Photographer Richard Learoyd speaks with curator Arpad Kovacs about his work in the exhibition Richard Learoyd: In the Studio and various aspects of his photographic techniques and materials. Recorded live at the Getty Center on August 31, 2016.
More to Explore
Richard Learoyd: In the Studio exhibition information
Embracing Imperfection: A Conversation with Richard Learoyd Q&A on the Iris
Fraenkel Gallery: Richard Learoyd artist’s biography and portfolios
Richard Learoyd: Day for Night book
ARPAD KOVACS: All right everyone, I think we’ll begin. Welcome, thanks for coming out on this Wednesday evening. My name is Arpad Kovacs, and I’m an assistant curator here in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the organizer of the exhibition, Richard Learoyd: In the Studio, and here is he, the man of the hour, Mr. Learoyd.
Mr. Learoyd studied photography with the landscape photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper at the Glasgow School of Art. Following his graduation he taught photography at the university level and also worked for many years as a commercial photographer. In 2004 he began working with a room-sized camera obscura that he constructed in his East London studio, a camera he has since revised several times. The follow year he bought a 50 inch Ilfochrome processing machine that he installed adjacent to the room-sized camera. Over the past ten years he’s been making color photographs in his studio that can be categorized in categories like figure studies, still lives, and portraiture, using Ilfochrome paper. That’s really the genesis, or the heart of the exhibition, here at the Getty Museum.
In 2015 Aperture, in association with Pier 24 Photography, published Richard Learoyd Day for Night, a comprehensive monograph of the artist’s color photographs made in his studio. In addition to examples in the collection of the Getty Museum, his work is included in permanent collections of public institutions like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Canada, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and Tate Modern in London.
Last year, the Victoria and Albert Museum mounted a monographic exhibition of his work, entitled Richard Learoyd: Dark Mirror. He has had several shows at commercial galleries, including at McKee Gallery in New York, Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, and most recently at Pace Gallery in New York.
The show here at the Getty is the first monographic exhibition of Richard’s work in an American museum.
Welcome, Richard, to Los Angeles.
RICHARD LEAROYD: Thank you very much.
ARPAD KOVACS: In fact, this is Richard’s first trip to Los Angeles, and what a way to come to a city, by having an exhibition and opening a show. We can get to that in a little bit, but I wanted to maybe start off with your interest in camera obscuras, and get a sense of when you became interested and how you sort of started working with them, the way that you work with them today.
RICHARD LEAROYD: I think first of all, I’d like to say thank you to everybody here at the Getty for putting me up, and you know, putting the pictures on the wall. It’s a real kick to be in your strange city, with something to do. You go to places most of the time and you don’t know what the hell, where to go, and what to do. The great thing about coming to a city like this when you’re, you know, you have a show or something, is that you get led around and you don’t have to think about what you’re doing or where you’re going. That’s been great because I wouldn’t have a clue where to go, and everyone here … Fresh from Frankle, and Olaf, they’ve looked after me and Arpad and everyone at the Getty, they’ve been really kind, and all you good folks for coming out. It’s a real pleasure.
I think that it’s a very strange thing to come to this incredible place and see your name next to a photograph that you made several years ago, and can hardly remember. The thing about the camera obscura work that I made was, it’s sort of part of a larger trajectory. I was born in Nelson Lancashire, which is pretty much the shittiest town that anyone could imagine. It’s an old cotton town, so you know, the architecture is large mills. Even when I was a kid, they were all abandoned. I become a sort of mature human being, sort of mature-ish, 16, 17, in a political time in the UK, when employment was an issue, the future seemed to be an issue as all the adverts on the TV were for duck and cover. I think you have it in this country, it’s you know, there was a real foreboding at that time.
For some reason, I don’t know why, I always felt like everything would be okay. I can’t really tell you why, but I always sort of thought it would be okay, and I put that down to my mother’s optimism. It’s an incredible thing to have a parent, a bunch of parents, they see that you’re interested in something, and with me it was photography, and they sort of allowed this stupidity to continue when … saying that my mother did apply for several jobs for me, in various engineering workshops and the Army, but I didn’t seem to manage to do that.
I became interested in photography, it was a very abstract thing. I looked at record covers. I’d go to the store and I’d flick through record covers. I’d think, well somebody has to do this. Somebody’s got to make these pictures, and why not me right? Why can’t I do that? I started off on an art education path which was, you know the English art school system was very liberal, and very, I can’t even think of the right word, but it was free, but informative at the time. I was allowed to go through it from what was called like a beginners course, and then you ended up at a University College. I went to Glasgow School of Art, which at the time was the only place you could study fine art photography in the UK. All the other courses and places were about documentary photography, and that didn’t seem to interest me.
One of the things that you were given was a studio. I got a studio, and I started making different cameras and I suppose that was the place that my initial interest in camera obscuras started, to answer your question more thoroughly than you probably wanted me to.
ARPAD KOVACS: No, that was fantastic. You said just now that that’s where you got a studio and that’s sort of where you started to work out ideas or play around with cameras, and photography. How did Thomas Joshua Cooper’s landscape photography influence you, or were you aware of what he was doing? Was he showing his work to students?
