The images I make are abstracted from the reality from which they issue. This is apparent not only because of the negative format of the images but also in the unusual behaviour of the shadows in my work. Because the long exposures incorporate the natural cycles and movements of the elements, the shadows aren't precisely cast. This encourages a mysterious and uncanny quality in the image and allows the shadows – and, through them, the work – to speak about the character of time itself. I am interested in taking the viewer outside of the everyday world, in creating an image that matches an internal one. With this goal, I capture the same scene multiple times using different exposures, looking for the familiar, the surprising, and the unknown in each image.
The Effelsberg Radio Telescope is an instrument that fits both requirements: It is at once a familiar object yet complex and changeable. Spanning 100 meters in diameter, it is one of the largest radio telescopes in the world. It was constructed in a small valley in the town of Effelsberg near Bad Münstereifel in the western region of Germany. Built far away from densely populated areas, it attempts to circumvent short-wave radio signals, like those from cell phones or televisions, that interfere with the data the scientists collect. The work exhibited in Remember Everything shows the telescope positioned in a 90-degree angle to the Earth, scanning the universe for information from a distant past.
In 2004, I effectively turned the Max Hetzler Gallery into a camera obscura. At the end of the gallery’s large, vaulted space on Holzmarktstrasse in Berlin, behind a freestanding wall, was a small window with an astounding view of the river Spree and the opposite shoreline. In August, while the gallery was closed, I darkened the space and spent a few weeks producing this image. Exhibited in the following show was what the space itself "saw" the month before. The previously hidden view was, quite literally, flipped onto the opposite side of the freestanding wall and revealed to the gallery’s visitors. To me this was a perfect example of an immediate transfer of experience: The space functioned both as the camera that conceived the image and the exhibition space that presented it.
When Max Hetzler invited me to Eifel, I originally wanted to photograph the German forests. But the forests in Eifel were not the ones I was looking for, and the weather presented some logistical difficulties. I spent some time researching the region and discovered the Maria Laach Benedictine Abbey. Interested in the particular Romanesque architecture, its stunning symmetry, and the intimate setting of the Abbey, I chose to photograph it. With the light values of my image reversed, the windows of the Abbey, usually in shadow, seem to be emitting light from within. The monks who know the building well felt my work and this aspect of my technique uniquely conveyed the spirit of the place. The beautiful German word, das Abbild, meaning likeness or an image taken of something, characterizes my work in a way that is more difficult to describe in English. Though it depends on what exists in the world, my work is not a copy or a direct reproduction of what you are looking at; it's something else entirely.
When I worked in the dimly lit basement of Dia:Beacon, captured in reverse, it too became a space mysteriously glowing of light. The works I made there led to my interest in photographing old forests, the structure of which is echoed in the basement’s columns. In a memory from long ago, I am walking through one of these forests seeing the massive old tree trunks as a gathering of tall columns within a vast and airy structure. My search for an old-growth forest is ongoing. It is hard to find since everywhere in the world old trees are being cut down. In the winter, when the trees have shed their leaves, sunlight reaches the ground, and the image, again in reverse, will give a sensation of light glowing among giants.
There is not an obvious straight line between the various projects I have chosen to work on over the past 20 years, but in many ways the images correspond and interact with one another. Certain subjects and ideas regularly reappear in my working process. The Pantheon in Rome comes to my mind when I think of Maria Laach. For thousands of years, it has been a spiritual site: first a pagan temple, then a church, and, in my eyes, this amazing building is also a pinhole camera. I tried to obtain permission to photograph the Pantheon from the inside. Obviously an ambitious plan it was impossible to penetrate Italian bureaucracy. My exposure would have been two or three months long and would have fixed the travelling light from the dome’s oculus onto the photographic paper. The image of the Pantheon would have had an interesting parallel with the images of Maria Laach, with my other architectural interiors, and of course with my recurring interest in the nature of light and time. This is just one instance of many in which logistics affect what kind of work gets made.
Even though my work depends a lot on process, I always aim to not be didactic. I never want to give overt evidence to the workings of photography. That is one of the reasons why I do not show my camera as part of an installation. Presenting an image on its own allows for greater complexity than if I were to show the viewer a camera obscura as well. I want the work itself to mesmerize people enough so that they start thinking about something other than what is in the image. Of course, the experience of sitting inside a camera obscura and discovering the image for oneself is striking and one that I do want to convey, if indirectly. It deeply impressed me when I first saw it.
That said, I do value how the artist’s process informs the work. Photography is a complex medium, and working from inside the camera allows me to very specifically direct the light and compose the image. Reciprocity curves and diagrams explain how photographic emulsions respond to light. These products have been made to be exposed to light for a few minutes in an enlarger, but they are much less predictable when used in my process.
Quite often, the first image I make of a subject is satisfactory and inspiring, but I still like to make changes once I’ve begun the project. The advance calculations are important, but it's equally as important to carefully consider the image during the exposure. The upside down and reveresed image projected into my camera obscura is the first occasion for me to fully see what the image will become. Until then, it is all in my imagination. During the Effelsberg project, I often waited until ithe telescope turned to face a certain direction, or, in the case of the Frankfurt Airport, I waited until the airplanes made certain movements on the tarmac. Seeing objects position themselves within the projected image inside the camera helps me to more clearly understand the frame of the image. That part of the process inspires many other ideas.
A while ago I became interested in sound, and eventually, this manifested in One Day, a single view filmed over 24 hours. The piece is an examination of light and sound, but the two elements are presented in the same simple way. Each has a presence that simultaneously correlates with that of the other as sounds in nature reflect the changes in daylight. The birds start singing in the morning, they end at night; then, as the light disappears, we hear only the nightingale, the owl, or the frogs.
Recently, my work has included more classical, positive images as well, particularly of the moon. The moon is our closest and most constant companion in the universe. To further emphasize the triangular relationship between the moon, the viewer, which is planet Earth, and the sun, which is the light source, I decided to photograph an eclipse. Since I didn't have much experience with conventional cameras, I had to do a lot of learning, first on digital cameras before returning to an analog process. I remain intrigued to see how the image feels in silver. There is a lot of beauty in the silver print. This project is also another experiment in timing since lunar eclipses come in four-year cycles. The next in the western world will be in 2016. I have to be patient.
©Vera Lutter 2014