The Purpose of Mistakes

by Troy Colby

Since moving away from my hometown almost two years ago. One thing that I have come to love and embrace living in a college town is the access to a major university and world renouned art museum.  This allows for many opportunities to see works of art and attend many artists’ lectures that I could have never before.

This Friday night was one of those nights. British photographer Richard Learyod was speaking at the Nelson Atkins Museum. Lectures at the Nelson so far that I have seen are based more in an interview form vs. the typical artist following a PowerPoint that they have created.  Giving the interview was the head curator of the photography department, April Watson. 

Over the years I have seen a few of his images online and through my studies. I honestly had no idea of how the work was made or really anything about him.  I think that it is important to know how he came to do the work he does now.  Born in 1966 in a small mill town in England.  This was a town that was on the verge of extinction even when he was young.  He stated; “not much was ever really expected out of you coming from that town.”  Right out of high school he chose to go to art school, the first in his family.  During art school they gave you a studio space and pretty much told you to go to it.  Within this space he experimented with dabbing developer in blotches on the paper, the camera obscura and played with using direct positive paper.  In art school he found that the work can be very easily to be swayed in its outcome.

After school he left and became a commercial photographer.  “I found commercial photography very easy. It was a great life. I got to travel all over the world, just to take pictures.”  He stated.  Once digital came into place and the work became more and more polished which lead to the commercial life “killing” his passion for photography. So he ended up quitting.  Bellow his commercial workspace another large space became available.  He had no idea of what he was going to do with the space at first.  During this time he was teaching on the side.  He wanted to go back and do something with the camera obscura, since he really enjoyed it in the past.  So he built a wall in the middle of the space and had the intent to make still life images with this newly constructed camera.  The wall to this day is always changing.  “I like tearing it down and starting new all the time,” he stated.

It started with a few portraits and snowballed into three bodies of work: Portraits, Figure studies and still lifes. He tends to use a few models while his assistant finds others.  “It just wouldn’t look right having a 50 plus year old man trying to pick up someone to go back to my studio to take their picture,” he stated.  Agnes is one model that he has been using since she was 19.  “She has a timeless look. I don’t want you to be able to have visual clues or evidence of what time period the image was taken,” Richard stated.


When asked about the technical side of the photograph he stated that it is important but it doesn’t make the image.  It does separate the work just slightly different from the millions of images taken daily but just this much. Holding up his hand showing a gap between the figures.  The process has the subject sitting in  one room alone and in the other room Richard will capture the image coming through the camera obscura on Illford chrome direct positive paper at an ASA of 3. In the end he stated, “most people don’t care about the process. They are just able to read a good photograph.”

In being in the room alone the model is given time to “decide who they are going to be in the photograph. Some people have what it takes to give themself to the process and others just don’t have it.” Richard stated.   This was vey insightful for I personally have stumbled into this in my years of shooting others as well.  It is tough to imagine a model sitting in a room all alone with no site of the photographer making the image. It is really a process in isolation. In showing a slide show there were a few other poses of one of the images in the gallery.  “Go back, go back those are terrible,” he said in a funny tone.  “No, You learn something from looking at peoples mistakes. So that is why they are there.”  I have been to a good handful of lectures and some show how one image might have lead to another image.  But none have really shown mistakes for the sake of doing so.  Even though you can tell he doesn’t really want to show them. It allows for an open discussion about the process and our ability to recognize what is good or bad in the end.  When asked about the color and tone of the images from an audience member asking more of a technical question he answered. “People are very accepting of the wrongs in photography.”  He understands that the color balance is wrong but it only furthers the images intent and it is a part of the process too that causes this. “Film in the UK vs. the US have different makeups, this combined with the camera obscura causes some of these shifts.”  I gather that Richard is very aware of what it takes to make a technically good photograph from his years of commercial photography.  I personally feel as if he cares about the technical side but is more concerned in the end about the image capturing the emotion and soul that the sitter is willing to give. 

The last question of the night I was an odd question that was directed to the curator of the show.  I felt it important to mention it for it was an odd moment.  Someone in the audience asked, “Do the size of the prints make you want to show the work?”  I got the impression that the viewer did not care for the subject mater in the work and might be a bit jaded on seeing it hanging in the gallery. Maybe I am wrong and it might be wrong for me to say so.   I felt as if it was a bit rude to ask but she gracefully answered it. “No,” she stated. Going on to explain that the process of the work is important but the subject mater of the human connection is more important.  The work “holds my attention and in the end that is what is important,” April said.  In the end is what Richard had ultimately tried to avoid the technical conversation of size and process.  For I feel he realizes that a photograph can be timeless with the right amount of emotion and passion put fourth in the work.  Many times throughout the lecture you gather that he is very humbled that the work has gained this much recognition as he sits in the lecture chair in a pair of average pants and white undershirt that looks well worn, while sipping on a glass of wine. 

In viewing the work up close they are so immersive that you become engulfed into the gaze of the sitter.  The work is simple in its exterior at first glance. Though the more you view it the more you become connected within the image and start to scratch what is really going on under the surface.

The work is up at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City from February 10 to June 11, 2017.

Watson, April. In the Studio with Richard Learoyd. 17 February 2017.

Images, by Troy Colby

1.     Agnes in Red, 2008
2.     Lecture Shot
3.     Agnes in Red, 2008 in back ground foreground,  Vanessa, 2013