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah, Mr. Cooper was an active, proper artist. He was represented I think at the time by Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, and despite him being a teacher he was actively involved in an art world. Because of that, we’d have various artists drift through the college that were like, real artists. They were friends of his, and Louis Baltz, and Donald Judd, a bunch of other people. The contact with those people was really informative. I really think that at the time, I got to cast, I can’t even remember when it was, ’82, ’83, debates about his photography art in the UK was still pretty alive. People hadn’t quite made their mind up. Photography was a very marginal thing. When I left college I was a photographic artist by name because I got a piece of paper that said yes, Richard Learoyd is a photographic artist, which is about as useful as a chocolate screwdriver. It’s really not a good thing.
ARPAD KOVACS: Fantastic metaphor.
RICHARD LEAROYD: I think that with me, it sort of, again, I always thought it would sort of work out. I had an idea that persistence was a good thing. I tell this as a joke to people, I say, I’m mono-skilled. I went to school before there was a computer on the table, I’ve got some facility for that sort of stuff, but not much. Photography, since I was 16, has always been a fascination. I’ve been involved, lucky enough in my life to be involved in it pretty continually. I’ve never, when I was young I had jobs digging holes and stuff, but I never, I’ve always been lucky enough to be able to continue that feeding, that fascination, in different ways which I consider to be a privilege, just lucky of the time. The art school thing was definitely a root. It was really, it was a good anchor point to move from.
ARPAD KOVACS: Then you had a commercial practice for a few years.
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah, bottles of beer and pretty ladies. Yeah. I think that people are very scathing about commercial photography, especially the art world, but for me it was always necessity. I needed to make a living and the idea of selling a photograph was so far removed that you needed to do something and I think a lot of people in this room, maybe people take pictures, people are involved in photography, I can take a good picture. I can point my thing and make a decent photograph, and that’s all commercial photography is about a lot of the time. It’s not a mode of expression particularly, though I think it can be. I’m not scathing about that. I think it’s just applying a visual sensibility to somebody else’s problem. I had a great time.
I think it did it all in all for maybe six, seven years. It just wore thin with me, you know. I was lucky enough from that situation to make some money, because commercial photography is reasonably well paid, to be able to indulge my interest, which was photography. A lot of photographers indulge their interests, which is motor sport, or this, that, and the other, and I took up photography. It was a very, it was a fortunate situation. All these things, it’s like, why do you do something? Half the time you don’t know, you just do it right? You find yourself in a situation where you know the … I said one thing that was interesting is when I was a commercial photographer, sometimes I’d have to go and photograph events. You go around and there’d be some guy and you’re thinking, jeez, he’s not so special. I don’t know, it’s weird what motivates people to do things.
I did, I literally, had a commercial photographic studio on one floor of a building, and then I built another environment to sort of feed my personal obsessions. I suppose I decided to take up the last interesting thing that I did, and when I left art school I did various things and I was working with camera obscuras and I thought, well, I’ll just pick up where I left. In that time, all the time working as a commercial photographer, I became very technically apt because you sort of have to, or I had to at the time. I used the set of skills, the experiences that I had with that to do with knowledge about lighting and lenses and optics and materials, to apply to the artwork that I was making.
ARPAD KOVACS: You mentioned in an interview several years ago that you had started photographing your meteorite collection, or that was sort of the beginning of what you then continued to refine and what we sort of see on the walls right now. How did you refine the process and what made those pictures, those initial pictures, unsuccessful in your eyes?
RICHARD LEAROYD: I don’t feel that, I think that photography, if you look through the history of photography, going back, I’m quite interested in nineteenth century photography, and photography in general, but I think there’s a type of photography which is it has a spirit of invention, if you know what I mean. The idea of the “did it come out” school of photography, and with this process it wasn’t a sort of try before you buy situation. It was like, okay, I have an idea, I can make this really large camera, and I can use this material, and I can make these images that look something like this. To do that, you have to build everything. You have to buy a 50 inch cibachorme machine, you’ve got to buy all these materials and chemicals, spend six months setting it all up, and then after all that effort you get to press a button to see if anything works. And believe me, it didn’t.
To the other side of that, I didn’t care. There was no deadline. I was doing this with no expectation of any … I wasn’t looking for this great art career. I was just looking to do something interesting than photographing glistening bottles. It was this freedom that an art education had allowed me, with a technical background that commercial photography had allowed me being applied to doing something for myself, if you know what I mean by that. I mean, more than just the technical things and the physical things, it was the conceptual idea.
I felt very restricted when I was at art school. I was trying to make work to match other people’s expectations because I was a kid. I was looking to impress people maybe, or impress my tutors, or make work that slipped into a sort of current genre, catch the zeitgeist, whatever you want to call it. When you’re working in a hole, for fun, or for satisfaction in some way, you don’t have to please anybody. I think I promised myself when I started this thing, I was only going to do what I was interested in. I sort of, I’ve tried to stay reasonably true to that for the duration, for the last 12 years.
ARPAD KOVACS: How long did it take you to sort of reach a point where you were sort of satisfied with the results?
