“The Room and the I: The Work of Vera Lutter” Stephan Schmidtt-Wulffen
Vera Lutter: Inside In
Kunsthaus Graz, 2004

Since Antiquity, the camera obscura has been a space large enough for a person to stand in, totally enclosed, with a small hole in one side through which the incident light casts a mirror image of the outside world onto the opposite side. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, this “dark chamber” was an instrument of observation. For it was only then that it became possible to use chemical processes to fix the fleeting image. Lenses, however, had been in existence since the mid-sixteenth century, with which to increase the intensity of the light, heighten the sharpness of the image, or eventually, to shorten the focal length, as was achieved by Daniel Schwenter in 1636. This invention permitted the reduction of the camera space and thus led to the development of portable models.1

The camera obscura as used by Vera Lutter does not avail itself of any of these optical improvements. Her apparatus completely corresponds to the primitive model and therefore must also be as big as a chamber. Vera Lutter does, however, use photographic paper to fix the mirrored projection, attaching it to the wall opposite the hole. When a lens of an unknown focal length is used, it is not possible to deduce the distance and size of the motif from the format of the photograph. In Vera Lutter’s black-and-white photographs, by contrast, the viewer can make firm deductions concerning the spatial relations in which the images were produced because the artist foregoes technical refinements when taking her photographs, and does not intervene subsequently in the development of the print. The elementary optics put the viewer in a similar position tot hat of the artist. The format of the image corresponds to the size of the rear wall of the camera obscura, and therefore seems to be a part of a building that extends into the same room as the photographer, and the reconstruction of which the photograph in the exhibition assigns to the viewer.

The Photograph as a Form of Sculptural Practice

The spatial division characteristic of the camera obscura would appear to be essentially related to the world-view of the sixteenth century. In his Order of Things, Michel Foucault gives an insight into the relationship between reality and image prevailing at that time. Both were regarded as signs of a world-order inscribed by the creator on the surface of the earth. “Knowledge therefore consisted in relating one form of language to another form of language; in restoring the great unbroken plain of words and things; in making everything speak.”2 The camera obscura would seem to serve this language of nature, for it allows it to paint its own images. In 1839, François Arago presented Daguerres invention to the Académie des Sciences in Paris, announcing that here, light itself reproduced the forms and proportions of the objects, and not the human hand.3

In this sixteenth-century epistemology, seeing is not an isolated, subjective, transient and kinetic process, but part of the universal order, and for this very reason capable of truth. Jonathan Crary has pointed to the resulting relationship between seeing and touching, because an absolute truth must emerge in all of the senses at one and the same time. “The certainty of knowledge did not depend solely on the eye but on a more general relation of a unified human sensorium to a delimited space or order on which positions could be known and compared.”4 Until the eighteenth century, knowledge of space and depth seems to be an ordered collecting and inter-relating of perceptions at a level that is independent of the viewer. Due to the clear relationships between the image and the original motifs and the space in which they are to be found, Vera Lutter’s photography resembles such a tentative collecting and linking. The medium of photography itself regulates the view of these sculptural aspects, given that this work is not just about perception but above all about the construction of correspondences in space.

Vera Lutter’s artistic career actually began with sculpture.5 The materials she typically used for her sculptures were clay and porcelain. Pressing and casting with matrices enables the production of a series of similar elements. Most of Vera Lutter’s sculptures are arrangements of such individual parts. Even when she dissects a cylinder, arecurrent basic element in her early sculptures, along a central borehole, her interest is evidently in those relationships between inside and outside, or simply those between elements requiring to be assembled into a whole in our imagination. In a work which she only completed in 1992, five huge clay rings lie next to their removed cores, albeit in reverse order: the smallest core beside the largest circular opening; the perspectival tapering of the rings is answered by the schema of a sight cone. A red glaze on the inside of the rings and on the outside of the cores indicates analogous correspondences. A serial structure creates inner connections and thus suggests comparative operations, as, for example, when nine porcelain cylinders are grouped in threes and presented on a platform. The minimalism of the 1960s, to which Vera Lutter owes her formal idiom, had made manipulation by means of laying, standing and ordering things in space an important feature of the works through the minimizing of forms. The works of many minimalist artists involve rows of identical or similar elements. In a surprising way, Vera Lutter transfers this structural concept of the work, for which the early sculptures of Sol LeWitt are perhaps the most obvious basis, to photography. The relationship between mould and cast is that of a mirror-image and corresponds to the relationship between the camera obscura photograph and its motif. The relationship between inside and outside is represented in the cylinder borehole and the extracted core, like that of the dark chamber to its surroundings. The relations and inversions that emerge as co-ordinates between the rows of sculptural elements are continued in the correspondences between individual motifs and their inverted photographic representations.

