Vera Lutter's LACMA Obscura

Reinventing a major art institution is never an easy task. The longer it has been around and the more attached visitors are to it, the greater the challenge. New Yorkers have the controversies around the transformation and continued expansion of the Museum of Modern Art fresh in mind. In Southern California, the art world and the public at large have been grappling with the future of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) for nearly four years. So when LACMA’s leadership suggested removing the institution’s badly deteriorating buildings – three original 1965 structures by William Pereira and a 1986 addition by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates – instead of repairing them, director Michael Govan decided to take an art-positive step to memorialise the museum’s familiar campus. “I thought, ‘Rather than ignore this real sense of nostalgia, let’s commission an artist to confront these sites that have meaning and preserve them in some way,’” Govan explains.

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His solution? Commissioning New York-based artist Vera Lutter to use her signature pinhole cameras to immortalise the structures and vistas before they are replaced by LACMA’s new Peter Zumthor-designed building. The resulting works will be exhibited when the museum temporarily downsizes to its Renzo Piano-designed buildings during demolition in 2018. Thanks to Lutter’s forthcoming series of large-scale images (a project sponsored by Sotheby’s), Angelenos will be able to honour the memory of the old LACMA forever.

This is not the first time Govan has worked with Lutter. He did so in the late 1990s when, as director of the Dia Art Foundation on West 22nd Street in New York’s then-budding Chelsea district, he commissioned the artist to document a vacant Nabisco factory in Beacon, New York, before it was turned into the institution’s new home, Dia:Beacon. “Those images are witnesses to time and place in a way I never imagined photographs could be,” says Govan of Lutter’s monumentally scaled prints of the industrial relic. The artist’s camera obscura process inverts black and white tones, so that her images appear both familiar and otherworldly. The works, first shown in 1999 at Dia in Chelsea, helped establish Lutter’s career. (She is represented by Gagosian.)

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Born in Kaiserslautern, Germany, in 1960, Lutter studied sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. She first experimented with this early camera form when she moved to New York in 1993. “Inspired by the city and the light and the architecture, I decided to turn the loft where I lived into a pinhole camera to document my new surroundings,” she says. “I had no intention of continuing to work with the camera obscura, but the results were so fascinating when I finally achieved them – I’ve done that almost exclusively.”

To produce her images, Lutter constructs large dark chambers, typically from plywood or shipping containers. Through a hole drilled on one side, light enters and projects an inverted image of what is outside the hole onto the wall opposite, which she has lined with light-sensitive paper. The artist usually inhabits her cameras – they have a sealed area through which Lutter enters and exits – so her eyes adjust to the minimal light and she can watch the projected image during exposure. While monitoring light levels, Lutter can modify the time the light-sensitive paper is exposed – if, for instance, the weather changes unexpectedly. While outdoor exposures may take a day or two, interior shots such as the dimly lit basement of the factory in Beacon have taken up to three months. Other than being necessary for technical and aesthetic reasons, Lutter’s presence within the camera serves another purpose: it makes her happy. “You see birds flying through, cars driving through, people walking through – upside down,” she says. “It’s absolutely magical.”

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At LACMA, Lutter’s project has three areas of focus, and with multiple cameras set up around campus, its logistical complexity turns out to be more akin to making a film than a typical documentary photograph. First, the artist is working outdoors, using a mobile camera on wheels to capture four exterior views. One of them puts the corner of a Pereira structure in juxtaposition with one side of the 1986 addition, so that the buildings’ edges frame a rectilinear Maria Nordman sculpture and palm trees in the distance. After the scene passes through her pinhole process, those trees will appear as white silhouettes while blue sky will read black as night.

Then, Lutter is using two stationary cameras to photograph her own selection of paintings from LACMA’s permanent collection. Their exposures will take about three months each. While the artist has used a smaller trunk-size pinhole camera to capture Greek and Roman sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as well as Degas bronzes in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, she has never experimented on two-dimensional artworks before. “I became very curious about what would happen if I copy-photographed art and made it mine by making it bigger or smaller, and by experimenting with the chemistry in the darkroom,” explains Lutter, who has always done her own developing. She has taught herself such processes as solarising and bleaching in anticipation of this project, and the museum has built a darkroom for her on-site.

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Finally, the photographer has constructed a third indoor camera – the largest at twenty feet long, eight feet deep and ten feet tall – directly at one end of LACMA’s largest European Old Masters painting and sculpture gallery. Estimated to take nine months, this exposure will capture the long perspective of the classically installed room, thus echoing the romantic views of museum interiors by such painters as Giovanni Paolo Panini and Charles Willson Peale. “I’m creating a record of something that has existed for a long time for a community,” says Lutter, who is interested in how environments that generations of artists and visitors have known are becoming a thing of the past as museums evolve. Indeed, according to current renderings, it is unlikely LACMA’s collection will be installed in a traditional manner when its new building is completed in 2023.

The immediate gratification of digital photography doesn’t exist for the artist: Lutter never knows exactly what her process will yield until she develops her prints. While redos are entirely possible with shorter outdoor exposures, the stakes with the nine-month interior gallery exposure are extremely high. “It’s one shot, it’s hugely risky,” she says. “Make a mistake once, and it’s over. But it’s a great excitement.”

Hilarie M Sheets writes regularly for The New York Times and is a contributing editor of Art + Auction and ArtNews.

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