“Monuments in a ‘Space of Flows’” Steven Jacobs
Vera Lutter
Carré d’art - Musée d’art contemporain, Nîmes, France, 2012

Many commentators have noted the importance of time in Vera Lutter’s images, which are produced with the help of a camera obscura, involving an exposure time of several hours, days, weeks, or even months.1 Instead of capturing or freezing the moment, as most photographs ostensibly do, Lutter’s work rather seems to register, as well as to contain, the passage of time. What is more, Lutter’s para-photographic images not only record time but also evoke history while conflating early and recent photographic practices, as well as historic and contemporary urban landscapes.

Strikingly, Lutter’s first series of large-scale camera obscura images show sights of Manhattan, the emblem of urban modernity in both the arts and popular culture. Undergoing massive transformations caused by industrialization, the nineteenth-century city proved a privileged motif for the first practitioners of the new medium of photography. Since the slow photosensitive materials stimulated photographing the solid forms of the built environment in daylight, photography and urban modernity were connected from the very start. Turning her apartment or a midtown bank office into a room-size pinhole camera, Lutter used the same elevated viewpoint favored by nineteenth-century photographers such as Louis Daguerre, Friedrich von Martens, and Edouard Baldus. Rejecting conventional rules of composition, their panoramic images of Paris, for instance, include not only the famous monuments, but also the whimsical rhythms of the rooftops and chimneys of hundreds of vernacular buildings. At a time when artists and writers were starting to present the city as a place of endless fragmentation and flux, photography was the new medium that was perfectly suited to capturing the numerous, insignificant details that constitute urban space. However, because the long exposures could not inscribe movement into the image, the everyday hustle and bustle of the boulevards was exchanged for an uncanny silence of depopulated spaces.

Despite the fact that photographic materials have since evolved and have become faster in their response to light, allowing the camera to “stop action,” the image of the city as an empty place has persisted. Since the later nineteenth century, the history of urban photography has been marked not only by a fascination for the fleeting appearances and hectic rhythms of city dwellers, crowds, and flâneurs (as can be seen in the genre of street photography), but also by a more architectural or topographical approach that is often characterized by a veritable amor vacui.2 Photographers often favored the image of the empty city as it allowed them to draw attention to historical buildings and monuments documenting architecture as precisely as possible without the distraction of human presence. Images of urban spaces void of people tell us something about what it means to live in such places. The emblem of urban modernity, the crowd, was evoked by means of its explicit absence.

Given this perspective, the image of the deserted city not only threads through the history of urban photography; it also permeates the history of pictorial and literary evocations of the modern city. Such a predilection for places of urban emptiness and silence can be found in the writings of Charles Baudelaire, who conjured the frantic tempo of the metropolis by giving form to its vacancy. In this tradition, which also includes Symbolist and Surrealist writings and visual art, urban emptiness evokes the alienation and solitude of modern city dwelling. For these artists, the city is marked by the “ecstatic emptiness” of a threatening void that makes clear that what occurs on the street is unpredictable and fundamentally unknowable. The abandoned city found in photographs by Jacques-André Boiffard or Brassaï, for instance, is a landscape of the oneiric walkers who so often haunt Surrealist literature.3 In Paris de nuit (1933), Brassaï addresses the theme of the deserted city by means of images of nocturnal streets. Because of the night’s association with hidden passions and dreams, it was the perfect territory for the Surrealists. Brassaï presents the city as unreal, occasionally ghostly, and forbidding. The emptiness of the city at night seems to be part of an urban nightmare, which can also be found in the ubiquitous images of lonely nocturnal walkers in film noir.

Achieved thanks to the intensity of the bright sunlight, Lutter’s images are characterized by an eerie darkness and an alienating silence that prevail in otherwise busy streets. Evoking the solarization effects favored by Surrealist photographers like Man Ray, Lutter’s cityscapes seem bathed in a lunar light; tellingly, Lutter also made a series of photographs of the moon. Furthermore, like Brassaï’s images of nocturnal streets, Lutter’s cityscapes, though lacking any tangible human presence, nonetheless conjure the aura of human actions, dreams, and passions in façades and windows. Since darkness and light in Lutter’s images are inverted, the dark holes of the windows are transformed into glowing rectangles that evoke the bustle of the metropolis. Lutter’s urban photographs are like X-ray images of the city. In spite of its apparent emptiness, the city is presented as a place consisting of layers and superimpositions. Its emptiness is deceptive, for the city is marked by the density of buildings, goods, people, information, and activities.