As of 1992, the year before Vera Lutter went to New York, images, metaphors for perceptive processes, gradually enter her minimalist formal idiom. The multi-part work mentioned above, only finished by her that year, can also be interpreted as two telescopes lying one beside the other. She also produced a work consisting of twelve porcelain rings placed irregularly behind one another, which also addresses the theme of looking through something. Finally, the artist placed five ceramic rings in the display window at the Munich Kunstverein arranged so that they seemed liked optical appliances for viewing from outside to inside. In her new apartment on Eighth Avenue, Vera Lutter often stood at the window looking out at the hustle and bustle of this district of New York, which by day accommodates the textile business and by night is the red-light district. Using the technique of the camera obscura the artist brings the outside events into her room so as to study them more carefully, while herself remaining unobserved. She produced the first photograph in February 1994.6 This image is a particularly clear illustration of the specific spatial work achieved through the medium of the camera obscura. Because her room’s central heating pipes, behind which the photographic paper was secured, are visible above the silhouette of New York, the relationship between inside and outside, between the motif outside the window and the space inside, is recognizable. The pipes also indicate that for the purposes of the exhibition the image was upended.

In later works, Vera Lutter foregoes any explicit reference to the place where the photographic paper was mounted.7 However, the titles of the photographs, which refer to the place and time of the shot, remain an important indicator of the link between production and perception. They are part of a network of data from which a typology unfolds: from the format of the photograph one can deduce the size of the camera, suggesting a relationship between this space, imagined as an extension of the shot, and the real space in front of it, which in turn can be deduced from the content of the photograph. The reference to the exposure time indicates the prevailing light conditions.

The Image in the Image

When Vera Lutter began working in a part of the disused Pepsi Cola factory on New York’s East River in summer 2000, she was preparing a quantum leap for this kind of image-immanent geometry that went far beyond the simple relationships established by the medium of the camera obscura. A commission from the Dia Foundation, who had made the reconstruction of the former Nabisco factory in Beacon the occasion for an art project, had again, for the first time since 1994, directed the artist’s gaze to an inside space.8 One year later, she was to look for a similar working space in the immediate neighborhood of that disused Pepsi Cola factory. Although the first shots still betray a documentary mode of perception, the first successful photograph, Pepsi Cola Interior III, July 17–24, 2000, touches on a further theme: three openings in the wall directly opposite the camera are not easy for the eye to interpret. Experience suggests that they are gates, but they could also be mirrors or even pictures.

Vera Lutter had already been preoccupied with the image in the image. After taking the first two successful camera obscura photographs in her room on Eighth Avenue, in 1994 the artist had to move into a flat with very few windows. Given that her living and working space at that time were one and the same, her new mode of working now seemed to have become impossible. Her new room did however have a disused fireplace, which Vera Lutter turned into a camera obscura in order to record the events inside her flat. On 2 May 1994 she thus produced a still-life of a table with a bottle, a glass and a bunch of gladioli on it. Hanging in the background is the second photograph from her old flat, Looking North, 545 Eighth Avenue, February 19, 1994. Leaning against the same wall is, by chance, a mirror, which provides a view of the rear section of the room. Right next to this mirror is the wing of an open glass door. All three elements – the photograph, the mirror and the door – resemble each other in form, suggesting a unified level of reality. Although the photograph from the factory, Pepsi Cola Interior III, July, 17 – 24, 2000, shows three openings, the similarity between the 1994 images with the photograph, mirror and door-wing and the three gates six years later may have suggested this game with different degrees of reality, with images and meta-images.

