“To Set the Negative as a Metaphor for Light: On Vera Lutter’s Aesthetic Process” Gertrud Koch
Vera Lutter
Carré d’art - Musée d’art contemporain, Nîmes, France, 2012

I. Light Inventions in the Black Box

An abandoned factory building with broken windows on a deteriorating industrial site is strewn with debris. Sunlight penetrates the interior, illuminating abandoned pieces of metal and dust particles. On one floor of the factory building sits a large box with a small, circular hole drilled into its side. Light streams through this opening and falls onto the interior wall of the large box opposite the hole. The wall is covered with light-sensitive paper, onto which images of the objects located outside the box appear upside down and reversed. Light entering the box through the opening inscribes a dark spot; the brighter the light, the darker its mark on the photosensitive paper. The light is unevenly distributed over the wall and is most concentrated toward its center. The images require a great amount of illumination to come into being and so demand long exposure times. Depending on the lighting conditions, exposures can take hours, days, or even months. And, given the uneven distribution of light over the surface of the wall, various areas of the image require different exposures. Vera Lutter thus undertakes a complex process in which the light that forms these images is highly managed. Lutter carefully directs how the light lands on the wall inside the box. For example, she might cover areas that receive the greatest amount of light so that underexposed sections can catch up. For large projects, she constructs light traps that allow her to enter the box during an exposure without disturbing the image taking shape. Engaging in a dialogue of light and dark, she composes an image out of layers of light. Although the exact length of her exposures is not acknowledged in the titles of her works, the dates that are attached to her images reveal her time-consuming process.

When Lutter has determined that the image is complete, the exposed photographic paper is developed and fixed on-site in a makeshift photo lab. She does not revert the image’s negative status (since light makes dark markings). Produced with a camera obscura, Lutter’s images are different than those created by typical photographic means, especially because they are not made with the aid of conventional reproduction technology. A negative does not exist to make prints (so each image is unique), and no mechanical means guides the exposure. Lutter’s works employ minimally invasive techniques. She modulates the intensity of light by manipulating it directly on the surface, in a temporal and morphological way. These minimal techniques provoke questions of whether these works should even be considered photography or whether they represent a recourse to prephotographic methods of image making that engage shadows, reflections, and other light effects (effects that Lutter has incorporated into her compositions for scenographic works). As such, her images might be compared to large-scale, digitally manipulated photographs (as, for example, the large prints of Andreas Gursky). The digital process creates a radical divide between the recorded and the printed image. The camera captures an object as an external motif into an image that is then processed using a second device, the computer. The work’s subject is reduced to a visual metaphor. (For example, Gursky’s depictions of various stock exchanges are not about the “everyday” but are instead about the centralizing structure of power.)

Two modes are at work that distance Lutter’s mechanically produced images from conventional representation to the greatest possible extent while not entirely dismissing it. In stark contrast to a digital manipulation process that expands image content, Lutter’s process expands the temporal moment of image capture. Her retouching of the photographic paper is carried out by hand during the exposure. As a result, one could say that these are works on paper. The process Lutter employs is far more fragile and ephemeral, and thus points precisely to what seems to slip away from traditional documentary photography: the chaotic side of a world in motion that mirrors the ruin one might encounter in fiction.

Fictions always refer to something absent, an absence that is either temporal or spatial, or both. Fictions are created where time overlaps: what was happening with X while I was doing Y? As soon as one begins to imagine scenarios, one is in a fictional mode. Events and encounters are modified through memory to compensate for minor offenses and humiliations: in recollection, one can perhaps find more articulate expressions for earlier conversations, or one might find a substitute for an earlier action. Fictions are a part of our lives, not just of art. The tension between reality and our revisions of reality by way of fiction is related to the knowledge we mobilize when we imagine something that does not exist. What is implicit to photography is that photographic images have an external referent, regardless of whether that referent is germane to the meaning or purpose of the resulting image. We relate pragmatically to this condition when viewing images as photographs.

When we see images as photographs, we explore the presence and absence of what might have been in front of the camera. This is not necessarily prompted by a detective-like impulse to establish fact; it can also be elicited through the curiosity of an observer who behaves like a traveler or a flâneur. The curiosity that encourages an intensive examination of the details of Lutter’s large-format images is related to a conspicuous absence: that of human figures. This is a result of Lutter’s process. In her long exposures, moving figures escape visual detection in the truest sense of the word. In a way, they disappear in her process. The rare human figure visible in her work is only a chimera. The simplicity of Lutter’s mode of production determines another aesthetic consequence: human movement dissolves into architectural stasis. The contrast between the immobility of architecture and the movement of man creates an underlying tension that varies in degree from one body of work to another. In her works that depict enormous, largely abandoned industrial halls, one is less likely to seek out human figures, but one most certainly does look for traces of people in the Venice series or in her images of Egyptian pyramids. In the latter, one might be reminded of melancholic Romantic landscapes of ruins. In the former, famous city squares and sights that are known to us as teeming with crowds are transformed into deserted, uninhabited, alien places.