However, as Lutter’s oeuvre amply illustrates, the nineteenth-century urban model of the metropolis as dense and congested has been replaced by a new, diluted, posturban landscape that is strongly characterized by what anthropologist Marc Augé has called “non-places.”4 According to Augé, these are spaces that have no specific meaning to anyone and that no longer act as meeting points. In contrast with the agora, the forum, and the village or city square, these non-places are occupied only occasionally and on a strictly isolated basis, and they are no longer capable of expressing collective identities. However, Augé argues that today’s cities increasingly consist of such spaces, and that they are especially located in the domains of mobility and consumption. Lutter’s oeuvre amply illustrates these developments since it largely focuses on airports, train stations, harbors, shipyards, and cargo fields on the one hand, and derelict factories and abandoned power stations on the other. Lutter’s ephemeral images perfectly express the increasing importance of mobility and transport and the delocalization of industries, as well as the loss of a sense of place that these phenomena imply. Captured by Lutter’s camera obscura, massive transportation infrastructures, downtown Manhattan, and the monuments of Venice are presented as components of what Manuel Castells has called the “space of flows.” Studying the relationships between technological advances and the transformations of capitalism, Castells argued that the most significant consequence of parallel technological and organizational changes in the social realm is the reconstruction of social meaning in a “space of flows.” The space of places is superseded by the space of flows. The new economic space is made up of an asymmetrical network of exchanges that is not dependent on the specificity of locale. As Castells succinctly notes, “People live in places, power rules through flows.”5 Cities—or, rather, certain cities—have become nodes within this space of flows, while others are losing their relevance. Castells convincingly demonstrates that as a result of transformations in the late-capitalist production process, the traditional hierarchical relationship between center and periphery have been radically altered.

Facing the complexity of today’s urban landscape, Lutter’s images seem to demonstrate that a direct visualization of the city is no longer possible. Paradoxically, her use of the age-old, proto-photographic technique of the camera obscura produces urban images that are not at odds with the wide variety of so-called post-photographic perspectives, forms, structures, or procedures that are employed today to visualize the contemporary cityscape. Many contemporary photographers emphasize that a direct, uncompromised, mimetic relationship with the urban is no longer possible. Remarkably, many artists seem to cope with the artificiality of the posturban environment by highlighting the artificiality of their own images. In so doing, they respond positively to Martha Rosler’s plea for “images in which manipulation is itself apparent, and not just as a form of artistic reflexivity but to make a larger point about the truth value of photographs and the illusionistic elements in the surface of (and even the definition of) ‘reality.’”6 These artificial images can be the result of subtle or conspicuous digital processing, as in the works of Vincenzo Castella, Andreas Gefeller, and Jules Spinatsch, among many others. Other artists, by contrast, highlight the artificiality of both their photographs and their subjects by mere photographic means: employing remarkable light conditions (Frank van der Salm, Thomas Ruff), using the system for perspective-adjustment in improper ways (Olivo Barbieri, Marc Räder), by chronophotographic procedures (Michael Wesely), or due to a process of chromatic inversion (Francesco Pignatelli). Still other artists stage their urban scenes with the help of props and scale models (Thomas Demand, Edwin Zwakman), whereas photographers such as Alexander Timtschenko, Luigi Ghiri, Claudio Hills, and Miles Coolidge have photographed real simulations of the urban, such as the fake Venice in Las Vegas, miniature cities, and artificial towns that serve as sites for training children to deal with street traffic and soldiers with urban combat situations. In short, numerous examples of contemporary urban photography present artificial spaces and constructions as real, whereas the real is interpreted as the result of processes of staging and strategies of concealment. The contemporary cityscape is turned into an uncanny realm that consists of scale models, shiny surfaces, and lighting techniques that refer to the optical modes of both entertainment and surveillance that invisibly govern the urban environment.

Undoubtedly, this “deconstruction” of the visual language of both the city and its photography can be interpreted as a self-reflexive stance, which is often the result of a modernist-inspired urge to investigate the photographic medium and of postmodern experiments with the contamination of divergent media. However, the predilection for the artificial is certainly also provoked by the proliferation of images and the practices of staging that urban policy makers increasingly use. In an age of city marketing, which relies heavily on commercialized urban images, contemporary urban photographers are compelled to take a self-conscious position in relation to their own medium and the functions it serves. The reluctance of these artists to depict the city by means of “straight photography” is undoubtedly inspired by the complexity of today’s cityscapes, which are themselves increasingly staged, simulated, and turned into images by the processes of gentrification, mall-ification, and tourism.7

