February 11, 2015
Inspired by New York’s light, architecture, and perpetual state of flux, Vera Lutter turned to photography in the early 1990s as a means to record the continuously changing cityscape. To capture an immediate and direct imprint of her surroundings, she transformed her apartment into a large pinhole camera, employing the space that contained her personal experience as the apparatus that would document it. Lutter has since applied her technique to subjects across the world, but New York remains a central inspiration for her photographic work.
Marvin Heiferman, an independent curator and expert in photography, sat down with Lutter to discuss her current exhibition.
MARVIN HEIFERMAN Pictures of New York fascinate me and, while online the other day, I read that of the top ten locations in the world that people posted photographs of on Instagram, three of them were in New York. That made me think about how New York has been featured in historical pictures, such as Edward Steichen’s gorgeous pictorialist image of the Flatiron Building, Alfred Stieglitz’s modernist views shot from the perspective of the thirtieth-floor windows of the Shelton Hotel where he and Georgia O’Keeffe lived, and Samuel Gottscho and Berenice Abbott’s era defining photos of the city in the thirties. It was Abbott who said, “What the human eye observes casually and incuriously, the eye of the camera notes with relentless fidelity.” And that made me think about the various New York photographs you’ve made over the years. What started you off with them? What keeps you circling back to make more?
VERA LUTTER I arrived in New York in the early 1990s and inherited the lease on a commercial loft on Eighth Avenue from German friends. From the twenty-seventh floor, I had a breathtaking view of the busy Garment District center, which looked very different then than it does now, and of course the top of the Empire State Building rose above everything else. The loft faced east and the morning sun would shine in, an incredible golden red glow that would wake us up. New York was absolutely new to me, and I was profoundly inspired by it all. Something magical happened to me when I came to New York.
MH Had you seen many photographs of New York before you arrived?
VL No, when growing up in my family, I was in a largely nonphotographic environment. Looking back today, I would say my parents had an ambiguous relationship to photography, even though my father made very beautiful photographs for most of his life. The only photograph of New York I probably knew was on the cover of the travel guide I was given when I first came here with, of course, the Empire State Building on it. Artist friends had made artworks that reflected on the city. New York was, for me, exciting, with its absolutely breathtaking mix of people and culture at ground level. The general energy, the light, and the ways the city presents itself inspired me and my extended observations of the city. I made it a ritual to be home at midnight to watch the lights on the Empire State Building switch off. My roommate and I would take bets on which colors would be lit on different nights. It was that spirit of novelty and observation that inspired me to capture the experience within a photographic image. When I was an art student in Germany, conceptual art was in. Anything else was unacceptable. So I thought, “Okay, I’ll make a conceptual art piece out of this,” and I turned the space where I was living into the space where my artworks were made. I turned the loft itself into a camera. Light entered through a little pinhole installed on the window that I had blacked out; the window became the seeing eye. Light came in and reached the light sensitive photographic paper I’d tacked up on the opposite wall to receive all the information that streamed in. It took six weeks to get the first exposure right because I was learning how to calculate the exposure times (my first photograph was 7 by 7 feet). I thought I could expose the paper for 10 minutes to get an image. It took me a very long time to understand that my exposure time needed to be 4 to 6 hours.
MH What were your earliest New York photographs of? What was across the street?
VL The first images were of the beautiful, prewar, Garment District manufacturing buildings. What you don’t see in my images, because they’re black and white, is that on some days the entire landscape of my vision would turn pink because everybody in the surrounding factories was working with pink material. The next day, everything would turn green.
MH And there you were making black-and-white works in which everything was negative.
VL I know, I know. But I wanted the abstraction that happens in black and white, especially in the reverse coloring, and it was important to maintain a certain rawness that is so typical for New York, despite its charms. And the negative image? Well, I wanted it to correspond as directly as possible to my experience of light and imagery entering the space, and not to disrupt that with any additional or intermediary steps, such as an interpretive printing process. And that’s still true for me today. Once I have made what I consider to be a successful print of a situation, I’m done with it. I wouldn’t want to go in the darkroom to start editing and printing editions.