Attention has been frequently paid to the link between the primacy of the moment in photography and its ultimate capturing in the image. In this temporal transaction, melancholy is born. As a moment of remembrance, it breaks away from the present and the future to linger in a temporally unreal space: an envisioned past. Of course, melancholy is something other than a condition of negation; and likewise, one would be mistaken to think that Lutter’s negative images imply negativity. It seems that her long exposures, her extreme stretching of time, conveys a resistance to any fetishization of memory and draws attention to the fracture of memory itself. The risk that has gripped the imaginations of historians of photography from Walter Benjamin to Gisèle Freund—that the motif itself disintegrates over the duration of the long exposure—seems to be precisely what Lutter’s architectural portraits highlight: the decay that befalls all that exists in time. Other variations are more ironic, such as Zeppelin, Friedrichshafen, I: August 10–13, 1999. During the four days it took to capture this image, a parked dirigible was moved out of its hangar, and as a result it appears in the image as a mere translucent shell. Like early photographic portraits in which the face, posed for the moment of capture, seems to collapse under the weight of time, Lutter’s images are inscriptions of time itself. To this extent, her lens-free camera obscura projects fit squarely within the dispositif of photography. They are at least as related to the history of photography as they are to that of painting, as painters have routinely employed the camera obscura to produce accurate, perspectival guides for panel paintings. Like Lutter, painters often sat inside the camera before the advent of the lens completely altered the proportional relationship of hand, device, and image format. Lutter’s process therefore combines the double history of the camera as a generative device for painting and for photography.

Accordingly, her images can be thought of as being like Conceptual and Minimal Art as much as they are like mimetic photography. For Lutter, the moment of indeterminacy in the camera is based on a reflexive calculation; reflexivity is an especially determining factor for her studio images featuring mirrors and bouquets of flowers, which directly reference the use of the camera obscura in the art-historical tradition. Lutter commented on this in an interview in 2004 with Adam Budak, the curator of her large-scale exhibition in Graz:

The studio is a white cube, and the installations I have created there so far are composed of both my own images and mirrors. I collapse real space by incorporating an image of mine. The images, though obstructing real space with suggested space, are still objects.

Involving mirrors introduces yet another level; the reflected image and the mirrored space transfer the piece into an illusory context. In this the studio projects are different from what I have done in earlier projects. I enlarge the existing studio space by creating new perspective points working with suggested space.1

In the first step of Lutter’s process, stationary objects are distilled from the moving world. In a second step, however, she subjects stationary objects themselves to a temporal process—to that of light.

II. The Material, Temporal, and Aesthetic Dimensions of Light

Decaying buildings that lack windows; deserted squares that are discernable as Venetian even when seen in negative (in the technical sense of photography); airships landed as though from another planet; dark windows like “hollow eyes [that express] the emptiness of time.”2 If, in passing through an exhibition, one encounters Lutter’s mysterious, large-scale images, they seem simultaneously inaccessible and mesmerizing, like indecipherable messages from a distant star. The environments they depict lack color and sound and recall the earth during a solar eclipse, when the moon blocks the sun. During a solar eclipse, the temperature drops instantly, birds fall silent, flowers close their petals, diurnal animals hide, and nocturnal bats take to flight. The sky turns leaden, and shadows become increasingly complex. The eeriness associated since ancient times with an eclipse, which was frequently viewed as a harbinger of the end of the world, is analogous to that of Lutter’s images. In two recent works, the artist reverses her well-known theme of a dark day’s diffused light: Albescent, a series of images from 2011–12, shows various phases of the moon—as it orbits the Earth—as well as a lunar eclipse, and One Day is a video and sound installation in which the camera is trained on a single viewpoint in a landscape. Her camera, which holds its position throughout, records a twenty-four-hour period. Light and color shift over this full day. In synchronicity with the light of the video, the sound of the work is composed from birdsong, muffled traffic, and other environmental sounds. This work, too, addresses proportional relationships—those of light and dark, noise and silence—which are, however, configured not as binaries but as temporal developments. Here, the most compelling phases are not the extremes of high noon and midnight but the transitions during which the appearance of the world is altered.