Lutter’s urban imagery brings an interesting nuance to this tendency. On the one hand, bathed in a seemingly lunar light, her spectral renderings of skyscraper cities, power stations, and airports share similarities with those of many other artists who deploy post-photographic techniques and strategies in order to evoke processes that are invisible and thus hard to photograph—processes such as spatial disintegration, social segregation, and the artificiality of the contemporary built environment. Answering to a kind of sci-fi aesthetics, Lutter’s images, too, evoke a liquid city, an urban landscape that is silent but a living organism that broods in an eerie light. On the other hand, her uncanny urban images are highly literal instances of “straight photography” that have nothing to do with the flashy Photoshop aesthetic so favored by many so contemporary art photographers who confront the vastness and complexity of today’s built environment. After all, the camera obscura is the perfect illustration of the indexical nature of analogue photography, a kind of “automatic writing” (another Surrealist reference) of the world itself. However, Lutter also questions the direct relationship between the fictional and the factual in a series of pictures that show spaces in which her photographs have been installed. Since the camera captures a negative image, a double inversion occurs, which results in a positive image within a negative image of urban landscapes and postindustrial ruins. Conflating photographic subject, camera, and exhibition space, Lutter demonstrates how debates about the nature of images in the post-photographic age of digital simulation have only revived the relevance of proto-photographic media such as the camera obscura.8

Hovering between the silent images of the modern metropolis of nineteenth-century photographers and the spectacular imagery of the contemporary city, Lutter has also set up her camera obscura in the vicinity of world-famous monuments such as the squares and canals of Venice and the pyramids in Egypt. Not coincidentally, both locales are not only top destinations in the era of global tourism but also sites that for centuries have attracted the attention of travelers who have made or collected graphic, pictorial, or photographic images of these places. Lutter’s archaic technique inevitably recalls the earliest photographs of these monuments.

Connected with the production and distribution of images from its inception, tourism more or less developed simultaneously with photography. Both products of industrial modernity, they are inherently connected. Since the mid-nineteenth century, tourism has been a search for the photogenic, and travel has been transformed into an activity of accumulating pictures. In his book The Tourist Gaze, John Urry speaks of a hermeneutic circle: traveling means looking for opportunities to make reproductions of photographs that have already been produced and distributed, those very views that provided the incentives for making the trip.9 The tourist gaze, then, operates very selectively. Supported by photography, traveling is transformed into a movement from one sight to another. Disturbing elements are effaced. Tourist spaces are organized according to what Dean MacCannell has called “staged authenticity.”10 After all, the notion of authenticity, which plays an important part in the discourse of tourism, is a product of the process of modernization that entails fragmentation, instability, and inauthenticity. Tourism is, on the one hand, a product of this process—tourist attractions are elements detached from their original context and therefore perfect photographic subjects. On the other hand, tourism is identified as a remedy against fragmentation. Although the tourist gaze selects and fragments, “sightseeing,” according to MacCannell, “is a ritual performed to the differentiations of society. Sightseeing is a kind of collective striving for transcendence of the modern totality, a way of attempting to overcome the discontinuity of modernity, of incorporating its fragments into a unified experience.”11 The tourist ritual, in other words, implies the consecration of certain places, and photography contributes to this. Paradoxically, the mechanical reproduction of images is what puts the tourist in motion in order to look at the original. A spot only becomes authentic when copies of it are produced, distributed, and consumed. In a brilliant and ironic inversion of Walter Benjamin’s thesis on mechanical reproduction, MacCannell states that the age of mechanical reproduction does not deliver the final blow to the aura of the work of art. On the contrary, photographic reproductions themselves have become the aura of the original. Thus, the widespread pictures of Venetian canals, churches, and palaces lend luster to the real city of Venice.

In the posturban landscape of global networks, historical cities such as Venice are more and more presented and sold as collections of images. They are not only endlessly reproduced photographically; they are often also literally turned into simulacra or reflections of themselves and their pasts. As Deyan Sudjic, Elizabeth Wilson, M. Christine Boyer, and other critics and scholars have demonstrated, the histories of cities have been manipulated, recycled, simulated, and artificially resuscitated in the interests of commercial tourism.12 Some European historical city centers, for instance, have been changed into open-air museums—a qualification that certainly applies to Venice. Its peculiar topography prevented the massive transformations that most other cities underwent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Emphasis on the historical identity of a city is, on the one hand, enables the European city to prove that it is capable of resisting the process of urban dilution. On the other hand, however, stressing historical identity indicates that the city is losing its other economic functions and is restructuring itself according to the logic of mass tourism.

In Lutter’s images, of course, the ubiquitous tourists are either completely absent or transformed into blurry ghosts. Lutter evokes a Venice before the era of mass tourism, the Venice of the Grand Tour as depicted by early photographers such as John Ellis, John Ruskin, Carlo Naya, Carlo Ponti, and many anonymous others.13 These photographers unmistakably relied on a rich tradition of pictorial and graphic vedute that culminated in the oeuvre of Canaletto, who is thought to have used the camera obscura. With its glorious architecture, art treasures, and spectacular topography, Venice attracted many travelers, scholars, and tourists, but early photographers were certainly also fascinated by the city because it offered the possibility of juxtaposing monuments and waterways, which were transformed into mirror-like surfaces without the appearance of undulations due to lengthy exposure times. Since Venice’s canals functioned as in situ reflectors, it was photogenic by nature. Moreover, nineteenth-century urban photographers also favored the water surfaces of rivers and canals because they enabled them to take a more distant position vis-à-vis the urban landscapes, which were often characterized by narrow and dark streets. Characterized by a complex play of reflections and various degrees of transparency, the water in Lutter’s images of Venice is transformed into a membrane of pure light on which the buildings seem to float. Strikingly, Lutter’s Venetian images include some of the flooded Piazza San Marco, so that the absence of tourists might be linked to an impending ecological disaster. Although Lutter’s images of Venice unmistakably evoke a city unbesmirched by mass tourism, they are not instances of nostalgia. The inversion of light and darkness presents the city’s monuments as if they were lit by the artificial lights of the era of city marketing and civic boosterism.

