The photograph tells us that when we see we are unconscious of what our seeing cannot see. Eduardo Cadava
The photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know. Diane Arbus
A couple of decades ago I made the acquaintance of a picture merchant in an open-air market in rural Guatemala. Locally known as el hombre de la imagen, he supplied pictures of holy figures not only to adorn the walls and niches of churches but also for home altars and personal talismans. Gaudy lithographs of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the crucified Christ were stacked in multiple variations next to a plenitude of miniature glass-encased saints including the mysterious figure of Maximon, sometimes called San Simon to veil his lack of official recognition by the church hierarchy. Degraded almost beyond recognition through years of continuous photocopying, I can only guess that the original image of Maximon was a photograph of a seated effigy dressed in a somber western-style suit. A cigar poked out from under his moustache and a wide-brimmed black hat perched over his head like an anti-halo. I knew next to nothing about the history or context of this figure but clearly he was not representative of some religious ideal. His rough physicality suggested instead that he held some sway in the contested space between heaven and hell. Despite the utter degradation of the image, what was astonishing was the forceful moral ambivalence emanating from that contrasty little image sealed behind a sliver of glass.
I thought of the image man and the unexpected force of certain images more recently as I stood in the backroom of the McKee Gallery viewing some of Richard Learoyd’s large-scale photographic portraits. In my hand a sheet of photocopied reproductions of those same images, an index for his upcoming exhibition. My eyes flit back and forth between the humble utilitarian versions and the monumental pictures that dominated the room. There is no denying the power and presence of the big color pictures, but I was caught off guard by the insistence of this grid of small monochromatic figures. Like diminutive cousins of Eugene Bellocq’s women or some unearthed archive of miniature daguerreotypes, these scratchy black and white images barely two inches tall seemed to call out from photographic history. It struck me that the potency of Learoyd’s images is not solely in their scale, but in something more essential. Why and how do specific photographs transcend generic status to touch, to animate us, to use Barthes’ term? What constitutes their presence?
The portrait photograph is the most basic of photographic relationships. Whether the portrayal is intended to ennoble an eminent personage or simply produce a reasonable description for a passport; the equation of photographer plus human subject has generated an abundant visual record of human likeness. Virtually all of humanity has experienced the self-consciousness, the simultaneous discomfort, and thrill that accompanies being imaged. A person stands or sits in front of a camera waiting for the picture to be taken; the subject may smile, squirm, scowl or attempt to appear neutral in order not to betray any internal realities, yet when the faint click of the shutter passes the subject often emits a private sigh, as if having escaped with soul intact. Even so, we seem to have an insatiable desire for pictures of others; that paparazzi can pay their rent is proof enough of the downside to this phenomenon. That we fill photo albums with family and friends, weddings, births and trips to beachside resorts is evidence of our desire for a visual trace of our tribe. That we tell stories while we turn the pages is proof of the natural intimacy between word and image.
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. To temporarily avert this challenge to language, perhaps it would help to describe what Learoyd’s pictures are not.
Take a walk through any art museum and you are bound to encounter painted portraits, some ludicrously pompous, some transcendently beautiful. But whatever their esthetic value, the canvases are strewn, at least before the 20th century, with codes and symbols serving hierarchical, metaphorical, and allegorical purpose. Painting may be a cumulative art while photography an art of instants, yet the traditions of portraiture echo among the great portrait photographers as well. In Nadar, Cameron, Sander, Avedon, Arbus, Penn, Keita, and Mapplethorpe to name a few, we can discern in their selection of humanity a vision that alludes directly or indirectly to individuality in relation to a larger context. In front of Learoyd’s images of human beings, we are not led to symbolic analysis or sociological reading, he is not a collector of types, nor are his pictures windows to something else. Instead we are confronted with the weight and gravity of image as object, the intensity of pictorial and material presence.
Photography can be a kind of reciprocal touching; a physical act, in which the camera probes darkness, squints into the luminous, negotiates proximity and distance, tightens into focus, or slacks into an ethereal blur. To make his images, Learoyd nestles inside a large box fitted with a lens, while his model settles in for the long moments stretching between exposures. His is not a camera you might purchase at your local photography shop, it is a construction based on principles of light and optics that artists have employed for centuries. As Jonathan Crary has observed, before the invention of photography the camera obscura was not solely a mechanism to assist artists in drawing from nature, but was also enjoyed for the immersive and contemplative space into which the spirit of the world quietly seeped. Learoyd’s choice to use such a contraption is in some ways to jettison decades of technological progress in photography, but this anachronistic gesture serves Learoyd by transforming the camera from distancing device to a vessel for experiencing the sensuality of vision.
At its emergence in the mid-19th century, photography was described as ‘a new art form for an old civilization’. Civilization does not seem so creaky any longer in part because photography breeds the illusion of discovery, continually expanding what we think we are entitled to see. But as photography requires novelty to constantly refresh our eyes and activate our desires, a new kind of weariness has clouded our vision. There are probably more images on your hard drive than there are in the cumulative collections of ten provincial museums. Or to put in another way, 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.
Learoyd is not an ambulatory photographer, he does not venture in the world to find his subjects like some restless voyeur. Instead, he waits patiently in a spartan studio; his subjects arrive in the morning and might spend an entire day in variations of a single pose. Positioned as if immersed in a cool vitreous liquid, the models are sometimes naked but never defenseless. They could be the progeny of a fading aristocratic family or a clerk at the corner market, but we are left adrift from such concerns. His subjects have no apparent status, position, power, or relationship to anything outside; there is no narrative to infer so they float as exquisite specimens inviting study. The assumptions about portraiture, especially in photography, depend upon the belief that surfaces can somehow be made to articulate internal states, or at least that external realities might reveal something about the quality of one’s life. Character may be destiny but I am not at all convinced that Learoyd is interested in this convention. His figures remain inscrutable; we may wait for them to signify, perhaps feel a bit threatened by their refusal to perform the self, but we must let go of such expectations.
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.
This essay was originally published in the catalog, Richard Learoyd: Portraits and Figures, Mckee Gallery, 2011