“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 (...) 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.”
The photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.
Proclaimed for their stunning immediacy, artist Christopher Bucklow wrote that Learoyd’s pictures rendered him speechless and without opinion. This is a remarkable concession, an affront to semioticians for whom everything is a sign for something else. But Bucklow’s observation is an honest reminder that we make, cherish, and are intrigued by particular pictures because language cannot do certain things, cannot go certain places, or at least not with the enigmatic economy of a photograph.
The average 21st century person sees more images in a week than someone living in the Victorian era observed in a lifetime. But it is not the amount of images, but what images that matters. This, in a nutshell, explains our receptivity to the quiet urgency of Learoyd’s photographs. It is critical that the images are literally one of a kind. There is no intermediary negative or digital file from which an infinite number of copies can be made. The light that reflected from the skin of his subject passed through the lens, into the dark chamber and impressed itself upon the emulsion of a single sheet of photographic paper; one solitary picture marking one unrepeatable moment. In this way, Learoyd’s pictures detour from photographic glut; instead of endless repetition and ubiquity he slows photography down to a standstill so that we might finally see.
A Vermeer-tinged glow envelops his subjects while ambient details emerge: a stool, an electrical cord, an unadorned bed, the delicate vignetting. There is skin of course, which we scan like hungry topographers for clues to solve the puzzle of identity. Echoes of pre-Raphaelite sensuality coexist with the chill of the medical examiner’s table. We are granted the privilege of the observer over the observed, yet one woman returns our gaze with such an uncanny intensity that it is the viewer who becomes the beholden. As Learoyd himself has noted, except for lovers and children, we are seldom given permission or opportunity to look so closely. Single hairs become crucial, two delicate strands point toward a mouth, a minor tangle animates the space inches above the fontanel like a shy crown. Elongated fingers rest upon thin wrists, the whorls on the bottom of a foot remind us that it not only fingerprints that claim unique signatures. A freckle, a blemish, a tattoo, a laceration, the fading imprint of a recently removed undergarment; as the eye travels along the inlets, cavities and protuberances of the body we begin to let go of the nagging questions of who and instead allow ourselves to be awed by the unnamed specificity of being.
Fragmentos de un ensayo de Mark Alice Durant:
* * *
Algunas fotografías de Richard Learoyd pueden verse hasta el 19 de Mayo en la exposición Seduïts per l'art: Passat i present de la fotografia, en el Caixaforum de Barcelona.
* * *