Reading a recent publication entitled, “Images of the Body in Architecture”, I learned of how architecture can be thought of as deriving from the Greek (and before that) word “arche”, meaning beginning (or primal work, like using an axe, for shaping wood, or incising stone), combined with “techne”, meaning crafting (by using an axe, for instance.) Stay with me… I know I am starting off in an esoteric way, but I want to get to something key, part-and-parcel with what I wrote about in the last review, regarding “having an axe to grind”, and what I called “academic” photography. What I meant was ideological formalism preceding the practice of making pictures, or making them with hard and fast sentiments that photographs should mean one particular thing. John Cohen describes his educational process as starting off trying to learn how to be a painter, and leaving school as a photographer. Many contemporary photographers, including Richard Learoyd in his book “Day for Night” have not “lost” the dialog with painting, or have not even tried to let it go.
Do not get me wrong; Richard Learoyd’s pictures are beautiful (a dirty word in contemporary art is beautiful, forgive me for using it gentle reader). I had the opportunity to see them in person a number of years ago. They are made lovingly, and slowly, using a large lens, camera obscura, and Ilfochrome paper. By isolating his subject in a chamber to make a picture, Learoyd encloses them. Each image is a finite object, ultimately generated at a slightly larger ratio than 1:1. As a book, the emotional impact is somewhat lessened, and there are crops of individual parts of images (and bodies) in the book that also reduce the affect for the viewer in space, looking at these monumental prints. Getting closer to the print reveals the details of the print, and in the book some of these details are selected for the viewer, reducing the power of the work, or at least changing it to the turning of a page, and the choice to linger on one image, or not. The book itself is unlike anything I have ever seen before in terms of technical skill in bookmaking mastery, the textblock is absolutely flush to the case, both the front and end boards float freely from the spine, making it so you can open the book flat to expose the pages completely, and they are superbly printed. They are not the prints, they are much smaller reproductions that were produced from digital cameras. As a photobook, “Day for Night” pales in comparison to the prints in person, even if it is sumptuously made, and very good.
As a body of work, looking at “Walking in the Light” by John Cohen, in roughly the same week, I see that portraits like Learoyd’s show the subject cut off from optical, built, architectural space, or the world, so to speak. The images in John Cohen’s “Walking in the Light” seem “made” also, with words on advertisements and billboards appearing in the field-of-view of the camera, co-mingling with the subjects in evocative ways. These subjects though, they sail towards transcendence, and are seen in the throws of ecstatic movement: as children playing, musicians making music, boxers boxing, worshipers worshiping. They are not kept in boxes, or frozen with armatures. The “stilleven”, the end of the photographic era, and an end of European painting, is another beginning for new expression, full of movement, and living (life!) I have to admit my preference is much more for the latter, even if the comparison is only accidental. Both of these books are exemplary, but only one of them is picture-perfect to not only my eye.