Vera Lutter

Gagosian Gallery

Viewfinders are not just standard features of your average camera but devices that affect visual understanding way beyond the photographic realm. (How many younger Western artists can have escaped the “cut a hole in a cardboard sheet and use it to compose a picture” routine in their early training?) Conventional “viewfinding” assumes a portable apparatus and a mobile viewer, scanning the environment and cropping it into manageable chunks. Vera Lutter’s “cameras” refuse these behaviors. Pinhole cameras writ large, they have no viewfinder and are either immovable or far too heavy for a human to lift: Sometimes they’re engineered from blacked-out rooms, or (more often) from shipping containers, which Lutter usually inhabits during the hours, days, or even weeks it can take to expose her large-scale images. They’re the antithesis of the snapshot and repay the intricate, interpretive scrutiny more usually invited by painting than photography.

This exhibition showcased images made during summer 2004 at London’s derelict Battersea Power Station. Lutter’s process generates unique gelatin-silver prints: Light-sensitive paper is fixed to the wall, exposed, processed, and framed. Thus her finished photographs are negatives—a day-for-night image-world of apocalyptically dark skies and glowing buildings. Applied to the power station—a belated exercise in expressionist modernism begun in 1929, completed in 1953, and unused for two decades (though now awaiting redevelopment into an entertainment and leisure center)—this effect produced an offbeat pun: The building’s exterior features vertical fins like those of an old-fashioned radiator. Inside the central boiler room (now a roofless shell) the walls are supported by meshes of crisscrossing I beams. In Lutter’s photographs, these read ambiguously. At a distance, Battersea Power Station, XVII: July 24, 2004, for example, reads “the right way up”; at close quarters it proposes a dizzying downward perspective, as if one was perched precariously aloft on a construction site—maybe a consequence of the exaggerated recession in depth that characterizes the camera obscura’s optic.

Lutter’s fascination for this device isn’t unique, but her images are quite distinctive. Focusing on the industrial and urban landscapes of modernity—the Manhattan cityscape; planes and airships docked at Frankfurt Airport; the Flats, Cleveland’s gentrified ex-industrial zone—her photographs invite analysis in relation to theories of the subject-positions and scopic regimes of modernity. In an accompanying essay Jonathan Crary does just this, construing Lutter’s works as refusals of the idea that modernity’s “spectral” surfaces might be unmasked to reveal “a more directly experienced ‘reality,’ where things would . . . be what they appeared to be.”

Crary’s broad-ranging scholarship makes for a great read, but his conclusion is questionable, because in an important sense Lutter’s photographs are exactly what they appear to be. A central pleasure comes from comprehending them as physical artifacts on whose surfaces chemical transformations have taken place over time, sensing their grain and observing the anomalies that arise: for example, the way that the power station’s towers kink sideways at the top of some images (presumably the consequence of the paper curling away from the supporting container wall); or the way that light reflected from water washes over some surface areas, eradicating any hint of ripples and massaging the light-sensitive pigment into even-toned, glacial expanses (here see Erie Basin, Red Hook, III: July 28, 2003). In tandem with their metaphorical dimensions, these artifacts exhibit a distinctly physical presence: They demand that the “letter” of their visual text be given detailed consideration.

Rachel Withers