JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 large-scale color and black-and-white photographs, along with 3 unique photographic books, hung against white walls (including the north wall of the foyer) in the 2nd floor gallery. All the prints are mounted on aluminum and floated behind glass, and were made between 2008-2013. The 3 silver-gelatin prints were made in an edition of 3+1AP; the 17 direct positive black-and-white and color prints are unique. Physical sizes vary from roughly 61×61 to 80×61. (Installation shots below, many courtesy of the Pace/MacGill website.)
The exhibition coincides with a similarly titled monograph co-published in 2015 by Aperture (here) and Pier 24 Photography. Hardcover with acetate jacket and belly band, 328 pages, with 160 four-color reproductions. Includes essays by Martin Barnes and Nancy Gryspeerdt and an artist statement. $150. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: The appeal of Richard Learoyd’s portraiture has a lot to do with its refusal to fall in line with the breakneck pace of the Internet age. His are not the sort of pictures anyone could take with an iPhone or create via a software program. Instead of rapidly shooting images for instant consumption, he wants to take his time and he asks everyone involved to do the same. A typical exposure inside his studio, where his trained subjects pose under hot lights in one room and his camera stands in an adjacent one, might take 8 hours. Even though it has taken him years of experimentation to achieve effects he had only imagined were possible, the camera obscura is about as basic as photography can be.
Rather than appropriating images that underscore how we live surrounded by other appropriated images, he hopes his photographs bring us closer to the presence of actual things. In the creatures presented to us, we are meant to recognize a fleshy or featured relative. (The kicker, of course, is that, the closer we look at his photographs the more they declare themselves to be their own kind of animal, separate from the thing depicted.)
“My pictures are about extending the duration of looking,” he writes in his new monograph. “I want them to frustrate our desire to instantly understand a photographic representation of a person. My hope is that they inspire a truly reflective view: a view of intimacy and understanding, an insight into another that will increase our humanity.”
Learoyd’s choice of subject matter—the nude, still life, rural landscapes—could hardly be more traditional. Being staunchly opposed to dominant practices and trends has long been more encouraged in England than in the U.S. Old Fogyism has been fashionable there across all the arts for many decades, with Philip Larkin being perhaps the outstanding example of what a contrarian attitude can achieve. While Learoyd’s against-the-grain photographs have little in common with the dandyish camp of McDermott and McGough, his popularity with the public and journalists is reminiscent of the general interest that greeted four earlier English photographers, Christopher Bucklow, Susan Derges, Adam Fuss, and Garry Fabian Miller. They first made a splash in the U.S. with the 1996 exhibition Under the Sun at the Fraenkel Gallery. Then, as always, one of the ways forward has seemed to lie in going back.
The monograph from Aperture and Pier 24 Photography allows a fuller appreciation of Learoyd’s strengths and weaknesses than was possible in any of his solo gallery shows, including this one, where only a dozen or fewer of his large prints could be sampled.
The long exposures impose strict limits on what and how he can photograph. It’s not clear whether he prefers a body type—almost of his models are young, female, slender, small-breasted, with shoulder-length hair—or whether the discipline required to sit for him eliminates much of the population. Not everyone would or could accept his terms. (He makes a point of thanking his sitters, as well he should. Their stoic unsmiling faces may be read either as barely suppressed terror that they might collapse under the hot lights and ruin his hard work, or as a deep contemplative Zen-state. The pay can’t be good and the stamina necessary may explain why the elderly and overweight need not apply.)
With movement of any kind out of the question, only dead animals—hares, cuttlefish, flamingos, magpies, horses—can serve his needs. The wire trusses that wrap or suspend many of these carcasses don’t so much add extra support as much as they emphasize his behind-the-scenes role as puppet master. By showing his hand, he is often simultaneously pulling us closer and keeping us at a remove.
The two black-and-white landscapes here, one of a dense patch of hawthorn and the other of bare trees along the River Stour, presented their own challenges. According to the press release, these are among the largest contact prints (80 inches across) ever made. As images of stark desolation, however, they are more generic than the portraits, which are unmistakably his. His landscapes may one day be as distinctive; these examples aren’t.
Although he is a relative latecomer among contemporary artists in his adaptations of the camera obscura, he has taken it in directions that Abelardo Morell and Vera Lutter have not explored. Their interests lie in architectural collage, the merging of interior and exterior space. Morell’s mottled color is cheerily impressionistic while Lutter’s scary pools of liquid black-and-white can make her vacant scenes look the x-ray aftermath of a nuclear attack or mercury poisoning.
Learoyd’s concerns are wholesome and squarely humanistic: a woman or a man alone against a plain background. His nudes are not fraught with psychological anxieties, like Lucien Freud’s. These are fragile beings and he treats them with accordingly. His grainless prints on giant sheets of Ilfochrome capture imperfections of skin and hair rather than breaking flesh down to the bone, as in an Avedon. The color is smooth and naturalistic, the light reflected softly across the face and body in a manner closer to Vermeer than to any other color photographer.
It should be instructive to see if Learoyd’s portraits look as startlingly alive a decade from now. During the 1980s the luminous paintings of William Bailey, still lifes of pots and bottles on shelves, had a similar surge of popularity because they were so unlike the aggressive slapdash of Julian Schnabel and George Baselitz. What once seemed timeless now appears like more of a novelty.
Learoyd’s debut at Pace and Pace/MacGill is not helped by the maddening installation. As his direct-positive prints are unique, the need to protect them from damage behind glass is understandable. But why does the price for safety have to be blinding glare? Wherever I stood in relation to the prints on the wall, I couldn’t take my reflection out of the picture. It was grimly comical that the glass’s mirroring effect prevented me from assessing his photograph of an antique oval mirror. I was able to get close enough to Tatiana Nude 1 to marvel at the pink knuckles on her hands in the foreground (the technique limits his depth of field.) But the entire figure was impossible to keep in view from a stable distance.
When an artist states that he is doing his utmost to bring human beings together in an intimate space, a measure to keep them at bay seems counter-productive.
The ambitious monograph, as luxurious as it austere, is what the show should have been. Sumptuously produced and smartly edited, with just enough explanatory text, it’s a book that tempts readers to spend hours inspecting the freckles of these pale and inscrutable strangers. My initial impression is that fewer pictures might have been even better. That’s a judgment I look forward to testing by looking through these pages many more times in the months ahead.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $40000 (for Swan, a gelatin silver contact print, in an edition of 3 with one AP) to $115000 (for Jasmijn Away from Light and Jasmijn to the Light, a pair of Ilfochrome direct-positive portraits sold as a single work.) All of the unique prints are priced at $65000. Learoyd’s prints have very little secondary market history at this point, with only a handful of transactions in the past few years. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $30000 and $60000.