Two exhibitions – Julia Margaret Cameron v. Richard Learoyd

Whenever I visit London, I try to visit as many photography exhibitions as I can squeeze in and this time has been no exception.

Yesterday, I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum, to see an extensive exhibition celebrating 150 years since the revered 19th century portrait photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, began her work. Cameron was associated with the South Kensington Gallery for many years, and exhibited her work there contemporaneously.

Her portraits were almost without exception very carefully staged, often to represent biblical or other classical scenes. She quickly gained expertise with, by today’s standards, very cumbersome equipment and painstaking processes, and developed a style that ran contrary to most of her peers. She often deliberately used soft focus, or even out of focus in her photographs. She would also present pictures with visible flaws – blots, scratches or dust on the prints, but make them a virtue, when the rest of the photographic community was striving for perfection.

However, ground-breaking though her approach was and iconic as her portraits unarguably are in the context of portrait photography, her style hasn’t worn well, for me. The poses look a little too staged, and the themes are beyond corny. All of the subjects, without exception, look miserable; of the dozens of portraits in the exhibition, not one betrayed even the beginnings of an enigmatic Mon Lisa-like smile. This may have been partly due to the long exposure times need to make some of the images, but joie de vivre seemed to be sadly lacking. The upshot of this is that the subjects end up looking desolate and almost hopeless.

Almost by accident, I ended up getting a second dose of JMC’s work when I visited the Science Museum, just across the road from the V & A. Another 94 equally desolate and depressing images were arranged for my perusal ¬†and they only served to underline the impression I got yesterday.

But also by accident, as I was heading to the JMC exhibition in the V & A, I noticed another gallery with a smaller exhibition by Richard Learoyd, a contemporary photographer who produces large-scale images in a camera obscura. In some respects, they sit in the same sort of territory as JMC’s, but with significant differences that lift them into a more human context.

Most of these images (but not all) are portraits, many of the subjects with similarly unsmiling expressions. Learoyd eschews conventional modern techniques and equipment, and uses very narrow depth of field in most of the images, which focuses the viewer’s attention on a relatively narrow plane in the picture. Some of the compositions break rules such as the rule of thirds; for example, in one pair of pictures of a female subject, her face is placed dead-centre in the frame, with a lot of white space above and around her. But it works.

Despite these similarities to JMC, though, Learoyd’s picture have so much more warmth. Perhaps the brighter lit, unfussy settings help lift the mood, or perhaps it’s the use of colour. Maybe it’s that the subjects are contemporary figures, dressed in modern clothing (where they are dressed at all…), rather than staring blankly out across 150 years.

Whatever it is, the subjects don’t look restricted or stifled. They seem to be expressing their own personalities through the photographer, rather than one that the photographer has imposed upon them. Despite the fact that a couple of the images are distinctly uncomfortable – one featuring a dead hare, the other a profile of a horse’s severed head – I felt much more able to connect with Learoyd’s photographs. JMC’s place in photographic history is assured, and it may be influencing the work of contemporary photographers such as Learoyd, but from that perspective, it’s work is done. I won’t be in a rush to see more of her work in the near future.

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