The inviting distance of Learoyd’s portraits 

British photographer Richard Learoyd’s portrait series “Presences,” at the Fraenkel Galley though June 25, presents a collection of unsettling, slightly larger-than-life images that invite closeness while imposing a measured distance.

The photographs were made using a camera-obscura studio that Learoyd constructed. It consists of two spaces — one for the model facing a bank of lights and the other for photographic paper, with a lens connecting the rooms.

Each photograph is a unique direct-positive Ilfochrome print without a negative.

“These are photographs rather than photographic prints,” Learoyd says.

The results are stunningly detailed large portraits with a slender depth of field. The face and body of each sitter, mostly women before a neutral gray backdrop, becomes a landscape in itself, an expansively intimate and mesmerizing terrain. Many of the portraits are nudes, some with the model’s head hidden from view. A dozen of the show’s 14 photographs are portraits.

Learoyd, who lives in London, studied at the Glasgow School of Art under celebrated landscape photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper, a San Francisco native.

In a 2010 interview in Aperture magazine, Learoyd describes how he felt stifled with traditional landscape photography and began experimenting by taking portraits using the more direct and painstaking technique of the camera obscura, one of the oldest photography methods, which he said feels the most natural.

In the show catalog, he describes how he uses light to create his desired effect.

“I aspire to create the sensibility of window light with a drawn quality in the shadow areas,” Learoyd says. “At its best, the lighting should not evoke any sensation of time of day or enhance mood, rather it should simply be part of the picture.”

His photographs offer the promise of intimacy, a chance to study the pores, follicles and contours of a sitter’s features, and in doing so also reveal insurmountable barriers to capturing that intimacy.

The downward blank stare, the held stillness of many of the models push the viewer away as much as they invite closer examination. The photographs seem to reveal everything, but so much is still held back.

“The invitation to scrutinize another, which is undoubtedly in my work, inevitably highlights the loneliness of the soul and the depressing isolation of the human condition,” Learoyd says in the Aperture interview. “It is the opportunity to look without embarrassment — as we do with our children or lovers.”


Richard Learoyd’s ‘Presences’

Where: Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St., fourth floor, San Francisco
When: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays; closes June 25
Admission: Free
Contact: (415) 981-2661,

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Michael Howerton

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