Richard Learoyd creates spellbinding images that hover between the sublime and an almost hyper-reality. His large-scale pictures have painterly qualities and evoke the tradition of nineteenth-century French portraiture. Around 20 of these powerful works, including portraits and still-life, are being exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Learoyd, 49, makes his photographs using the antiquarian camera obscura method, which he first started experimenting with at the Glasgow School of Art. Thomas Joshua Cooper, founding head of its photography department, lent him the lens from a nineteenth-century portrait camera in his office. Fourteen years later, in 2004, Learoyd built a room-sized camera obscura in his Shoreditch studio. Direct colour positive paper is placed onto the back wall. In an adjacent room sits his subject. A lens is positioned between the two rooms, enabling the light to be focused onto the paper. As there is no negative, every image is unique. The company that made the photographic paper Learoyd uses has stopped producing it but he stocked up in advance and has a supply to last him 20 years.
Each image is painstaking to make, the sitter having trained their gaze and their posture before the flash comes. By no means every image is successful, so a far amount of paper gets wasted. Clearly, what Learoyd is seeking in his pictures is an enigmatic force. His subjects seem to be caught in private reflection, a forlorn state, or in a moment between dreaming and waking. This otherworldly, frozenness is enhanced by how certain parts of the image are sharply in focus while others are blurred, creating a sense of hovering. The backgrounds are uniformly grey and plain, darker in some parts, lighter in others, lending a kind of twilight effect reminiscent of Vilhelm Hammershøi's paintings.
Interestingly, Learoyd photographs the same subjects over and over again. One of his most constant sitters is Agnes, a young dark-haired woman, whom he has been photographing for the past decade. In one picture, Agnes with Eyes Closed (2007), she is captured in a dream state; the atmosphere of reverie is augmented by the checked pattern of her blue-and-white dress rippling in and out of focus. In another portrait, Agnes in Fur (2011), she is slightly older, wearing dark red lipstick and a black fur coat, gazing downwards as if lost in thought. Every gesture and every look in Learoyd's portraits is meticulous. This attention to detail could be thanks to him honing his skills as an artist-in-residence at the Scottish Ballet in 1991, one year after graduation.
What is less convincing are the still-lifes, such as the memento mori of a horse's head with blood dripping down the plinth or branches balanced on a saucer on a block of wood. Although they possess the same stillness, the mesmerising magic is lacking. Also included is a Dark Mirror series, after which the show is titled, which are images of mirrors but resemble the constellations of stars in the night sky. Learoyd's work is remarkable for another reason, too. In the digital age, his detailed camera obscura works are a counterpoint to the overload of easily-made, disposable imagery.