RICHARD LEAROYD: I made this camera, and effectively it’s two rooms with a lens in between. The best way to imagine it is just a very large camera that you happen to walk into rather than move around and point at someone. I didn’t think it would be a portrait tool for sure, I thought it would be a still life camera. Like a lot of people that get involved in the technical sides of things, it was, you do things and you make it work and then you go, okay, now what? It’s like camera guys, you know the camera club guys, they buy all these really expensive cameras and then they take pictures of brick walls to see how sharp their lenses are. Believe me, I don’t have a problem with that. I think it’s sort of interesting, it all has a place. Giving yourself the opportunities and time to think about what you might do with it is also pretty important. No one was asking me. Nobody was saying, “Did you make a great picture this week, Richard?”
I was working with the commercial assistants that I had on another floor and I was just taking photographs, or trying. They were very raw. The level of sophistication of the imagery probably took two or three years before I got the pictures that were, I don’t know, resonate to me, and maybe would resonate with other people.
ARPAD KOVACS: You mentioned just a moment ago that you initially thought that would be a camera made for still lives, more so than portraiture, and I do want to talk about portraiture but before I do, I want to talk about this picture that’s up right now, the mirror. You’ve been photographing antique mirrors for several years, one of the first subjects that sort of drew your attention. What about, and I have to say I love, I absolutely love that picture, what about that subject sort of drew you in?
RICHARD LEAROYD: It’s very simple. I lived in a house in Black Heath at the time, with my family. On one side of my bed I had a mirror, and on the other side of my bed I had another mirror. It wasn’t kinky or anything, they were just mirrors from my, they were, you know, I think one was Kate, my wife’s, family’s somewhere, and one was … you look at something and you go well, why not? It was there. I spent all summer driving around eastern Europe looking for things to photograph. It’s really a sort of strategy issue. All the time when you’re looking for pictures, be it in the studio, or be it outdoors, you know that everything that you need to photograph is within 100 feet of you, but you have to go out and look for it. Sometimes it’s better to look close than it is to look further away. It’s as simple as that.
When I started working with mirrors it was, you know, there’s resonances with the history of photography, you know, there’s a lot of metaphors I suppose they are, between mirrors and photographs and images and photographs. In my process, because it’s an uncorrected process, most photographs are taken with prisms or mirrors so that they people are how you see them, not how the person who’s photographed sees themselves in a mirror. There was an identification there. Also, with that particular image it was the idea of just looking clearly at something. A mirror has a function, and if you deny that function you deceit it. It’s about a sort of clarity of vision. Also, you know, there’s quite, it sort of looks like a night sky right? There’s various other photographers who’ve made images of night skies by acquiring images, and it’s sort of a little message saying “Look little harder, guys.”
ARPAD KOVACS: Which I think is exactly why this image is so spectacular, and it’s all of that. It’s you sort of managing to negate the function of the mirror, it’s no longer reflecting back and it’s sort of conveying something very different.
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah. All these things, I’ve not photographed a mirror in a good number of years because I’ve not found one that’s sort of appealed, but … Also, it’s incredibly difficult to do. this process. You look at those pictures in the gallery downstairs, they’re incredibly difficult to make. Every time, I periodically stop and I have to start again for various reasons, and every time I’m about to turn the machinery on and put everything back together I’m sort of filled with dread, you know, because there’s so many things to go wrong, technically, to do with processing, to do with everything else that it really does sort of fill me with fear. It’s a very rewarding process. How it works is basically you’ve got the personal thing that you’re going to photograph. You press the button. You push the paper through a photographic machine, it comes out 18 minutes later, and it’s either done and great, or terrible. It’s not, there’s no lag. There’s no print-making process. A lot of photographers will make prints and they’ll do dodging and burning and there’s waiting in between. With this it’s sort of more akin to a Polaroid almost.
ARPAD KOVACS: So there’s direct positives.
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah, so it’s really rewarding because you get to do something quite quickly, but it’s also incredibly infuriating because there’s a lot to go wrong. One of my [qualms] about digital photography, if I have, I’m not averse to digital processes, it’s how does it work? It’s amazing right? What I saw at the end of my commercial practice where I was using digital photographs, is it becomes about editing all the time. You end up making so many thousands of images or hundreds of images and you’re sort of going through this editing process saying, well this is a little better than that, or maybe we can join this with that picture. With this process it’s always about a series of making, it’s always about a decision making process. You’re photographing somebody and you’re making changes to the image because you actually get to, you see the image very quickly and you can make those adjustments. That’s the process. Instead of making 20 pictures and deciding which is the best one, you’re actually working towards a more definitive image for that time.
ARPAD KOVACS: So this leads me to a question about planning. How spontaneous are the pictures versus are they, do you spend a lot of time thinking about how to construct a scene, whether it’s a still life or a portrait, and then try to execute that plan or do you, or are you a bit more spontaneous in your approach?
RICHARD LEAROYD: You know for pictures that are very put together they’re as spontaneous as they can be. You know, when you work in the studio, and you know, all these pictures they’ve got a sort of gray background. It’s actually just a white wall, that’s all it is. You have to bring things to that white wall, so you know you talk about a set, the set is a white wall. You make a decision that you want to photograph this person, you make a decision about how they’re going to be, and I go through various strategies. I used to play one record really loud in my car on the way to the studio to stop myself thinking about what I was going to do because I think quite often I have a habit of trying to frustrate myself with this pre-visualization and I try to sort thwart that by drowning it out with Gary Gilmore’s Eyes was the record I used to listen to.