MH What’s interesting to me is that the work, like the city, is never about a single or instantaneous moment, but about what happens in one place and over time. In terms of the color versus black and white, you mentioned your conceptual art background, and most early conceptual artists using photography tended to work in black and white.
VL That’s right.
MH So the conceptual photographic mind-set is black and white, as is much of what we think of as classic New York architectural and street photography. When did you make the first of the New York pieces?
VL I started building my camera at the end of 1993. The first image came out in 1994. It wasn’t until 1997 that I did my first project outside of New York.
MH One thing that strikes me about the work is how, because of the processes involved, it keeps its distance from digital imaging, which shapes so much of how we relate to photography now. You’ve talked in the past about how the work is a reaction or response to imaging and is, in a sense, antirepresentational. That fascinates me. We live in a world where an estimated 2.4 billion photographs are taken daily and quickly. Studies in neuroscience and perception that I’ve read recently reveal that it takes only 0.13 milliseconds for a human being to recognize the subject matter of an image; it happens instantaneously. And yet your work is about looking slowly and for long periods of time. What does it mean for you to look at something for a long period of time? You’ve described being inside a container or inside the camera obscura and with your back to the world, which is such a great way to describe your photographic stance. What’s it like to be in the dark spaces you set up, and watch images happen over time?
VL Well, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that my work is antirepresentational, but it simply does not concern itself with representation. Because the way I work is very slow; it necessitates a highly selective process; it does not allow me to deal with a great magnitude of images. Many photographers have a very selective editing process before they print their work, but I undergo an editing process before even taking the picture. My presence in the space of the exposure is both miraculous and challenging. I’m part of the world, because I am sitting in the midst of the projected image, seeing every detail that unfolds as the light floods into my camera, whether it’s a shipping container or a room. Whatever it is, I’m inside it. At the same time, I’m physically separated from that world. I remember once—when I worked in a shipyard located on a river in Germany—to stay out of the way of the shipyard workers, I photographed on a Sunday. It was a beautiful summer day, and there I was, sitting inside my black box where I saw everything—people on the other shoreline of the river having fun, swimming; children and dogs were running around; I could hear their voices. And I experienced a strong sense of separation, which is necessary for me to make my work, yet there is also an intense bond with the world because, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t choose to photograph what I do. In the camera, I am at once connected to and separated from the world by the projected image and its condition. I am literally in the camera during each long exposure, so I spend a lot of time watching; it’s like watching a film. And it’s wonderful. I didn’t know about Andy Warhol’s film Empire when I started making these images, but they’re very, very related: the long, long observation of one object, the registration of what changes, the awareness of what stays the same, and becoming familiar with all of that.
MH In the past, you’ve spoken about the cinematic aspect of your process. Is that something that influenced or even determined the scale of these pictures?
VL The reason I decided to make these images large goes back to my original approach: The image corresponds to the space, the architecture in which it was made. The scale of the work offers that same space to the viewer and allows for a related experience. I really want the viewer to experience the feeling of being able to walk into the picture.
MH That kind of monumental scale corresponds to the way we physically experience the city itself.
VL And that scale also produces an emotional experience. The city can be overwhelming when people are constantly subjected to its monumentality, which is also important for the scale that I chose.
MH So on the one hand, these images are overwhelming, but on the other hand, they capture and tame urban experience. There’s something equally awed, willful, and elegant in the way you represent these urban views. Earlier, you mentioned the energy of the street, yet that’s not what you choose to depict in the work.
VL That’s a very good point. I remove myself, to get an overview of what’s actually happening. For example, I lived on the twenty seventh-floor and was in the midst of the city, yet also removed from it. It’s like looking at a picture. You have to have some distance and a certain solitude to be able to really see and get an understanding of what you are seeing.
MH You’ve been making photographs in New York for twenty years now. Have your choices of locations or subjects changed? Because the city itself has certainly changed.
VL I must say there’s less and less left for me to photograph. The shifts in what has happened in New York, how the city presents itself, are enormous. I’m still looking for and finding places, but that gets harder and harder as time passes. So many buildings have been built that are very tall and obstruct any kind of view, plus all of the factories and abandoned buildings have been removed.
