Art Obscura

Richard Learoyd's Dark Mirror at the V&A – a review

Pete pops down to London to see an exhibition of prints made with a camera obscura

Model 1 (detail) by Richard Learoyd

I was initially skeptical of Richard Learoyd's work, currently on show at the V&A. He claims to make photographs with a camera obscura and that doesn't make sense. A camera obscura doesn't make photographs. If it does, then it's no longer an obscura, it's just a camera, regardless of its size. (Camera Photographica, maybe?) A camera obscura, by my definition, is a camera you get inside and see the projected image with your own eyes, not a dark box in which a light-sensitive surface is exposed to photons. Regardless of the outcome, if Learoyd is using a camera obscura, then so are all photographers. And if we allow that then the "dark room" is rendered meaningless. So you can see why I might object to that.

Thankfully the work is amazingly good. He uses large sheets of positive photographic paper to make a unique print inside the camera, very nearly capturing the uncanny hyper-realism of the camera obscura projection. In the portraits, hair, moles and other tiny details on the skin are clearly visible and skin tones are so subtle. This alone would be impressive, but he also makes good use of the camera obscura's extreme depth of focus where the clarity suddenly falls off creating an eerie mist around the subject.

The prints were the closest I've come to seeing the strangeness of the camera obscura experience rendered on paper. They were unique to that device and couldn't have been made in a standard camera, regardless of its size. This is true camera obscura art, and I'm sure Learoyd will be delighted to hear of my approval.

His process is also intriguing. As I understand it, his camera has two rooms, one for the model and one for the exposure. Once the model is posed and the focus fixed, the lights are turned off, the paper installed and an exposure made by triggering a powerful flash. We've been pondering how to make prints with our camera, struggling with the logistics of a shutter, and this system of simply controlling the lighting makes much more sense, assuming you have access to strong flash guns.

The exhibition is free to enter at the V&A until Feb 14th 2016 (info) and is highly recommended. See also this Guardian interview.