Today when Basra is brought up in conversation it is usually centered around Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army and not that it was the birthplace of the first camera obscura. Even though Chinese philosopher Mozi makes mention of the optical principles of the camera obscura 1500 years earlier, it was Abu Ali Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haitham from Iraq who was responsible for building the first one and studying the behavior of light as it passed through its aperture. Now, ironically, the only thing that could still function in Iraq would be a camera obscura.
I am reminded of this ancestor to the modern camera because I discovered a catalog on the work of the German artist Vera Lutter called Inside In. Lutter constructs large scale camera obscuras in order to create images of modern landscapes and industrial spaces.
Her reasoning for using such an antiquated device is partly due to its simplicity. The camera obscura represents photographic mechanics at their most irreducible state. There is no lens, simply a small hole that allows light to create an image on the wall opposite the opening. Lutter tacks large photo sensitive paper to that wall and records the image, often over a long period of time. Due to the construction of these human-sized camera obscuras and the process required, Lutter herself must occupy the space within the camera during those long exposures - in a way, integrating herself into a process where the common perception is the operator is seen as separate from the machine.
Lutter is also interested in the first record of an image and not its belated positive successor. The projected image records as a negative when the paper is developed and it is this inverse that Lutter presents to us. These are worlds where shadow gives way to light and skies are rendered as black seas of tone - unsettling, dark and ominous yet beautiful.
The work in Inside In represents a decade of Lutter's images and covers themes of urban architecture and transportation. By working in the Frankfurt airport and around the shipyards of Rostock, her images take on added elements representing time as planes, zeppelins and industrial cranes used for unloading ships create multiple impressions on the paper.
Parallels to the work of Abelardo Morell who has created camera obscuras in rooms and then recorded the images with his view camera, are obvious but the relationship deepens as each artist is essentially creating images within images. For Lutter, she experimented with using mirrors to break the straight forward viewpoint of the industrial spaces her camera occupied. These 'windows' or 'gates' within the image redirecting our gaze towards a more complex spacial arrangements. This method of spacial interruption (which actually is more of an expansion) was explored further when some of Lutter's large prints introduced into the plane of view. These prints, originally seen in negative, are rendered positive in the new image due to the inverse qualities of the camera obscura - further complicating our sense of space, time and our understanding of representation.
In essence, both Lutter and Morell explore the hybridization of images mediated through basic optical physics but with much different outcome. Both hold the optical process of representation in the forefront of the viewer's mind but where Morell comes closer to clarifying the relationships of the images within the images, Lutter destabilizes the viewer through her negative/positive spaces. Morell's images (the final print) represent spaces that can actually be occupied where Lutter's are alien and removed from direct experience.
Now consistent readers to 5B4 will notice my preoccupation with process relating to this work without my usual attention to the actual images. Frankly speaking this is one body of work where I find the process more enlightening and thought-provoking than most of the images alone. With Lutter I often feel short changed and find the images themselves dull and too reliant on their conceptual framework. I know many would disagree but for me concept goes as far as being an equal partner in a work, and when one creates a hierarchy to the other, it removes me one important step from the work as a whole.
What was so seductive to my wanting to explore this work further was the look and feel of this catalog. Inside In is housed in a plastic cover and divided into two distinct books it was published by the Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria and Walther Konig in 2004 on the occasion of her exhibition. It is a fine example of design that cleanly divides the three texts (two essays and one transcribed interview) from the photographs. It is nicely printed and the materials used were well chosen. The plastic cover features type screened in white that brilliantly mimics the negative quality of Lutter's photographs.
The Kunsthaus Graz has published several catalogs. There is at least one other designed with the interesting plastic covering (for Sol Lewitt called Wall) possibly more. They are worth a closer look.