Vera Lutter – Museum in the Camera

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Review by Steve Harp

I have long found the images of Vera Lutter among the most challenging and thought-provoking in contemporary photography. Lutter’s work is that rare combination of visually beautiful (sublime would be a better word), conceptually challenging (“good to think with,” to use Claude Levi-Strauss’ phrase) and continually surprising (perhaps odd, given the fact that throughout her career Lutter has become known for creating similar, large scale, camera obscura imagery).

Vera Lutter: Museum in the Camera is the catalog of Lutter’s current exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The book is hardbound, casewrapped, with a trim size of 10″ x 11″. A significant amount of textual material is included – a foreword by museum director Michael Govan, essays by exhibition curator Jennifer King (“Vera Lutter’s Museum Pictures”) and Columbia University Art History faculty member Noam M. Elcott (“Windows on an Absent World”), an interview with Lutter conducted by Michael Govan as well as a checklist of the more than 40 images featured and a Selected Bibliography of writings about Lutter published since 1995.

As a catalog, the book functions as a record or – to use an intentionally more provocative term – document of Lutter’s two-year residency at LACMA. The work created by Lutter over those two years depicts LACMA prior to its recent massive remodeling.  As Govan writes in the forward, Lutter’s work “memorialize[s] LACMA’s deteriorating older buildings, which were slated to be demolished and replaced by new galleries.” This idea of documenting the transient and soon-to-disappear is taken up in Noam Elcott’s essay.  In his incisive and wide-ranging piece, Elcott considers the museum as a site of ruins, a container of ghostly presences (is this not, in fact, a description of all photography?) and concludes by invoking Freud’s concept of the uncanny: “not shockingly foreign, but the opposite – excessively familiar, distressingly homey, utterly present no matter the purported absence.”  (Is this description, also, not applicable to all photography?) Early in his essay, Elcott questions whether Lutter’s “large scale, direct negatives” can, in fact, be described as “documentary.” However, to borrow from the logic of the uncanny – in which a thing is also its opposite – Lutter’s boldly ephemeral and mysterious work may, in fact, be the most thoroughly “documentary” and “realistic” imaginable.

I became acquainted with Lutter’s work through an essay by Jonathan Crary, “Spectres of Negation,” which discusses a group of images Lutter created in 2004 depicting the decommissioned Battersea power plant near London. In his essay, Crary also remarks on “the uncanniness of Lutter’s images [in] their evocation of absence” and points out that in her “direct” approach, her photographs do not go “through secondary processes to achieve a positive image.  Her images record the immediate inscription of light on photo-sensitive materials . . .  In that sense they have more of a claim to truthfulness than more conventional pictures produced through subsequent processes and manipulations.” In the world Lutter offers us, we are confronted with the inherent factuality yet concurrent strangeness of the photographic image.

Objects are at once familiar and at the same time unsettlingly other. In previous work of Lutter’s that I have seen – Battersea, Venice, various industrial sights and airports – the brightness of day becomes a mysterious and silent darkness. While there are exterior views among the photographs here (notably Rodin Garden I: February 22, 2017), most of the images are of individual artworks and interior galleries (such as European Old Masters: December 7, 2018–January 9, 2019). The tonalities are shifted primarily to high key; the images suggest nothing so much as x-rays. We ask of an x-ray: “What is being revealed? What is being concealed?” Like x-rays, these images suggest themselves as specimens, things presented for examination or study.

Their ghostly aspect is especially compelling in images such as Georges de la Tour, The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, c. 1635–37: January 17–May 31, 2018 and Mariano Salvador Maella, Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, 1787: March 6–8, 2018. The resonance with x-rays is most striking in the photographs of marble statues and still-life paintings such as Frans Snyders, Game Market, 1630s: February 10–April 3, 2017. I find these works endlessly compelling, challenging, mysterious. While arguably purely photographic, they trade on an inherent uncertainty and ambiguity. (Is this not also endemic to all photography?) Documentary indeed.

Lutter’s work here achieves a particular poignancy given the viewer’s awareness of the immanent destruction or loss of many of the spaces depicted (I could not help but think of Eugene Atget’s Parisian photographs of the late 19thcentury.) In the volume’s opening essay, exhibition curator Jennifer King reads Jackson Pollack, No. 15, 1950: October 25–November 20, 2017 as a web of “exuberant erasures.” Erasures, absences, ruins, negations . . . Vera Lutter’s work as a whole – and particularly this work created through the LACMA residency – speaks profoundly of these, uncannily and memorably. How strangely appropriate then, that this work – although currently on exhibit – has yet to be seen by the public, given restrictions on museum access placed due to the ongoing COVID pandemic.

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Vera Lutter – Museum in the Camera, Vera Lutter

Artist: Vera Lutter, born Kaiserslautern Germany, resides New York City

Publisher: Del Monico Books *Prestel (Munich, London, New York, copyright 2020)

Essays: Jennifer King, Noam M. Elcott, artist interview with Michael Govan

Text: English

Hardcover, casewrapped, printed and bound in China.

Production designer: Karen Farquhar

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Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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