November 20, 2015
Vera Lutter's "mini retrospective" of photographs opens on November 21st at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in Texas. Here, she talks to Gagosian's Derek Blasberg about her MFA Houston exhibition, using a shipping container as a camera, and her place in photography as we enter a digital age.
How did this show in Houston come about?
The chief curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Malcolm Daniel, was formerly the chief curator of photography at the Met in New York, so I’ve known him for twenty years. We met soon after my graduate show—I attended the School of Visual Arts in New York—in 1994. He had heard about my work but the show was down, so he came to my apartment, because at the time I didn’t have a studio. I guess he liked what he saw because he became a big champion of my work and the Met became one of my greatest supporters. In fact, it was through the Met that I was introduced to Larry Gagosian. So, when Malcolm moved to Houston and had an opening in his programming schedule, he invited me to collaborate with him again, and of course I was elated.
What’s in this show?
It’s something of a mini retrospective. It includes twelve large photographs with a variety of subjects, and it includes works dating back to 1998.
Would you describe it as a survey of your work?
It certainly gives an overview of the different themes I’ve considered.
I’m often drawn to your more industrial images, were any of these selected for the show?
Yes, there’s an oilrig that I photographed in a German shipyard, and it’s one of my favorite pieces. It’s from 2000 and it’s called Kvaerner Shipyard, Rostock Warnemünde, IX: December 5, 2000. I used to title my works according to the place where they were photographed, but I was forced to stop doing that when I discovered that another photographer was traveling to those locations in an attempt to duplicate my work.
One of your most iconic series, and one of my favorites, is your work from the Pepsi Cola factory.
Yes, that’s in the show as well. I photographed these works in 1998, so it’s one of my earliest series. I discovered the Pepsi Cola sign one night when I was out with my friends and we were driving down the east side of Manhattan, and there it was across the river in Long Island City. The factory allowed me to use their roof to set up my equipment for the picture, and then they let me photograph the inside of their factory too, which lead to many more conceptual images, such as Pepsi Cola Interior, XXIII: July 1–31, 2003.
Talk to me a little bit about your process. How do you find a location?
Most often things start with an idea in my head, and many times I don’t even know the location. I get an image in my head and then I look for it in the world and for a space to realize it. Sometimes people will make suggestions to me. There’s an image of a massive mining machine in the show, that my mother told me about. She said this would be a great subject for me, so I went and saw it, and she was totally right.
The first “camera obscura” that you ever created was in your apartment. You turned your entire apartment into a camera. How has your technique evolved?
Well, I don’t have a studio apartment anymore. That’s the good news! But the process is the same. I still work with a camera obscura, which can be a room, it can be my studio, it can be a cabin I build or a shipping container that I rent. I always take the easiest route. If there’s nothing, I’ll build a little house or rent a shipping container. At the Pepsi Cola bottling factory in Long Island City, it wasn’t possible to crane a shipping container onto the roof, so my friends and I built a little cabin, and that became my camera.
And then technically speaking, how long does it take to find and create an image?
It varies between a few months and several. The Pepsi works from the interior of the factory were probably a one-month exposure. The longest I’ve ever exposed an image was for three months, at the interior of the Nabisco Factory, that image is now at Dia:Beacon.
Your work is typically monochromatic. Would you say that you see the world in black and white, or is it more the result of your process?
I try to see the world the way it is, but then segments stand out and turn into my work. For example, there is a beautiful old tree in front of my house, and it’s red and green, and I love those colors. But if I were to photograph it, I would use gray to find the color, and then focus on the contrast and the shape. This is the reason I don’t photograph everything. If you want to photograph a person, and you want to capture them beautifully, you wouldn’t ask me. My photograph would capture them in reverse as a negative image, and in black and white. In most cases that’s not the most beautiful way to see a human face.
How do you think photography, and your work, will change as we enter a digital age?
Well, I have dabbled with the digital medium—I made a video—and I profoundly enjoyed that project. But generally speaking, I’m inspired by the analogue photography process. Digital is virtual, and yes I take snapshots on my camera, which I cherish. Those are the diary that we all make of our lives, but I think of that as a private interest. The painter works with paint and a paintbrush, a photographer works with chemistry and the chemistry lends itself to something more mysterious. I really enjoy having those materials in my hands.
"Vera Lutter: Inverted Worlds" is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through March 20, 2016.