“Not Day, Not Night” is the title that Richard Learoyd, a British photographer, chose for an ongoing series of weighty books – albums, really – compiling his pictures. The title precisely describes the aesthetic of his new exhibition, “In The Studio”, at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. It shows a series of dimly lit photographs, evoking the thresholds of dawn or dusk, his subjects isolated against blank backgrounds in the studio with no intimation of a world outside.
The cool, crepuscular tone of Learoyd’s photographs is ironic. His pictures are made with a room-sized camera obscura inside which a large piece of photographic paper is exposed and developed: a unique record of the figure in front of the lens. In order for exposure times to be manageably short, Learoyd’s models are illuminated with very bright – and hot – flashbulbs.
Learoyd, 50, lives in Wiltshire in the south-west of England, but has his studio in east London, where he finds many of his models either through acquaintances or on the street. He tends to work with people repeatedly, lending his portraits an intimate quality, even if he is less concerned with capturing personalities than examining the texture, tone and mass of faces and bodies in space. His direct-exposure technique enables him to produce extremely high-definition images with no grain or pixellation. You can see the pores on his subjects’ faces and the dust on their clothes.
His exhibition at the Getty Center is divided into three categories: figure studies, portraits and still lives. These are some of my favourites.
“Julie Vertical” (2012)
Photographic portraiture – especially when it involves such a powerful recording tool as Learoyd’s camera obscura – can sometimes seem a cruelly invasive practice. (“The camera is cruel,” said Diane Arbus, “so I try to be as good as I can to make things even.”) This photograph of the vulnerably naked Julie, however, does not seem unkind, but neither does it sentimentally beautify her body. It brings to mind Edward Weston’s photographs of peppers, which are no more about peppers than the dispassionately titled “Julie Vertical” is about Julie, or her size. Instead, Learoyd abstracts his sitter’s form into a series of perfectly arranged curves, her sagging belly and breasts essential parts of a composition that might not seem so striking if we were more used to seeing photographs of fat people undressed.
“Man with Octopus Tattoo II” (2011)
In this figure study, the model turns his face away from the camera. The octopus, however, looks directly at us – its eyes uncannily human. The real drama in this image is derived not from the man’s fantastic tattoo, but from his hand, which emerges from darkness and claws at the octopus’s body as if trying to pull it off his skin. Those rows of suckers evoke the tenacious indelibility of the tattooist’s ink, and perhaps even the permanence of the photograph.
There is a certain kind of young woman who recurs in Learoyd’s work: young, long-necked and pale-skinned, possibly aristocratic or eastern European, or both. Many of his models look like the girls in early Lucian Freud paintings. Vanessa’s hair is pinned up, revealing her shapely neck and shoulders; she seems utterly self-composed and comfortable in front of the lens. Yet the hem of her top, at the neckline, is folded over – inadvertently, one assumes. The detail is captivating, lending the picture a subtle intimacy, despite the model turning away from the viewer. Here is something that we know about Vanessa that she herself might not.
“Large Flamingo” (2012)
Each photograph directs our attention, gently but firmly, to a particular part of the composition. In this image, it is the wrinkled white skin where the flamingo’s beak meets its sightless and clouded eye. The gorgeous pink plumage draws us in, but this strangely human skin is the reason it is hard to look away. It is also the reason that, the first time I looked at this photograph, I did not notice the taut thread pulling the bird’s wing towards the bottom of the frame.
“Blind Man” (2012)
In many of Learoyd’s photographs, we are conscious of the subject’s absolute submission to the camera (and, by extension, the photographer and the viewers). None of the subjects in this exhibition looks directly into the lens. But in this picture, not only does the man not return the viewer’s gaze, he is physically unable to (if, that is, we take Learoyd’s title at its word). Compared to the other portraits in the show, it is unusually close up, as if the man’s blindness allows us to get closer than would normally be polite. There is always something uncomfortable about seeing more of a person through a photograph than we ordinarily could ever hope to, but here the result is touching, affectionate even. Learoyd offsets our discomfort with his humanity, by being – to paraphrase Arbus – as good as he can.
Richard Learoyd: In the Studio Getty Center until November 27th