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Vera Lutter and the art of camera obscura

Vera Lutter and the art of camera obscura

Vera Lutter and the art of camera obscura
May 14
11:10 2018

In 1993, Vera Lutter, recently arrived in New York from her native Germany and living in an illegal sublet on Eighth Avenue, was simultaneously stumped about what direction to take her art and energised by the city and the perpetual hubbub around her. Determined to capture her new world, Lutter blacked out her windows except for a tiny pinhole, throwing the room into near total darkness. After her eyes adjusted, the outside view appeared, upside down and reversed, on the opposite wall. “Cars driving through, birds flying,” she recalls. “I could see the windows across the street, all garment factories, and people were working in there. It was like a film projection.” She had turned her room into a camera obscura, literally a “dark room”.

Lutter had never worked with photography before but, excited by the prospect, she hung large sheets of photo-sensitive paper on the wall and waited for hours — the length of time it took for an image to imprint itself on the paper.

“I would capture the city with the city,” she says, “architecture being the camera photographing the architecture around me.”

That six-week experiment marked the beginning of a 25-year endeavour, pushing the camera obscura to its limits. While photography is traditionally associated with the “decisive moment” — Henri Cartier-Bresson’s term for the split second he had to snap the perfect shot — Lutter’s process is anything but quick. With an aperture so small, and the interior light so dim, a single exposure can take minutes, hours, days. One exposure for an ambitious new series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art lasted nearly seven months. The resulting artworks, which, like film from an analogue camera, are negatives, possess an eeriness that can make viewers do a double take when they see her representations of famous landmarks. The pyramids have an otherworldliness about them, while Venetian buildings seem to float in mid-air, between black sea and sky. The prolonged movement of objects such as cars is marked by streaks of light; slow-moving figures, such as an approaching camel in the desert, appear like apparitions.

“I’m slowing down time,” she says. “I give an idea of the passage of time.”

Vera Lutter in her New York studio. Photographic diptych by Daniel Shea

Lutter, who is 58, works in a spotless midtown studio, just a few blocks from the site of her first works. Since then, she has photographed European shipyards and American industrial sites, Times Square and ancient Greek temples, a Zeppelin and Old Master paintings. Bucking another staple of photography, Lutter eschews editions; her photographs are unique artworks. In one sequence she tracked the transformation of a parking lot across from her current studio into a monstrosity of a skyscraper. She has investigated the natural world as well. An image of a forest of leafless trees, glowing like a gathering of graceful ghosts, will be shown in Sun Pictures Then and Now, an exhibition at this year’s Photo London devoted to the lasting influence of photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot. The Manhattan-based photography dealer Hans P Kraus, who curated the show, says the monumental scale of Lutter’s work — “Cold Spring, IX, February 17 2014” spans eight and a half feet — is particularly affecting.

“It envelops you,” he says. “Although it’s flat on the wall, you feel like you’re in it. There’s something operatic about it.”

Lutter, who grew up in Bochum, in the Ruhr Valley, did not find encouragement for her artistic leanings at home. (Even today, she says, her siblings “don’t care for what I do”.) But when she was about 10, she befriended an elderly pair of potters who offered to teach her. “I loved the smell in the pottery room,” she recalls. “They were real artists.” Later, in the German tradition, she apprenticed under them and attained the level of a master potter. “After that, I said, ‘Enough,’” she recalls, “because what I had to do to make it commercially viable was no longer in the spirit of this elderly couple. It didn’t warm my heart.”

Her father had forbidden her from going to art school but, at 24, she rebelled and entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. “I was quite intimidated because the discrimination against crafts by [people in] the arts was terrible,” she says. But by then, “that craft aspect had entered my veins: I was clean and organised and prepared, and I wanted things to be beautiful.”

333 West 39th Street, XVI: March 25-27, 2011 © Vera Lutter

She admits she didn’t really find herself artistically for years. She had studied sculpture but her pieces had become “a little bloodless”, she says. After graduating, she won a grant to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York. She knew next to nothing about the physics of photography — things like focal length and exposure times — but decided to attempt the camera obscura. “At that point I was completely guessing,” she says. “Entirely.” (Today, by contrast, she has pages and pages of calculations dictating apertures and exposures for various lighting conditions.) Her roommate was a conventional photographer. “He considered me completely out of my mind.” Lutter was a novice at developing as well, and though now she has a custom-designed darkroom, back then she resorted to crumpling her oversized paper into trays of chemicals.

Imagining the way the final piece would look, however, was not a problem. In her childhood, dyslexia had made reading and spelling painfully difficult, but it may have made viewing an image upside down and backwards inside a pinhole camera not the least bit disorienting. “There’s a swap in the brain,” she says. “I haven’t entirely put it together, but I know it’s an intuitive response. I just know whether it works or not.”

At first, she had considered her apartment project a one-off. Then those around her, especially the British artist Adam Fuss, who was her thesis adviser, and Malcolm Daniel, a curator of photography then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, encouraged her to rethink. She found a gallery relatively easily. “I didn’t sell anything for years and years,” she says. “But word got out that I was doing something interesting. People noticed me. That’s the most important thing. A young artist can live off that for quite a while.”

Lutter created works all around New York, including what has become one of her most famous images: the enormous Pepsi-Cola sign above the soda factory in Long Island City. Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, describes it as an icon. “It’s hard to make icons,” he adds emphatically. “Very few artists can make an iconic image — ever.”