In other words, you can’t help yourself. You can’t help yourself. Because of the technical issues and because of the things, it becomes, it’s an evolution of a photograph rather than a sort of planned thing. You start off in one place … The way that I do it is I always try and give myself something to look at very quickly. I get people in the studio at 10:30, 11:00 in the morning, and then I’ll do something very quickly and then I’ll use that as a sort of point to move away from. Occasionally I’ve moved back to the photograph I’ve made at 10:30 or 11:00 in the morning. It depends on where you go. A lot of the time it’s just the nuances of the position. The nuances of the sort of hand gestures of people.
Everyone in this room is incredibly sophisticated at reading pictures, reading photographs of other people. I can’t pull the wool over your eyes, because you’ve seen a million people, you’ve seen a million pictures of people. You are the audience, you are the people that look at the photographs. You know whether somebody’s a little squinty, or whether they’re blinking, or whether they’re actually thinking about what they’re going to have for their tea. The level of sophistication of the audience is something that I never underestimate. Never, never, never. Some people have the ability to project out of photographic frame, and some people don’t. I’m sure there’s maybe people here in the movie industry, and you know, there’s some people you point a camera at and there’s a projection, and they can, there’s something of themselves that comes over, and there’s some people who are just speaking the words.
ARPAD KOVACS: So that actually leads to the question about the figurative work, working with models. A year or two after you started working with still lives you began working with models. I wanted to know if you could talk a little bit about how do you, what compels you to bring people back as opposed to having one sitting and then … ?
RICHARD LEAROYD: Initially I’d photograph the same people over and over again because they were available. The people that you see in these photographs, not so much now, but more in the first sort of five or six, seven years of this process, they were people that were just around in my life. My studio is in east London, east London’s a sort of hip place to be. It used to be a lot of artists around there, not so much now. These were friends of assistants. They were girls that my assistant liked, they were friends of friends. It was basically anybody that would turn up. There’s a lot of photographs that were really, really made genuinely made, just to try out some lighting, just to try out a lens, just to try out things that were happening. There’s something about some people in photographs. It’s very hard to define.
I can make a technically beautiful photograph, but the projection, the serendipitous nature of that instant and the person, the person, the real person decides to be in that photograph. It is a decision. They decide who they’re going to be. You’re sat in the dark, it’s very warm, you’ve just had this huge 4K Tungsten light blaring at you, which is a modeling light. The lights go down, I disappear into another room, and you’ve maybe three or four minutes to decide, okay who he’s going to take a picture of. I don’t’ know what people think, but some people think things or do things which make them appear to be more than that present moment would sort of seem.
ARPAD KOVACS: So you can actually tell the difference between the person who you’re just having a tea with, and then they get in front of the lens and it’s three minutes before you’re making the exposure, and they’re not the same person, they don’t project the same.
RICHARD LEAROYD: No, what I’m saying is that some people have the ability to project and some people don’t. I brought people to the studio who are, look incredible. They are walking down the street and you go wow, you’ve got a real, there’s something to you. Then you put them in front of a camera and they’re like an empty bowl. It’s not their fault, it really isn’t. It’s not a fault issue. It’s just, okay, well, we don’t do that again. I’m very nice. I carry on and take a couple pictures and say it looks great and then roll it up, thank you very much. That goes back to the root of it, of what does it do? What do these pictures do? What does this projection mean? What are these photographs actually saying? How do they communicate with the people who are looking at them? Those are actually the interesting issues that make photography intersecting. It’s always my decision. I like it that way. A lot of the people that I’m photographing just don’t give a hoot. They’ll look at the photograph and they’ll go, yeah I look a bit weird in that one.
I don’t really want people to engage with the process too much. I want people to be a participant. I photograph people who have had a real interest in the process, so they come to me and they say, “Will you photograph me?” I look and it’s like, okay we’ll try. There’s something about that engagement which precludes it. There’s two sides, there’s their willingness to engage and my willingness to photograph them. Strangely enough, I meet these people, I photographed somebody quite obsessively for a period of time because I’m getting something and I’m getting somewhere. They talk to you when you’re waiting the 18 minutes for the photograph to come, you know how their boyfriend is, you know who their girlfriend is, you know where they live, you know let’s have a drink after work and it’s nice, and after six months, a year, they’re your friends. Then I don’t want to photograph them anymore. I’ve got no interest. It just sort of drifts away.
ARPAD KOVACS: So the familiarity then distances you from being able to …
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah, I don’t know why that is, it seems a little weird right? I really don’t know why that is. It just sort of dwindles and I think it’s because you’re then trying to make people into something that you think that they are. Whereas, most of the of the time you’re just, it’s like with Julie. I photographed Julie on one day and I didn’t see her again. Julie came to me, Julie is the larger lady. She came to me through a friend who ran life drawing class and she was attending the life drawing class and drawing, and he was talking to her about me and my work when she said well I’d really like to know what I look like. She was really interested in that way. That was one of the few times that somebody actually came to me in something actually worked.
There’s no rules to it.