MH Having grown up here, I have a strong sense that New York post-9/11 is a very different place in terms of the way people feel both in and about it. People’s sense of belonging in and ownership of the city has changed. The city feels like real estate. And I’m curious whether that factors into your choice of images or not.
VL What you say is so well put. The city is now a much more limited place, so many things that were easy and welcomed before 9/11 no longer are. The mind-set of regulation, restriction, and control have taken a toll on how the city’s run and what people are willing to let you do. Years ago, the city was easier, more fun, and more forgiving. When I approached the department of bridges or the fire department to occupy a building to photograph from, I could approach people on my own terms, without official support, and was granted access to make photographs. They saw that I was very serious and very excited about what I wanted to do and felt themselves a sense of joy in supporting that. That’s gone. It’s all business now.
MH That’s too bad, and leads me to ask about something else, the role negative images play in this work. The work has an uncanny, Through The Looking-Glass quality to it. They look like the flipside of reality, which is what, to a large extent, makes the work both so strange and wonderful. Scale contributes to that, but it’s the negative aspect of the images that is so consistently compelling. Does that somehow reflect what it’s like too, for you to sit in the camera and in the darkness, waiting for the image to come together? Is your experience as basic and magical as that?
VL It is. I set up conceptual restrictions and suddenly find myself with the consequential image. Most importantly, the reverse effect of the immediate and negative image that gets recorded is what gives viewers the sense that they are seeing something that is utterly familiar and yet not at all. And that is what makes the viewer look differently at the picture. It’s engaging and arresting because it takes a moment—one that is different in duration from one person to the next—until people have figured out why it is and what it is. It’s in that time frame that they’re drawn into the picture and start looking for a longer time and with greater attention. The negative, in its strangeness, has a slowing-down effect on the viewer.
MH What else slows them down?
VL The shadows in my work, which are light and reverse the sense of gravity. A viewer needs to orient him- or herself. Changes in spatial and geographic orientations tend to be perplexing and trigger an investigative state of mind. The reversal of blacks and whites, the unfamiliarity of the gray tones, does the same.
MH As you were speaking, I was thinking about how we perceive images and how quickly we get what’s called the “gist of a scene” from whatever we see in front of ourselves. Shapes are basic indicators of what we’re looking at, and so are contrast and shadow. But in your images, even if you understand you’re looking at a negative image, the work still seems, somehow, inside out. What you would normally recognize and feel comfortable with, you don’t.
VL You see enough to say, “Oh yes.” And then you stop and think, “But what?” I also think that the mystery of darkness—carried over from the darkness in the camera into the darkness of the image itself—has an important effect. It’s the mystery of what in the images looks like night, the emptiness that comes from the long exposures, and the fact that I never have people in the images. That leaves the space for the viewer to be alone to study the space he or she is looking at and place themselves within it. The mystery of darkness, I find, is always something that’s highly personal.
MH Something else I was wondering about is if, because these are negative images, the space in them seems to flatten. Or it could be the shadows and the contrast being reversed that make it seem like a shallower space. Some of your images have a sense of great depth in them, but others seem purposely flat and minimal; the same way glass-curtain-walled buildings appear in the images, there’s a certain glass-curtain-wall quality to some of the work itself.
VL That’s a good point. I have never analyzed it in that way, but because I work with a pinhole camera, there is only one plane of field that manages the depth perspective of the image and therefore the viewer must experience what you just described—unless the subject itself sets up a strong sense of space. There is an apparent proximity to space in the image, but it’s different from how we’re accustomed to seeing.
