What emerge on the other side of this process are painterly, larger-than-life prints of Agnes in isolation, wearing the haunted, melancholic expression of a woman turned inward. It’s these faces—of not only Agnes, but Tatiana, Melanie, and Erika, too—that bore into the viewer’s brain; at once cryptic and familiar, they make us feel privy to a moment so quiet, so fleeting, that not even those closest to them would be allowed a glimpse. It’s almost as though, by withdrawing to another room, Learoyd can disappear from the photographic process, allowing the subject to forget that he is watching. In a room of her own, sitting beneath the heat of strobe lights, the woman’s composure disintegrates (in several portraits, in fact, the models have dozed off). The process either forces a moment of true interiority, or a deceptively good simulation of one.
Part of the uncanniness of Learoyd’s prints has to do with their surface quality, which is entirely absent of the grain of film—each photograph is a contact print made from directly exposing paper with light. It results in prints that, as Learoyd put it, “are made of information, rather than grain.” The texture of his photographs has invited many critics to compare them to paintings—in particular the lush, sensual portraits of Dutch master
, one of the artists commonly thought to have used a camera obscura.
In the summer of 2018, Learoyd and two assistants spent two weeks driving around California’s Yosemite and Big Sur with a camera obscura—this one built so that it could fold up and fit inside a car. Upon finding a promising view, they stopped, set up the 8-square-foot tent, composed the shot from within the dark box, and once the desired light was constant, opened the lens.