ARPAD KOVACS: Yeah. Actually, speaking about Julie, I also wanted to ask whether painters like Lucian Freud or Bacon sort, whether their work goes through your mind while making any of your photographs?
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah, you know my influences, which are many and varied, I know a little about about the history of photography. I wouldn’t say I’m a voracious consumer of photographs or paintings. I think some artists, they’re really looking all the time. That’s not me. I’m really very involved in what I’m doing. I think sometimes you think maybe Richard, you’re being stupid, you just think they’re going to pollute you or something ridiculous. When I do go to art gallery, people in this room will tell you, I can go through a museum quicker than anybody. I enjoy it. I do find it, being in the presence of really great artwork incredibly rewarding, but it’s not rewarding in a sort of food level. It’s more rewarding just in, oh it’s actually sort of worthwhile trying. Do you know what I mean? You look at these people who have done these great things and you think well, a, it all looks pretty simple when it’s done right? You know you walk around and you look at a lot of paintings, and you think, well I could do that.
ARPAD KOVACS: I’m not sure I could.
RICHARD LEAROYD: I think it’s just a reasonable way to think about a lot of art sometimes. Then you look at the resonance of the objects and then you realize why they floated to the top. You go through these great museums, and even though some of it seems a little, at first, a little weird, there’s a reason why these things sort of float. That’s inspiring. That’s inspiring. I like it, I just don’t do it all the time. I’ve got a very simple life. Well, I try to. I get up, get on a train, I go to the studio, and I try to make some work. It’s always difficult, it’s never easy.
ARPAD KOVACS: I wanted to ask about the paper that you use.
RICHARD LEAROYD: The materials.
ARPAD KOVACS: The materials.
RICHARD LEAROYD: That’s all done.
ARPAD KOVACS: Ilfochrome paper and the chemistry was discontinued in 2011, so there’s a finite amount of material to be used to create this work. Could you speak a little bit about how you’ll continue?
RICHARD LEAROYD: This was one of the last great photographic materials and the factory that made it went bust. The company was bought by a couple of British hedge-funders who stripped it of it’s profitable element. It’s business, right? Then left it slightly high and dry with a very much unprofitable element, which was this Ilfochrome paper. They also used to make inkjet paper for the consumer market, and as everyone in this room knows, we don’t’ do that anymore. People just don’t print out their pictures from their phones or their cameras very much. That business just failed. There were several opportunities to see this coming. I always took them. I suppose I loved it. I suppose there was something in me that I just love the process. I still do even though it’s difficult. I was really concerned about being able to carry on doing it.
I’ve got a freezer in a farm in Wiltshire with 100 30-meter rolls of paper, which it’s a calculation, how much do you think, how many photographs do you think you can make and the amount of time it takes before the material dies? So in a freezer you’ve got maybe 12 to 15 years, combined with the amount of chemistry that you need to process that paper, and then the life expectancy of that chemistry. The chemistry doesn’t last as long as the paper, but interestingly enough, I got Ilford in the very last breath, which was a year or two ago, to supply me chemistry with the fugitive elements in a powdered form rather than a liquid form, so that gives me another … I could probably do it for ten to 12 years. Yeah. It seems like everything I touch just disappears.
ARPAD KOVACS: Well you have also been making gelatin silver prints with a mobile version of your camera obscura, which those examples are not on view in the gallery. They’re fantastically ambitious and beautiful pictures, because you contact print them. Correct? So they are in scale the same size as the pictures in the gallery, so the negative is the same size as the pictures in the gallery and he’s contact printing to create gelatin silver prints. Could you talk a little bit about the decision to try that out?
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah, I think it was a fantasy. When you’re stuck in the studio for 10 years, you want to get out. It’s as simple as that. I really at one point was really wanted to fight the label of “the guy with the big camera”, it just gets a bit irritating and you think well, I … but then you realize actually it’s your nature. There’s something about working with things and cameras and things of a certain scale that’s just me. It’s how I think. I went on this trip recently to eastern Europe. I took all these other cameras, I took a 5×4 camera, I took a 20×24 camera, and I took this small camera, I did nothing. I actually took a picture of an elephant with a 5×4 camera and it hooted at me and scared me. Literally.
I just realized at the minute, I just don’t have interest in it. I don’t have that as a way of seeing, it just isn’t me. I look at something and think about it and I’m so tuned into the way that those optics, those materials work, that it’s taken me so long to understated at least something about it, that that’s just the way I think about things. I’m not fighting it anymore, I’ll see what comes in the future but I’m going to try not to fight it.
ARPAD KOVACS: How has the transition been moving from the studio back outdoors and has that… ?
RICHARD LEAROYD: It’s hard. Everything is hard. I think that you know, I think when you’re trying to do something that’s incredibly personal, you know these photographs they’re not, none of them are easy to come by for me. None of them are easy to make. When you’re actually, you’ve got all the history of photography swirling around your mind, and what’s good and what’s bad and what matches this and what is relevant and how does this work, and then you have to ditch it all, and go I’m just going to do what I’m going to do.
