In the fall of 2023, Richard Learoyd traveled to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona to photograph the landscape using his massive, hand-built camera obscura. Learoyd produced two images in the last light of the day, captured on huge, nearly 4 x 6 foot negatives, from which he makes highly detailed contact prints. Fraenkel Gallery Director Christian Whitworth spoke with the artist about the project.
CW: You’ve chosen a popular spot—Navajo Point—from which to photograph the Grand Canyon. What first attracted you to this location, and what motivated you to make the trip?
RL: I first visited the Grand Canyon 30 or so years ago, with a good friend who had been given a Scottish Art Council Grant to photograph on the West Coast of the United States. The friend I traveled with back in the mists of time or the late 80s to be precise, died unexpectedly last year, maybe this had something to do with my desire to return to see the Grand Canyon. When I first arrived there, on the second visit, I was very unsure as to whether I had completely wasted my time, the Grand Canyon is of such a monumental scale it defies framing or pictorial selection.
CW: How, then, did you decide on these two views?
RL: I guess like most photographers the best thing to do when you are unsure of what to photograph is to drive. So we drove and looked and drove and looked, listening to music, talking nonsense. There are only two photographs that can be made from the South rim of the Grand Canyon, and I made both of them.
CW: Being in an enclosed studio offers you some sense of control with your subjects, whether still lifes or portraits. Yet, when photographing outdoors you must confront the unruly natural elements. Were there any unexpected events in the production of these works? How did you adapt?
RL: When you are using a camera that takes hours to set up and costs thousands of dollars to make an exposure, certainty and commitment is necessary. I was very surprised how difficult it was to photograph there, I guess I thought by looking at other photographers’ work it would be like shooting fish in a barrel; instead it became risky and exciting. I was having to dare myself into very choppy photographic waters. Photographing into the sun is always a problem, but in this case, a solution.
CW: You’ve named Francis Bacon as a source of inspiration during this trip. How do you see his style incorporated into yours?
RL: When standing on the edge looking towards the sun, the glinting river seemed like a dash of serendipitous white paint, this reminded me of the bright white slithers on some of Bacon’s paintings—where the paint seemed to be thrown or oozed out of the tube. The translation afforded by lens and film then seemed appropriate to the subject matter.
CW: It’s easy to get lost in the expanse of the Grand Canyon, but the details of the scene are quite surprising. From the sheen of the Colorado River below to the edge of the canyon’s rim in the foreground, how did you think to incorporate such moments?
RL: The only way for me to approach this photographic conundrum was by considering the problem as a mark making issue, rather than a picture making exercise. I know this sounds a little unusual for somebody like myself, who considers photographic issues on a daily basis, but with the Grand Canyon, a subject that defies framing and reduction, mark making seemed to be the only way forward.