Frankfurt Airport, IV: April 13, 2001

After her metropolitan images, Lutter made a series related to transportation. “It had a lot to do with my leaving Europe and, at least emotionally, experiencing that distance,” she says. In her “Frankfurt Airport, IV: April 13, 2001”, a densely black Lufthansa plane stretches 14 feet across three panels, giving it an ominous presence. In places usually teeming with people, the long exposures make human figures hard to detect, a fact turned poignant metaphor by Lutter’s choice of locations. “I photographed at shipyards that were about to go out of business. It was the time when a lot of industrial places in Europe closed because everything moved to China.”

Other projects have more technical quandaries as their genesis. Venice’s penchant for flooding drew her there, where she captured Piazza San Marco covered in water and emptied of the usual crowds. “This incredibly beautiful image of a city sort of falls into its own reflection,” she says, “because it’s very still, shallow water, which is a very photographic idea because photography is all reflected light.”

Photography is generally considered a means of turning three dimensions into two, but for her latest project Lutter decided she wanted a two-dimensional subject: Old Master paintings. So she called her old friend Govan at LACMA. “I knew I needed a museum very committed to what I do because I’m not someone walking through with a camera for an afternoon,” she says.

Govan had first seen Lutter’s work in the mid-1990s, when he was the director of Dia Center for the Arts in Manhattan, and was immediately struck by her conceptual framework of inhabiting her camera. “Of course, the images are stunningly beautiful,” he adds. “Nothing about the concept prepares you for the power of the images.”

Radio Telescope, Effelsberg, XX: September 17-18, 2013 © Vera Lutter

Dia gave Lutter her first institutional show, in 1999, and commissioned her to make works in the old Nabisco factory it was converting to its new home in the Hudson Valley, Dia:Beacon. When she asked if she could make images inside LACMA’s galleries, Govan not only said yes, but also commissioned her to memorialise four buildings the museum would be razing as part of a campus redevelopment. He wasn’t looking for documentation. “We have a lot of historical pictures,” he says. “[But] what would place [the buildings] in memory? Her work is a lot about memory, which is a transformed image itself.”

A Lutter project is no simple — or inexpensive — undertaking. For many past works, including the images of Frankfurt Airport, she converted shipping containers into pinhole cameras, sitting inside as her artworks slowly formed. In Venice, where the narrow pathways are not exactly conducive to parking a container, locals welcomed her into their apartments and palazzos. Egyptian security guards weren’t so hospitable when she showed up unannounced with a steamer trunk she’d rigged as a more portable camera obscura. Demanding she open it to show them her “camera”, they were bewildered to find it was empty and refused to let her pass.

At LACMA, Lutter’s camera was what Govan calls a “moveable apartment”, a plywood box on wheels, and the museum built her a darkroom on-site. For one shot, a crane was needed to hoist the camera on to a balcony.

Frans Snyders, Game Market, 1630s: February 10-April 3, 2017 © Vera Lutter

The results were worth it. Lutter seems especially pleased with her photograph of Frans Snyders’s 17th-century painting “Game Market”, featuring a smorgasbord of hunted birds, pigs, rabbits and such. “I was fascinated by the white swan that I knew would become this very magnetising black centre point,” says Lutter.

“Around it are all these beautiful dead animals, but it’s not really tragic. Down here are the cats that eat the little birds. My theory is that the game vendor Snyders put in here is a self-portrait.”

On rare occasions, Lutter has veered from the camera obscura. Her Moon Wall installations of digital photos evolved as a type of visual diary. “I travelled so much for my work. It can be pretty lonely,” she says. “I looked out my hotel room window at night, and what is always there? The moon, as a companion. So I started photographing the Paris moon, the London moon, the German moon, the desert moon. It’s never the same, the moon. It never faces us in the same way; it never shows the same fraction in the same position.”

When a photo met with her approval, she’d hang it on a wall of her studio. After a year or two, she had amassed between 80 and 100 8 x 10in shots in a grid. “I have taken them like playing cards and assembled a few different Moon Walls,” she says. The element of chance is essential. “I’m intentionally avoiding sequencing them because that gets boring. On the internet, there are so many technically savvy people who do sequences of the moon that are scientifically accomplished. It’s more a poetry that I’m trying to write.”

Cold Spring, IX: February 17, 2014

Lutter still has one piece left to complete for her LACMA project, which will be given an exhibition at the museum in January 2020. It is of a gallery housing European Old Masters and slated for demolition; she calculated that capturing it required a nearly seven-month exposure. “The gallery was open during my exposure — that’s very important — so many hundreds, maybe thousands of people have walked through into my image,” she says. “They will not leave a visible trace, but they are indeed part of the image because they interrupted the light rays for x amount of time.”

Unfortunately, someone else interrupted the light rays more profoundly: just before she was set to remove the paper, a LACMA contractor lifted the camera’s ceiling, inadvertently spoiling the photograph. “Something can always go wrong,” Lutter says in a remarkably calm manner. She gave it another try, waited out another six and a half months, but this time asked a former assistant now living in LA to retrieve the paper for safekeeping.

Lutter will head back to LA soon to develop that last image. But first she’ll spend a week in silent meditation at a retreat in Vermont, where only “functional talking”— ie, “pass the salt” — is permitted. “You see what little talking’s needed,” she says. “It’s so nice not to talk.” Lutter has been meditating daily for five years. “It really inspires your creative senses because it frees up so much space in your mind, unclutters the brain.” One can almost imagine her head emptying out like a camera obscura, taking in just enough light to illuminate the world on the other side.

Temple of Athena, Paestum, X: October 12, 2015 © Vera Lutter

“Sun Pictures Then and Now: Talbot and His Legacy Today”, is at West Embankment Gallery, Somerset House, May 17-20. Vera Lutter will be in conversation with Martin Barnes, senior curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, at Somerset House, on May 18, 2:30pm-3:30pm

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