The process is incredibly enlivening and one minutes you wake up and you think, I’m the greatest photographer alive, and I can do this and I can put this show on with 50 pictures and it’s all easy, and I’m going to do it, and then it’s like oh I don’t know what the hell to do. You go through these, everyone’s the same. It’s like ultra-confidence that gives you the ambition to ultra-nervousness about the thing that you’re doing. I’m speaking very honestly here because we’re friends right? There’s no, I’m not a factory artist. There’s artists that say this week, naming no names, we’re going to paint spots.
ARPAD KOVACS: No names.
RICHARD LEAROYD: No, but that’s just not me. I’m trying to mine this other soul, this other … deal with these larger issues. Who are we are in this world? What is our relationship to others? Do others even exist? Where am I? We’re all going to die. Those sort of issues that seem like it’s glib right, but at the same time you go to sleep at night and you wake up at 4:00 in the morning, the day is not the night, that’s what my father tells me. It’s true. Everybody has fears, everybody has anxieties, everybody has these … you know …
I just turned 50. It was my fiftieth birthday a week or two ago. I was fine with 50, 60 is going to be a problem. I can tell you, I can feel it coming. I don’t want to die, God we had a deal. I think when your mining, your trolling through things that are personal, it’s a personal point of view, how can you make something that effects other people? I do like to effect other people. The whole point of using these big cameras and all this stuff isn’t just for fun, it’s because the pictures and the objects, the things that are made, actually are intriguing to look at. Maybe, an intrigue can lead to an enigma. An enigma is something, a reason you can’t quite understand, and maybe that lack of understanding or what am I looking at can sort of make people ingest something of themselves, and project out in a more humanistic way. That’s the idea of art right? Is that? I don’t know.
ARPAD KOVACS: Well, on the note of big question, that’s a big question. Maybe we should open up the questions to the audience, I think we have some time left for questions.
RICHARD LEAROYD: We’re not done yet.
ARPAD KOVACS: Yes? John? Please.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: First of all, I love the show, I loved the show to begin, and I love have a presented in a different way that makes it look completely different. My question is actually about something completely different. Your camera is stationary and so is the subject matter. What I love is seeing in one of your pictures, is the headroom, the space above the head changes dramatically depending on who or what it is? Is that frustrating? Do you ever think, like oh my God, I had to put a lower, I should have put a higher, or a left or right? You’re always centered, mostly like the paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries, who were also, they give a lot of headroom to subject matters so that the environment could influence and tell about the character.
RICHARD LEAROYD: I think that what you’ve got to remember about these pictures is that every millimeter of the positioning of a person is something that I’ve spent time working on, and the reason, it’s sort of like what makes somebody … My feeling is that sometimes the weight of that negative space above the person adds to the projection of volume. With some people they don’t need it so much, and with other people there’s this sort of necessity to squash them a little bit somehow.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: Agnes in Red. The one with the note and the red one, so she has hardly any headroom, obviously she’s not here, but it’s basically all about her and her body, no?
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: Do I see that wrong?
RICHARD LEAROYD: The big picture of Agnes?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: Yeah, she has very little.
RICHARD LEAROYD: Very little. You know, that picture has ping-ponged around the world, it’s actually one of my favorite pictures. There’s something to it that I like. I put it in … It was in the ICP Tri-annual Exhibition, and I had my first show in New York at the time, and David McKee wanted it in his show, and then eventually he conceded and he goes to the ICP. He wants the ICP to buy it, the ICP, yeah we want to buy it, didn’t buy it. Somebody else wanted to buy it, eventually we sold to some guy in Miami. He then sells every photograph he has because he decides he doesn’t want, he wants something else, he’s not collecting photography anymore, and it comes back and David gets it and Jeffrey gets it. I can’t tell you how happy I am that that pictures is there. On the day I made it she was so angry at me for putting her in that red dress. She said, “I look like a little girl”, and I said, “No, you look just like yourself.”
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: It’s an amazing picture. So, how much are you able to change that position, because the position of the positive paper is, can you move it up and down a little bit?
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah, yeah.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: So that basically determines the framing?
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah, you’ve got a lot of opportunities. When you photograph somebody on a picture that scale, if you want them to appear life size in a photograph, you have to make them one and a quarter size life time, because otherwise people read them as being small. People are smaller than you think on photographs. On that picture she’s probably nearly twice as big. People go, that’s a nice life size picture of Agnes. She’d be like 12 foot tall if she stood up. Like I was saying before, everyone’s incredibly sophisticated reading all these things, except scale. They can’t do it. I can’t do it. It’s a real illusion.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: I have a million questions but I cannot talk the whole time.
RICHARD LEAROYD: Anybody else?
ARPAD KOVACS: There’s a question right here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: How do these images get over, were this framed over here? Did you roll them up and send them out?
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah, I just put them in a golf bag and put them to FedEx. At one time that was true, believe me, now quite often they’re sometimes framed in London and they move around the world, and they’re shipped around, but a lot of the time now I’m working with Frish and Jeffrey at Fraenkel Gallery and they’re framed in San Francisco and it’s easy to get them from here to here. They’re big things, yeah.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: These are mounted on something, aluminum something?