One year later, Vera Lutter was still working – apart from interruptions imposed by the cold of winter – in the Pepsi Cola factory. She then got the idea of photographing a photograph taken there in the factory, from 17 – 29 June, once again and at the very same spot. Pepsi Cola Interior XV: August 5 – 16, 2001 is the first work – after the more playful attempt of 1994 – to show a photograph in a photograph. The position of the camera obscura was obviously unchanged between the first and the second photograph. In order that the first photograph, measuring 229 x 426.7 cm, did not completely block the view of the real space, it was hung at some distance and is therefore perspectivally reduced, from the right to the centre of the room. This produces an echo effect: the column at the middle of this second order hung image corresponds with that in the first order photograph. The broken display-case-like machine at the right edge of the second order photo finds a correspondence in the same machine at the left edge of the first order image. Scraps of metal in the centre ground left correspond to those on the hung image right. As the camera obscura photograph reverses all grey tones and reproduces bright light as intense blackness, in addition to these formal correspondences, the grey tones in the two interlinked pictorial spaces undergo an inversion: what is bright in the image of the first order is dark in the image of the second order, and vice versa. What appears negative becomes positive. The camera obscura image photographed once again by a camera obscura becomes a black-and-white image that is less abstract, apparently more realistic.

As a result of this method, the geometric spatial order of the camera obscura with its many and varied correspondences is raised to the second power. Its conceptual, space-creating mechanisms seem to be represented again in the image itself. As a result, both pictorial spaces become more ambiguous, more abstract. The co-ordinates, by means of which the viewer tries to imagine the spatial structures, become more obscure because they are more complex. This puts the viewpoint of the recipient in question. One might even say that the identity of the viewer becomes questionable. Has Vera Lutter, as producer, also put a question mark over her own position?

The Image of the Photographer

In Mind Set, Studio III, April 2 – 18, 2003 Vera Lutter takes us into her studio, which she has set up once more at the old location on Eighth Avenue. Studio paintings, from Velazquez’ Las Meninas to Vermeer’s Schilderconst to Courbet’s Atelier, have always been programmatic inquiries into the role of the artist. Velazquez looks the viewer in the eye, as he steps back from his painting; he is ascribed the position of the model. Vermeer, seemingly oblivious of the people around him, turns his back on the viewer, who is watching the artist at work unnoticed, like a voyeur. In his Allegorie réelle, Courbet, surrounded by friends, demonstratively raises his brush again, lovingly watched by a naked model and a boy – a conceptual painting located in the mind of the viewers and thwarting the visual constructions by dissolving the unity of place and time. The two studio pictures published to date by Vera Lutter bear witness to this tradition in a paradoxical way: they too wish to address the role of the artist, yet the producer remains invisible.

In the first known self-portrait, a French miniature from Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus of 1402, the mirror already plays a major role: we see the artist, Marcia, painting her portrait using a hand mirror. Here, the same motif is repeated not just once, as in many of the Pepsi Cola Interiors; we see it three times: the artist, her portrait and the reflection of her face in the mirror. In Vera Lutter’s studio where – unlike at the Pepsi Cola factory – vandalism does not have to be reckoned with, the artist was able to use wall-size mirrors for the first time.9 These again heighten the correspondences by comparison with the orders that can be achieved with the photograph in the photograph. In Studio III the wall-high mirror stands diagonally in the room opposite the camera obscura, in which the paper is exposed over a period of sixteen days. In front of the room-size wooden case that serves as a camera are two fragments of earlier works – as we can see from the reflection in the mirror. These largely conceal the body of the camera: on the right, two panels from Pepsi Cola Interior VIII of October 2000 show the above-mentioned display-case-like machine. The middle panel of Pepsi Cola Interior III of July 2000 can be seen on the left. Apart from the time-spaces thus constructed by the photograph, the mirror also provides a decisive and new function for the space constructions of both producer and viewer: to what is actually depicted it adds something that is in fact programmatically excluded, namely, what is going on behind the camera, the producer and the viewer. In Velazquez’ painting there is a mirror on the wall behind the artist’s back showing what his gaze is directed at and thus bringing something into the painting that is actually outside it. Yet occasionally Velazquez too requires a mirror, instead of the Spanish royal couple, in order to see himself behind the easel. Vermeer, it is assumed, held in his left hand a small mirror by means of which he was able to look into a large mirror behind his back.10 What is initially interesting in the case of Vera Lutter is that she has acquired a new dimension in which to posit relationships, that from the inside of the image to its outside. To the extension and redirection of the gaze facilitated by the introduction of a photograph into the real space to be photographed is now added the reversal of the direction of the gaze. Cultural history conditions in the viewer what this inversion of the gaze is supposed to make visible: the photographer.11 In Vera Lutter’s studio picture we see that old instrument of studio- and self-portraiture, the mirror, but we do not see its usual outcome; the place of the artist remains empty.

