New York Photo Review
Volume 2 Issue 37 October 25 to 31, 2011

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Soho Photo Gallery
Central Booking Magazine

The End of an Era
Richard Learoyd
Portraits and Figures
Don Burmeister
The End of Youth by Richard Learoyd. Source: mckeegallery.com
Richard Learoyd, "The End of Youth" 2010

Before this review takes a turn into deep photo-geekdom, let me just say that these are gorgeous photographs. Richard Learoyd has combined a rather arcane process with expert control of lighting, color, models, and posing to produce portraits as vital as any you will ever encounter! At the end of the era of analog color photography, they are a final burst of glory.

So what is this arcane process? The camera obscura. It, you may recall, is just a dark room or box with a small hole on one side to let light in. It has always been used in photography because every ‘camera’ from wet-plates to digital, is a small ‘camera obscura’. In it the light projects onto the opposite wall and creates an inverted image of the scene outside. An effect that has been known since antiquity, or at least since the Renaissance, it has more recently been used for a more contemporary effect. Vera Lutter, for instance, creates large landscapes by covering the walls of darkened rooms with rolls of black and white photo paper. The resulting negative images come from the conventional black and white paper she uses, designed to create prints from negatives. Abelardo Morell also creates camera obscura rooms, but he then photographs the projection with a conventional camera, creating an image that includes both the projection and all the articles in the room.

Survivor by Richard Learoyd. Source: mckeegallery.com
Richard Learoyd, "Survivor" 2011

Richard Learoyd goes a step forward and uses Ilfochrome (née Cibachrome) positive color paper to make direct, life-sized prints from camera obscura projections, the light traveling directly from model to print with no intermediaries. The technical details are daunting. Along with color balance, controlling the sheer amount of light needed to make proper exposures are major hurdles. In the darkroom, exposures of a minute or more are needed to expose Cibachrome paper. The details in these prints are crisp, so exposures would probably need to be a second or less, requiring really, really bright strobe lights on the models. The Cibachrome paper can be processed almost immediately, but this still means 10 to 15 minutes pass before adjustments can be made for the next exposure. Then there are the variables of model pose and expression. One and two full-day sessions with each model are apparently not unusual. (A short article about Learoyd with a picture of his camera set-up can be found here.)

The exhibition at McKee gallery is stunning, and one is almost not taken aback when you see that each image is offered for $45,000. It is a rather cheap irony that the 1% would spend that much money for a picture of someone from the lower income brackets. (Learoyd goes to some length to say these are not pictures of friends, meaning that they are people willing to spend a few days sitting half-naked in a studio in return for cash.)

Of greater concern is what you get for the money. When Cibachrome was king, color photographs were notoriously unstable, prone to fading to unsightly blurs in a few years. And while Cibachrome promised image stability (I remember promises of 50 years before any noticable changes,) this old Cibachrome printer can show you images not half that age that are showing clear, visible shifts in color. Alas, we can only hope that as the colors on these prints change, the models stay as young and as vibrant as they appear to us today.

Richard Learoyd
Portraits and Figures


McKee Gallery
745 Fifth Ave. 4th Fl
Midtown         Map

212 688 5951
mckeegallery.com

Wednesday, September 28 to
Saturday, October 29, 2011
Hours: Tues-Sat 10 to 6
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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery