Contemporary camera obscura

Advanced technology is increasingly driving artists to experiment with new techniques and to produce a new aesthetic. Yet, in what could perhaps be seen as a counterresponse to our digital and technologically savvy age, some artists are looking back to rudimentary techniques of art making and reviving them from a contemporary perspective. The use of the camera obscura in the photographs of German artist Vera Lutter is one of the most sophisticated examples. Vera Lutter actually turns her studio into the magic darkroom of the camera obscura. Applying the rudiments of the original device, she darkens the room and places a pinhole on the window. She then waits for the image’s outside surroundings to be transferred onto photographic paper that she has mounted on the wall opposite the aperture. It is a lengthy process that can take hours on end, even days. The visually engaging negative prints of the outside world which result, mostly of metropolitan spaces and modern industrial architecture, are well worth the effort. An impressive selection of those one-of-a-kind paper negatives are on display for several more days at the the artist’s solo show at the Xippas gallery. Trained as a sculptor, Lutter worked in a style influenced by conceptual art and minimalism, which she also applied to photography when she took up the medium in the mid-’90s. Photography won her over quite unexpectedly when Lutter was working in New York on a grant. Impressed by the spectacular skylines and views of high-rise buildings visible from her apartment window, she decided to capture the world that opened up around her. Interestingly, her intention was not to objectively document what she saw but to transfer the outside space into her domestic interior. This concept alone inverts the idea of conventional photography as an instantaneous act that ends in a record of reality. By transferring the outside environment into an interior space (the camera obscura), Lutter turns photography into an entire experience, a lengthy process that addresses both space and time. The small aperture necessary to keep the image in focus means that direct exposure (Lutter uses neither a lens nor the intermediary of the negative, which in conventional photographic practice is then used to create a positive print) on the light-sensitive paper can take hours, even days. This is what ties her photography with installation art, performance, film and process art. Lutter, who has expressed a dislike of fast production, is also against the instant absorption of art. The time element that goes into her work belies that conviction and the strange element of time in the actual images (they are not images of the here and now but images of a strange, oneiric time zone) grows out of the same idea. Lutter’s monumental and ghost-like cityscapes feel like the traces of things rather than the actual buildings. The platinum tones and the fact that her photographs look like negatives (the tones are reversed so that the buildings look white and the sky black) is partly what gives her images that evanescent, fleeting and even haunting effect. In Lutter’s photographs the volume and solidity of buildings magically transforms into transparent, lightweight shapes and beaming energy fields. Strangely silent and, at times, somewhat austere, her works have an otherworldly quality. Through a sophisticated and technically difficult yet rudimentary technique, Lutter’s photographs envelop the viewer and carry him into a dreamlike world, the world of the magic, of camera obscura, the world that rests beyond our immediate perception, that which exists but which we rarely notice. At the Xippas gallery (53D Sophocleous, 210.331.9333) through February 11.

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