There is a technical reason why she is missing: the exposure times of these images in interior spaces are so long – 27 days in the case of Studio III – that the presence of the artist is simply not registered. To put it more precisely: the light rays she emits meet the photographic paper and cause a physical change, but this is below the threshold of perception.12 Vera Lutter opted for this medium precisely because of this technical impossibility. It causes her to disappear in the work.13 For Vera Lutter the camera obscura is important because as a piece of technology it is to a high degree subject-related. She took her first photographs with it because she no longer wanted to be watching the events of the red-light district in full view, preferring instead to bring them into the privacy of her own room. This “standing on the inside looking in” is essential to her work. “I’m standing with my back to the world,” says Vera Lutter; and “you are invisible when you take photographs”.14 This was the reason for her demand that the space of her artistic production coincide with her private living space. She soon rejected that demand,15 but mainly because she recognized that with her photographic method she could “privatize” every other space. Due to its optical structure, the camera obscura enables this reversal of the direction of the gaze from outside to inside, whereby photography replaces direct experience. Another decisive aspect of this annulment of presence is the temporality created by the camera obscura. It is a time-machine that is so geared to duration that human presence is no longer registered as perceptible. As a result, Vera Lutter can be in the picture without her actions becoming evident. It has been repeatedly pointed out that Vera Lutter cannot leave her dark chamber during the exposure process.16 The actual fact is that for short exposure times and with correspondingly bright light, the artist remains in the camera, where she can intervene to regulate the intensity of the incident light. During long exposure times, such as those required by the photographs in the disused Pepsi Cola workshop or in her own studio, she occasionally checks the state of the camera and the paper, which means that she is only present temporarily.17 The decisive phenomenon here is not the waiting around in the cold or the heat, or the existential abandonment in isolation, but the presence of the artist in the work as determined by the workings of the camera obscura: intermittent and not visibly apprehensible. Just as the artist constantly operates in the space inside the camera and is “in the picture” through her involuntary or intentional modifications of the incident light, so too does she operate in the space of the studio, that arena documented in Studio III by the mirror and camera. Studio V provides vague indications of such intervening movements: hazy outlines can be discerned, of ladders and a mirror, which were set up for a short space of time.

In his important book, Techniques of the Observer, Jonathan Crary repeatedly refers to the “incorporeal relations of the camera obscura”18 and the “suppression of subjectivity” it brings about due to its geometrical optics.19 The camera obscura prevents the observer from grasping his own position as part of the depiction. Crary comes to this conclusion with reference to the concept of reality of the sixteenth century, as described by Foucault, in which God-given truths appear autonomously. “On the one hand the observer is disjunct from the pure operation of the device and is there as a disembodied witness to a mechanical and transcendental re-presentation of the objectivity of the world. On the other hand, however, his or her presence in the camera implies a spatial and temporal simultaneity of human subjectivity and objective apparatus. Thus the spectator is a more free-floating inhabitant of the darkness, a marginal supplementary presence independent of the machinery of representation.”20 As an observer, Vera Lutter participates in this epistemological mechanism of the camera obscura. It complies with her need to participate in a public event in her own private space, without being part of it. Crary’s theory, however, does not provide for the possibility of the transient image in the camera being fixed photochemically. Yet it is this very fixing and the accumulation of time in the photographic image associated with it that undermines the suppression of subjectivity hinted at by Crary.

For the first time, the mirror in Mind Set shows not the artist but the room in which she perceives the world while being concealed from that world. Yet the photograph we see that was taken there, Mind Set, refers to this concealed inner world. In a time shift it renders public what the artist saw privately. This linking of a space signifying concealment with the making public of the perception of the person concealed indicates that we have to seek Vera Lutter’s identity not in a shape, but in a form of perception. Ultimately, all Vera Lutter’s spatial constructions, relations, correspondences, are gazes. The actors of these sequences of gazes change: initially Vera Lutter comes into view at the beginning of all the declinations of perception, but her work aims at handing over her place to the viewers as soon as possible. Were she ever to appear in the mirror, this programmatic change of place would be disrupted. Finally, if we take up our position as conceived by the artist, we still encounter her: not as a portrait, but in the distinctiveness and intention of her seeing.

