ’They ask you to do the same thing over and over again, so I got fed up,’ he says, without meaning to sound disingenuous. ’The cross-over from commercial photography to fine artist is very difficult. But it was easy for me as I’d stopped valuing the work.’

It was this dissatisfaction that drove him to return to an idea he’d first had when he was 20 years old: making pictures using camera obscura.
He built this camera in his unassuming studio down a Spitalfields back street. It is in effect two chambers (note that the word ’camera’ originally meant chamber): one a dark room and the other where his models are positioned against a movable white wall. In between the two is a lens rather than a pinhole. And rather than taking a negative, the image is captured on Ilfochrome direct positive paper, which was originally designed to make prints from transparencies. It’s not in great demand these days, so Learoyd has stock-piled around 50 rolls in his storeroom, in case the Swiss stop making it.

The resulting images are stunning. They can’t be compared with conventional photographs, and although they’re slightly bigger than life-sized, they’re too real and too immediate. This makes them tricky to reproduce in a catalogue, as Bryan Edmondson at Sea Design discovered. ’The catalogue features photographs of images, because you can’t scan them,’ he says.

’It’s not photography, it just happens to be photography,’ Learoyd explains. ’Photographs are viewed as objects to be viewed in images. These are viewed as whole rather than as bits of themselves. They are reminiscences of an artistic event. They are very precious. At a metaphorical level, they are perceived as very realistic, increasing the illusion of another person’s reality.’ No wonder the fine art world is taking notice. He’s now in the image-making realm of artists like Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Richard Misrach.

The technicalities of creating these images – they each take a day or two – are more rudimentary than expected. As the depth of focus is very narrow, Learoyd keeps his subject’s head in position by holding a pen attached to a metal stand at eye level. And as for his subjects, he pays scouts to hunt down individuals with the right look, a selection process that helps limit his choices. Certainly, the women share an aesthetic – otherworldly and unconventionally attractive, and often auburn. He shoots a handful of these models again and again (he’s shot Agnes for the past five years), and likes the idea of rotating them every month – ’I like to be busy,’ he says – but recognises that not everyone is so readily available.

And although the project has its end in sight, when the paper runs out, Learoyd isn’t worried. ’If I finish the Ilfochrome I would do something else – it’s quite exciting,’ he says.

Even though he’s well and truly turned his back on commercial photography, Learoyd admits to missing one thing about those days. ’It was sociable, whereas now I’m here by myself 95 per cent of the time,’ he says.

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