MH Which makes sense, because New York is always in your face, right on top of you. We’re sitting here today, looking at an image of a museum’s sculpture garden and, while it seems like it should be a deep, recessive kind of space, it feels like it’s pushing toward us. Strangely, the work has an apocalyptic quality about it too, like you’re seeing everything in a nuclear flash that’s coming at you and disappearing at the same time. As we’ve been talking about the darkness and curious sense of space in the work, I’ve also been thinking about the precise quality of your images, which contribute to what some have called the work’s surreal qualities. It reminds me of Brassaï’s photographs of Paris at night, and I know you’re a fan of Peter Hujar’s photographs of New York at night, when things turn magical, metaphysical, and toward the existential. You alluded earlier to the sense of sadness you feel in making the work. It seems to me that, for all the visual incident and liveliness in this work, there’s a sense of loss in it too, and that plays off the elegance and precision. Is that something that’s sought out or a by-product of the process?
VL It’s probably intuitive. To say it’s sought out would be overstating, but it very much reflects where I come from when I think of making work, and where I am alone and making the work, separated from the world. There is an aspect of loneliness, solitude, to it.
MH It’s interesting to hear you say that. Not long ago, I read Alfred Kazin’s New York memoir, A Walker in the City, and talking with you reminds me of the nineteenth-century figure of the flaneur, immersed in and moving through the urban space of various built and social worlds. Your point is an interesting one, though, that an artist is not only a self-conscious observer, but isolated, separate. Right?
VL Separate, yes. I was inclined to think of it literally, due to the constraints of the camera requiring darkness, but it is also true that the artist is separated due to self-consciousness, yes.
MH You’re simultaneously aware of your connection and your separation.
VL And that’s exactly what is apparent when I’m in the camera and making the work. I am lucky enough to be familiar with darkrooms, which can have that same mysterious atmosphere, a beautiful sense of solitude and isolation photographers encounter when they photograph at night or in abandoned areas. It’s like my experience in the dark camera, by myself. It is the isolation of the artist with his or her material. It’s a place of exploration and creation. It can be a very magical space.
MH Because you’re in that space in the dark and doing what? You’re unrolling paper, pinning it up, watching light pour through an opening you’ve created, then taking that paper down and seeing what you’ve got.
VL Yes, everything in the dark. Conceptualizing it in the dark.
MH The whole setup and takedown take place in the dark.
VL Exactly, which takes hours. If I make what I call multiple panel images, it’s tricky to install the paper. An important aspect of evenness of the image is how well I’m able to hang the unexposed light-sensitive paper in the dark. And I usually do that—sometimes I have help if I have an entrance area so I can let people in. It takes hours. When I’m working actively at a project, I spend weeks in darkness. And then, after all that time inside the camera, I go in the darkroom and develop them.
MH One last thing I want to talk about is the role that choreography and performance play in the work, particularly in how you set things up to happen and then let the world make the picture. In a sense, New York makes these pictures too. You and the city collaborate to make them happen. What is it like to orchestrate these images and then have the grace or the wisdom to step back and accept what happens?
VL That’s the fascination of it all, to find a location that speaks to me so much that I decide to make a photograph of it and then to set up my camera so the space I work in becomes the equivalent of a stage. And I prepare all these different things: I make the room dark, install a wall, set up the photo paper—so that whatever happens in the world outside of the room plays out on what I created. Then I sit back and let the world unfold, and whatever happens, happens. It can be very monotonous and it can be incredibly exciting, depending on what situation I’m in.
MH It’s amazing to see the results. New York’s got an incredible energy of its own, and it’s an energy that feeds off of itself. And that’s yet another haunting quality of the pictures too. While they are all about that kind of energy—and maybe it’s because they’re negative images—it’s distilled. The work doesn’t present a split-second moment in time, like classic New York street photographs where people seem flash-frozen as they rush from here to there. Your images seem meditative, as if they’re silently watching something that’s already been silenced.
VL Sometimes we have a moment—when we’re in the middle of, say, Times Square or Grand Central station or on the subway during rush hour—when the city feels like infernal chaos. But on a good day, you will have a moment where you wake up and see the absolutely beautiful, fluid, and harmonic ballet of different creatures and forces moving around. That’s the energy I like to capture, but even there, I need separation in order to see that, even when I’m in the middle of it.
"Vera Lutter" is on view at Gagosian Gallery 976 Madison Avenue, New York through Saturday, March 7, 2015.