Notes

  • 1 Cf. H. and A. Gernsheim, A Concise History of Photography, London 1971 (2nd edition), pp. 11ff: Girolamo Cardano made the first improvement to the camera obscura, known since antiquity, in 1550. Two bi-convex lenses bundled the sunlight and produced a brighter image. Daniello Barbaro succeeded in achieving a greater sharpness of the image in 1568 using different lenses. Finally, in 1636 the mathematics professor Daniel Schwenter managed to shorten the focal distance by constructing a system of lenses. Whereas the moveable lens enabled different frames to be projected in one and the same room, it was above all the shortening of the focal length that facilitated the production of the first portable camera obscura, albeit two decades later.
  • 2 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, Tavistock Publications Limited, London, 1970, p. 40.
  • 3 Cf. A. Scharf, Art and Photography, Harmondsworth 1968, p. 25. In 1764 the writer and collector Count Francesco Algarotti, who praised the camera obscura as a useful tool for artists, lauded an image “by the hand of Nature herself…” Cf.a.a.O., p. 22.
  • 4 J. Crary, Techniques of the Observer. On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, 1996, p. 60.
  • 5 Vera Lutter studied sculpture under Hans Baschang at the Munich Kunstakademie from 1984 to 1992.
  • 6 545 Eighth Avenue, East: February 2, 1994, 167.6 x 213 cm.
  • 7 One exception is The Hut, Fulton Ferry Landing, 23 Juni 1996, 136 x 105 cm. This photograph shows a view of a landing bridge in the Hudson. On the right, a flag house extends into the image, pointing like a sign to the place where the photograph emerged; a cell resembling the hut on the landing stage.
  • 8 Cf. Nabisco Factory, Beacon I, 19 – 22 July 1999, 263 x 427 cm.
  • 9 In 2003 she worked at her studio and in the Pepsi Cola factory in parallel. Pepsi Cola Interior, XXII, May 30 – June 30, 2003 is the first work to use two large mirrors in the abandoned factory workshops.
  • 10 Cf. K. G. Hultén, Zu Vermeers Atelierbild, in Konsthistorik Tijdschrift Vol.18, 1949, No. 2 – 3, pp. 90ff.
  • 11 Cf. the self-portrait by Albert Renger-Patzsch in car headlights, c. 1926.
  • 12 In various work series Vera Lutter has addressed these borderline phenomena of the photograph resulting from the long exposure times and of particular intensity with the camera obscura. For example in 1999, when she photographed a Zeppelin in a hangar in Friedrichshafen; it was in the image for such a short time that it is only barely outlined. Similarly she also documented a ship landing at a stage there, and in 2001 the movements of airplanes at Frankfurt airport. She repeatedly depicts water surfaces whose wave movements are levelled to a magical fog-like surface as a result of the exposure time.
  • 13 While I was writing this text, Vera Lutter provided me with an early note she made of an item of news from a British journal. The report was about a worker in a silver oxide factory who had absorbed so much silver that he became dark when the incident light was strong, like a photograph. She had always tried to become part of the work, the artist commented in this note.
  • 14 These statements are from a conversation at the artist’s studio in October 2003.
  • 15 In autumn 1994 she produced East View, Old Slip, 8.10.1994, the first image in a strange space.
  • 16 Cf. Russel Ferguson, Vera Lutter: Das Bild nimmt Gestalt an, in exhib. cat. Vera Lutter, Kunsthalle Basel, Basel 2001, no page numbers: “What at first may seem like an absolutely impersonal gaze is ultimately closely linked with the physical actions of the artist.” Or Jonathan Crary, Visionary Operations, in Roth Horowitz LLC (ed.), Newton, Crary, Lutter, no page numbers: “Her practice necessarily involves the incorporation of her own bodily presence into the operation of the camera, so that the long exposure time of her often large images is also a time literally inhabiting the camera.”
  • 17 This can be proven by the fact alone that the production times of Studio V and Pepsi Cola Interior XXIII coincide.
  • 18 Crary, a.a.O., p. 27.
  • 19 Crary, a.a.O., p. 20.
  • 20 Crary, a.a.O., p. 51.
  • Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen studied philosopy, theoretical linguistics and communication aesthetics (PhD 1987). Professorship for art theory at the Academy of Fine Arts, Hamburg (1987–2002); between 1992 and 2001 Director of Kunstverein, Hamburg; since 2002 rector of the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. Publications include a.o.: Spielregeln (Cologne 1987), Kunst...Arbeit (Stuttgart 1999), perfektimperfekt (Freiburg 2001).