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah, cibachrome paper is basically a four dye emulsion with a black and white photograph on top of it that’s lost in the process. It’s on a base which was made by DuPont which is an inert plastic base. They have an inert plastic adhesive, and they go on to aluminum. These photographs look much, much, for me they look better when they’re flat, and that’s the reason why I go through that process. When they’re flat, the reflections are predictable. When you see them in the studio when they’re rolled up, they’re all over the place. They’re much more difficult to look at.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 5: Hi, this question is partly out of curiosity and ignorance. So you said the process takes about 18 minutes for them? Purely out of what I know from photography, the shutter, or the actual exposure, how long is it, and how do you make them sit still, and what is the process of engage them to get to that moment?
RICHARD LEAROYD: The way that the camera works is it has a height adjustment for the lens, so the lens can move up and down. The board that the material is on, the sensitive photograph material, which is in the dark, can move backwards and forwards to focus the image. More often than that, I don’t focus the camera using that, I only use that to change the scale. The further away the material is from the lens, the more magnified the image is, so the bigger the person is in the image. You move the person to focus them and the image. I poke a stick in their eye on a stand, literally. It’s a pen on a stick. I poke it in their eye, and just before I’m about to make the exposure I’ll whip it away. You think about trying to look soulful, as somebody … or whatever it is, when someone’s got a pen in your eye and whipping it away.
The exposure is made out of flash. The shutter’s actually just open. The material is three ASA. It’s not sensitive to light, particularly. There’s about 24,0000 joules of flash light that falls onto the person. There’s a lot of flash and all the lighting I designed and made myself to a degree, so that it … I made the light sources to mimic a sense of daylight, or a window light, like a lot of photographers do. It’s just hard to do when you’re dealing with such large amounts of light in such a small space. Anyone whose been to my studio, it’s not big. The distance from the person is from the lens is this big. There’s not a lot of, everything is quite tight. Everything is quite tight. You literally flash the paper, you walk around the little corridor, push it in the machine, bing, bong, bing, it’s either done or it isn’t. That’s the way it works.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: Thank you very much, I very much admire you work and in your talk you were talking about the different periods in your work, that you made also commercial photography.
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yup.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: If I was looking for your work, could I also find these photographs?
RICHARD LEAROYD: The commercial photographs?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: Yeah.
RICHARD LEAROYD: I don’t know. You know, the thing with commercial photography is it has a real life span, right? It has a … I suppose the only stuff that you’d probably find would be, I made a cookbook for my friend who runs a restaurant in London. That’s still for sale. Yeah. He invited me around to dinner the other week and asked if I’d do another one. I was like … not got the time, sorry. Commercial photography, I’ve got no prejudice. I was actually speaking to the photographer here, he works here at the Getty, when I was outside a while ago. She spends a lot of time making pictures of pictures. That’s difficult. Being a wedding photographer, that’s the hardest. Anybody who can make a penny out of pressing a button is doing pretty well. I don’t really have any prejudice for that.
I’m really interested in the medium I’m general. I’ve got a lot of fascinations within that area. I go and speak to students and they go, we want to do what you do, it’s great. You go, you can’t, because you don’t have a 15 cibachrome paper, the material doesn’t exist, you can’t buy the lenses, it’s all over baby. People have to find their own way. I think photography is, there’s always these period of invention with in, usually to do with technology. They were photographing street scenes and you couldn’t see anybody 150 years ago. Now, you can photograph anything you like. It’s incredible, it’s just what you do with it. That’s the thing. I don’t know, it’s going to be an interesting future.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 7: How are decisions made about what the model wears?
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah, I do that. Yeah. You know for years, when I first started doing this, I’d just get people to come to the studio, and I’d say, “Bring some clothes.” I’ve maybe photographed Agnes 20 or 30 times over the years, and I sort of know, she’s a young person, they don’t buy clothes. Once you photographed them wearing something once, you’re not going to … so I started buying things for people. My studio is just off Brick Lane in London, and there’s a big trade in what they describe as vintage clothing, which is just rags really. They’re fret-itinerant French people charging you 50 pounds for something that really just fell off the back of a wagon.
I do make selection, and I chose things for very specific reasons. The choices of fabrics, some fabrics with this process will photograph incredibly well. The detail level that’s achievable with lenses, you can see every stitch. It’s not about a texture, it’s about a weave. When you go down to those sort of tiny details, it becomes quite interesting. Also, I’m not interested in Nike, branding. I don’t want to label people as this place in time too immediately. I like the contemporary nature of the portraits to seep through through a different wreathing.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 8: Can you talk about the lenses?
RICHARD LEAROYD: The lenses. Yeah. I’m an obsessive lens collector. I’ve been really lucky because I’ve managed over the years to get optics that work for me and the particular types of lenses I use in the studio are described as being terrible, if you read all the lens forums. They work for me. They’re made by, what was it on the east German side of the Zeiss factory, by Mr. Docter, and they’re thousand millimeter, 750 millimeter lenses.
For the size of the images, they’re incredibly wide angle. These photographs are actually incredibly wide angle photographs, but they don’t have any of the qualities of wide angle photographs because they’ve got very narrow depth of field, and there’s no distortion. When you look at it, you’re sort of looking up and looking down, but people are tuned into a 35 mil version of a wide angle image, you know like a picture of a hotel room that you get there, it’s like a lot smaller than you thought it was. These lenses have that quality with none of, have the wide angle view with none of the associated issues, if you like. They’re multi-coated lenses and I do various bits and pieces to make them work for me.
