Museum visitors all seem to be dedicated photographers these days, navigating galleries as they capture vivid design details and immersive art installations with their smartphones, then sharing their images instantly. To view art and to experience a museum through a smartphone camera’s viewfinder is so commonplace now as to be unremarkable. Such a picture is not so much a portrait of a particular work of art as it is proof—shared with a wide social network—of the photographer’s own encounter with it. What we now think of as “old- fashioned” photography defies the instant gratification and endless reproducibility of a smartphone image. The recent and unintentional specialness of analog image-making may explain its renaissance in current artistic practice. Even the camera obscura—a tool that was used as a drawing aid for centuries before photography was invented—has found an exceptionally patient champion in the person of Vera Lutter, a contemporary pioneer of the ultra-long exposure image.
When the medium was new, early photographers often trained their fixed cameras on city streets, churches,
and grand public buildings, sometimes capturing passersby in ghostly silhouettes. While people, animals, carriages and trains moved too quickly to be recorded clearly, buildings could be relied upon to hold still for hours at a time. For Lutter, people moving about and the passage of the sun across the sky are all part of the scenery. Her photographs are apt to take weeks, even months, to complete. This is startling to a generation of iPhone photographers, but Lutter is in good historical company. The camera obscura represents a way of looking at art, not just capturing it. Vera Lutter first began using the technique in 1990s when she was living in New York City and turned a room in her midtown apartment into a walk-in camera obscura, using the space to create images of the city skyline from her window. One signature feature of her work with this method is that she uses photographic paper to make prints directly, without a photo negative. Thus, her images are tonally reversed, if not literally upside-down, like old- fashioned camera obscura projections. White is black, and black is white.
Lutter has been in residence at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art since February of this year at the behest of the Museum’s CEO and Director Michael Govan. While at LACMA, she is working with three aspects of its physical site: gallery interiors, individual works of art, and a section of the Museum’s campus that will be torn down to make way for a new structure. The buildings she’s photographing acquire a geometric, ethereal beauty when seen in Lutter’s tonally reversed images, surrounded by palm trees whose silhouettes seem to glow bright white. When they’re gone, a new building by architect Peter Zumthor will take their place, and Lutter’s images will stand as records of their form and physicality.
Indoors, she is creating images inside the museum’s European painting and sculpture gallery, where works
of art stand still, and visitors pause to encounter them. And for a third project entitled “Painting on Paper: Vera Lutter’s Old Master Photographs,” Lutter is working with two camera obscurae and some smaller, portable cameras to photograph individual paintings in the museum’s permanent collection—the first time she has worked with two-dimensional works of art in her practice. One in particular Ludovico Mazzanti’s 1630 painting, The Death of Lucretia, is stripped of its beguiling pastel color palette in Lutter’s rendering, and its dynamism and drama are made starkly evident. Using only the light that streams through her pinhole “lenses” to create her images, Lutter’s exposures can last days, even weeks or months. Lutter’s images, which are unique objects in their own right rather than editions or multiples, record the passage of time. More than that, they enact a way of standing still inside a gallery, or gazing up at a building, using photography to record the experience of being in the presence of a particular thing, and not just to “check in,” or snap a photo for later reference. The notion of standing or sitting in a museum gallery for even minutes at a time, much less hours on end, is strange to us now, as we breeze through, hoping to clock as many rooms and works of art as we can into a compressed visit. Lutter’s images bear witness, recording the light that reflects off physical objects, and sharing space with them. To stand still, inside a repository of ancient masterpieces as the contemporary world whirs by, is to appreciate one’s own tiny footprint within a larger landscape and timeline.