Likewise, Lutter’s large-scale images made with the camera obscura, which transforms a bright day into a dark night, do not freeze time; rather, they mimetically render and simultaneously enhance the grand spatiality of such monumental architectural structures as factory buildings, power plants, pyramids, and aircraft hangars, among others. The height and width of the images require the viewer to constantly shift his or her focus from a panoramic perspective of an almost abstract composition to a close scrutiny of the minutiae, which are rich with information. Within the detail, narratives of scenic moments unfold to lend a theatrical quality to Lutter’s works; the images are like scenographies in which unpredictable dramas might play out. As a result, the viewer is engaged by way of two temporal modes: one that is retrospectively oriented, toward the genesis of the image, and another that looks to the future, toward the potential within the image. One might say that within this temporal structure, melancholy and suspense enter into a relation of mutual dependency.

Light has a strange quality: it possesses a fluid temporality. Enormous telescopes installed in Chile’s Atacama Desert by research teams from around the world allow humans to observe light that originates from stars and reflects from planets billions of light years from Earth. These traces of light inform us of a past existence of these celestial bodies. Light survives this distance and time. Geographic locations undisturbed by artificial light—places where the night is truly dark—enable the observation of the light of the past shining through the firmament. Light is a medium for what is past and is therefore now absent. The temporality of light transforms it into a medium with a unique materiality. Light is a medium of perception; it precedes phenomenology.

In his insightful Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image, Hubert Damisch pointed out that the single, original images that were created by light impressions before photographic reproduction was technically possible were not economically viable and so migrated into the sphere of art:

Photography aspires to art each time, in practice, it calls into question its essence and its historical roles, each time it uncovers the contingent character of these things, soliciting in us the producer rather than the consumer of images. (It is no accident that the most beautiful photograph so far achieved is possibly the first image Nicéphore Niepce fixed in 1822, on the glass of the camera obscura—a fragile, threatened image, so close in its organization, its granular texture, and its emergent aspect, to certain Seurats—an incomparable image which makes one dream of a photographic substance distinct from subject matter, and of an art in which light creates its own metaphor.)3

Damisch concludes his notes by addressing the poetry of photography as an art in which light produces its own metaphor, but he opens his text with a discussion of images that are created outside of photography’s mechanical dispositif, images that are created when light directly reacts with the silver nitrate emulsion. According to Damisch, it is these very images that recall photography’s ambiguous status, a status that we continue to view “as the very trace of an object or a scene from the real world, the image of which inscribes itself, without direct human intervention, into the gelatinous substance covering the support.”4 Photography is thereby a “paradoxical image,” one that is entirely “unreal”; nonetheless, we continue to consider it a reflection of the real world.5 Our relationship to photography is culturally determined, and we, as consumers of photographs, are complicit in the production process of images; when we view images as photographs we read them as messages from a past reality, as recalled events. The fact that photography in all of its empirical forms was also used for observing nature undeniably upholds this epistemological interpretation of photography, while the limits of this particular mode of reproduction are obvious. Thus nineteenth-century moon photographers played an important role in advancing the fictional character of this new medium, for they photographed not the satellite itself but models of it.6 In the third of his five notes, Damisch surmises:

The adventure of photography begins with man’s first attempts to retain that image he had long known how to make. (Beginning in the eleventh century, Arab astronomers probably used the camera obscura to observe solar eclipses.) This long familiarity with an image so produced, and the completely objective, that is to say automatic or in any case strictly mechanical, appearance of the recording process, explain how the photographic representation generally appeared as a matter of course, and why one ignores its highly elaborated, arbitrary character.7

Lutter’s works continue this history of photography in their invention of visual metaphors for light—light, which is both an aesthetic phenomenon and, like photographs, in the world materially, as it is physically measurable, determinable, and observable. As such, light is sensuous and tangible. The black of Lutter’s skies is a metaphor for her suspension of conventional referential photography. Her pictures show a world that both exists and does not exist. They embody the paradox Damisch perceives in photography in general. Lutter tackles the paradox of photography by turning a negative into a positive: the extreme, breathtaking artificiality of her work is her response to the epistemological conclusion that photography reflects the world back to us. By making the negative a positive, she accesses fictional realms and aesthetic illusion, as she reveals in her conversation with Budak. In her works, an imaginary space of aesthetic illusion appears as an epiphenomenon of reflections and no longer claims to represent real space.


  • 1 Vera Lutter and Adam Budak, “Conversation: Collapsed Space,” in Vera Lutter: Inside In (Graz and Cologne: Kunsthaus Graz and Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 2004), p. 53.
  • 2 Theodor W. Adorno, “Transparencies on Film,” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 180.
  • 3 Hubert Damisch, “Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image,” in The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 88–89.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 88.
  • 5 Ibid.
  • 6 Carol Armstrong, “Der Mond als Fotografie,” in Diskurse der Fotografie, ed. Herta Wolf (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 359–83.
  • 7 Damisch, “Five Notes,” p. 88.