ARPAD KOVACS: I think Stephanie has a question.
STEPHANIE: Hi Arpi. Thank you for bringing your show here Richard, and yourself. You might have talked about this at the beginning, I missed the very beginning of the talk, do you ever experiment with multiple exposure, or can you do that with this, with your process?
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah. I’ve always had a … I think like a lot of people, they have key images in their memories. A lot of the images I remember were from when I was young and interested in photography, buying magazines like Camera Austria, and things like that. There’s a really great picture, Frederick Sommer image that I presume is a double exposure. Frish would know better than me, is it? I’ve tried it, never found a way to work with it for me. I’ve never excluded that possibility. Yeah. There’s a lot of stuff I can do. You’ve just got to find the time to do it. I’m a very, I try to experiment as much as I can, but some things just don’t work. Yeah.
ARPAD KOVACS: Have you made a self-portrait?
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 10: I didn’t hear the question.
ARPAD KOVACS: I asked whether he’s made a self-portrait.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 10: Oh.
RICHARD LEAROYD: Yeah, yeah. I photograph my assistants. It’s one of those things, it’s hard to do yourself. If I’m here I can’t be there. There’s a bit of a problem there. Plus, I’m 50 … I do have an issue with it.
ARPAD KOVACS: Any other questions? One more.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 11: Can you talk about those ships masts?
RICHARD LEAROYD: Oh yeah.
ARPAD KOVACS: We didn’t talk about that actually, thank you for bringing that up.
RICHARD LEAROYD: Well, yeah, I’ve got to find this image, I can show you. We were talking before about the movement from indoors and outdoors. There was two or three things that made me want to build a camera that could photograph outdoors. One of them, let me find it. I’ve got to search. I fell asleep on a train, and ended up right at the end of the line in Portsmouth. I don’t know if anyone’s ever been to Portsmouth, but right at the end of Portsmouth you’ve got the HMS Victory, which is Nelson’s ship. I’ve got to put Portsmouth in my phone now. There you go, Portsmouth. There it is.
It was the end of the day, and I had to wait to get a tray. I took that picture of the ship on my phone. It just sort of stuck with me, there was something about it I really liked. I thought well, I’m going to build a camera and I’m going to take that picture. I’m going to make that photograph. It took a long time, you know, building cameras like that, it was a lot of problems, and I built the camera, then I drove down to Portsmouth, and they’d taken all the rigging down off the ship for renovation. This is serious. I was like, okay, that’s a bit of a problem. I was in touch with the people in the renovation process. They said it’s going to be a year and a half, I was like well, I can wait a year and a half, that’s fine. I’m pretty patient as a rule. Then the guy who was working on the renovation process died, and the renovation all of a sudden from a year and a half went into like four or five years, so I made my own.
What can I say? The picture is called “I just couldn’t wait”. Eventually, I will get to make that photograph. They’re working from literally hundreds of thousands of photographs to put it all back. Imagine trying to put the rigging back on that eighteenth century ship. It’s pretty incredible. That seems a little glib too. There’s something about that image that just, it sort of does it for me. A lot of people don’t like it but for me I find it very resonate somehow. The idea of, I made it out of cotton which is a material that I’ve used a lot in the studio, I like to use very simple materials. It was a process.
ARPAD KOVACS: But it’s a really ingenious model, because it’s really four pieces of wood, that you made into a rectangle, and then there are hooks on all four sides, and then …
RICHARD LEAROYD: I worked with a guy called Andy McGregor, he’s a model maker. He was helpful to a degree. Yeah. In those books that are in the show, you go through quite a lot of them, and there’s quite a few pictures of that ship, and I was drawing on the things and it was a very difficult photograph to make. It was really hard. I like it, there’s something I really enjoy about it.
ARPAD KOVACS: So maybe one more thing before we warp up is just say a few words about those books, because we haven’t actually mentioned them at all this evening.
RICHARD LEAROYD: I know you don’t want to do it, but I think you should maybe one day do a ceremonial page turning, you’re just looking at me like (laughs). Just to give, if anyone’s interested, just to give them a look through, because they’re basically diaries. I make photographs, and sometimes there’s a really great bend in the photograph, or there’s problems other where, I cut them out. Sometimes it’s people that I’ve only, I’ve told you about photographing people that don’t … I like a diary picture of the things that I’ve done, and other times they’re just these random tests to do with everything else. They’re not failures, they’re notes. Some of them are actually really beautiful photographs and it’d be worth giving people the opportunity to look. They’re just different. It’s a way of collating a lot of experiences together in one place. I’ve got a pathological hatred of big books, that big Helmut Newton book, hate it. I hate it. It’s stupid. Then I find myself making really big books, you know it’s like there you go. That’s the way it is. Hey but look, you’ve been really kind. Thanks for everything.
ARPAD KOVACS: Thank you very much.
RICHARD LEAROYD: That it?
ARPAD KOVACS: Thank you, that’s it.
ARPAD KOVACS: All right everyone, I think we’ll begin. Welcome, thanks for coming out on this Wednesday evening. My name is Arpad Kovacs, and I’m an assistant curator here in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the organizer of the exhibition, Richard Learoyd...
Comments on this post are now closed.