Monuments are not usually motifs for Lutter, yet because her work literally inscribes the traces of time, the history of the monument might be recalled. Nineteenth-century urban photography was closely related to the notion of the monument, which was triggered by the process of urban modernization that inevitably entailed the destruction of historical buildings. Both a product of industrial modernity and a means of fixing time, photography became a tool for commemoration from the start. Lutter has even photographically explored archetypal monuments such as the pyramids of Giza and Dahsur, which she photographed in 2010 with the help of an overseas travel trunk transformed into a pinhole camera. With their inverted relationship of darkness and light, Lutter’s camera obscura images are the perfect medium for visualizing the pyramids, those mysterious places set in the blinding light of the desert. Like a camera obscura, a pyramid is a device of light; for its shape is thought to represent the descending rays of the sun. Most pyramids, moreover, were faced with polished, highly reflective white limestone in order to give them a brilliance when viewed from a distance. In the Great Pyramid, one of the narrow shafts that extends from the main burial chamber points directly toward a dark part of the sky. Lutter’s images perfectly evoke the pyramids as mysterious time machines and devices of light and darkness, the ephemeral and the eternal. Surrounded by dark skies, the pyramids are presented as magically radiant stones in a mysterious expanse of blackness—the expanse of the universe that fascinated the builders of the pyramids, but also the expanse of the “space of flows” of global capitalism that situate these monuments in a world of abundant image production.

Notes

  • 1 Information on the production process of Lutter’s pictures can be found in interviews such as Vera Lutter and Adam Budak, “Conversation: Collapsed Space,” in Vera Lutter: Inside In (Graz and Cologne: Kunsthaus Graz and Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2004), pp. 42–61; and Peter Wollen, “Vera Lutter,” Bomb 85 (Fall 2003). See http://bombsite.com/issues/85/articles/2584.
  • 2 Steven Jacobs, “Amor Vacui: Photography and the Image of the Empty City,” History of Photography 30, no.2 (Summer 2006), pp. 108–18.
  • 3 Ian Walker, City Gorged With Dreams: Surrealism and Documentary Photography in Interwar Paris (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002).
  • 4 Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso, 1995).
  • 5 Manuel Castells, The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban-Regional Process (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), p. 349.
  • 6 Martha Rosler, “Image Simulations, Computer Manipulations: Some Contradictions,” in Photography after Photography: Memory and Representation in the Digital Age, ed. Hubertus von Amelunxen, Stefan Iglhaut, and Florian Rötzler (Amsterdam [?]: G+B Arts, 1996), 45
  • 7 Steven Jacobs, “Photographing Posturban Space: The Demise of Street Photography and the Rise of the Spectacular,” in Spectacular City: Photographing the Future (Rotterdam: Nai Publishers, 2006), pp. 169–72.
  • 8 See Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), and Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).
  • 9 John Urry, The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies (London: Sage Publications, 1990). See also Tom Selwyn (ed.), The Tourist Image: Myths and Mythmaking in Modern Tourism (Chichester: Wiley, 1996); Carol Crawshaw and John Urry, “Tourism and the Photographic Eye,” in Touring Cultures: Transformations of Travel and Theory, ed. Chris Rojek and John Urry (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 176–95; Mike Crang, “Knowing, Tourism, and Practices of Vision,” in Leisure/Tourism Geographies: Practices and Geographical Knowledge, ed. David Crouch (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 238–56; and Peter D. Osborne, Travelling Light: Photography, Travel and Visual Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).
  • 10 Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (Berkeley: California University Press, 1999), pp. 91–107.
  • 11 Ibid., 13.
  • 12 Deyan Sudjic, The 100 Mile City (London: Flamingo, 1993); Elizabeth Wilson, “Looking Backward: Nostalgia and the City,” in Imagining Cities: Scripts, Signs, Memory, ed. Sallie Westwood and John Williams (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 136; M. Christine Boyer, The City and Collective Memory: Its Historical Imagery and Architectural Entertainments (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), pp. 421–76.
  • 13 Italo Zannier, Le Grand Tour in the Photographs of Travelers of the 19th Century (Venice: Canal Editions, 1997).