Richard Learoyd & Big Cameras

June 28, 2011

I have a thing for big cameras. You may call me a size queen, but I’m really more of a fetishist of narrow depth of field and extreme detail. I was very intrigued, then, when I first read about Richard Learoyd’s photographs.

Learoyd uses a room-sized camara obscura inside of which he places sheets of cibachrome paper, a direct positive process that results in singular, incredibly detailed images.

© Richard Learoyd, presumably the real photos aren't watermarked

I recently watched online a lecture he gave at ICP back in March. The ICP Lectures website doesn’t let me link directly to the video [much less embed it]. To find it, click on “videos” and then “2011” on the menu bars on top.

I worked with a large process camera for my Dinuba Sentinel Portraits and wrote on this blog about the process and challenges of working with such a big camera. I’m proud that I was more or less able to reverse engineer his process before seeing this video: a giant camera obscura, a big sharp reproduction lens, high powered strobe lights, and a revolving door to access the room.

Here’s some screen grabs from the talk:

Learoyd's camera obscura, filtered strobe lights

Revolving darkroom door and attached 50" cibachrome processing machine. way cool!

view inside the camara obscura

detail from learoyd photograph

focus point on the eye

I love this instrument here for keeping the model at the plane of focus. He mentions that the depth of field is only about 5mm. This is actually the best part of the talk, around minute 5, where he shows a video of this model, literally trembling before the camera, trying to hold still.

Obviously, I’d love to see these pictures in person. Their detail and quality must be stunning. Extrapolating from the narcotic rush I feel when looking at my own 8×10 contact prints, standing before one of these prints must be a very powerful experience.

The photos themselves evoke fashion photography for me, given that they mostly feature young, thin, attractive, Caucasian women lit by a ring flash. I’m probably being grossly unfair. I’d be a hypocrite for criticizing a photographer for following his personal tastes when casting. I think it’s reasonable to hold back judgment until I see the real thing.

It does get me to thinking about what this process might produce if someone took it out of the studio. Greg Miller did this last year with the Polaroid 20×24″. Again, I wish I could see these prints in person:

© Greg Miller

Greg Miller at work with the 20x24" Polaroid Camera

There’s been a lot of great work over the years made with the 20×24″ Polaroid but this is the first time [that I know of] that I’ve seen someone take it out of the studio.

Awhile back I thought to myself, if I like 8×10″ color pictures so much, why stop there? A good reason to stop there is that 8×10″ is the largest size commercially available in color film [black & white is another story]. Kodak will custom cut their film to whatever size if your order is big enough. It’s something like $30k. That’s a lot for a photographer but not so much for a filmmaker. Keith Canham has been aggregating smaller orders for ultra-large format film and it looks like a batch of 20×24″ was completed just last month. I hope these photos start making their way out into the world soon.

Getting back to Learoyd’s process, he mentions that the Cibachrome paper he uses is 50″. I don’t know anything about processing the paper but I would assume it’s stable and can be kept in a box for later processing. I think you could go out into the field or on the street with a big, light-tight tent, Abelardo Morell-style, and make some really interesting photographs of the world outside the studio. What would Timothy O’Sullivan do?

Timothy O'Sullivan, Carson Desert, Nevada. 1867

2 Responses to “Richard Learoyd & Big Cameras”

  1. andrew bruce Says:

    Hi Thomas, thanks for making me aware of the ICP video – it’s fascinating!

  2. abhoan Says:

    Thank you, this was a really helpful article. I was looking up for content from Richard and found this blog.. Interesting enough I was just in the ICP library today evening and had just taken a workshop with Greg a few days ago 🙂

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