Before demolition, these LACMA galleries took selfies with a little help from pinhole photographer Vera Lutter

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When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art decided to demolish several old buildings to make room for new architecture by Peter Zumthor, one of the first people contacted by the museum director was a photographer named Vera Lutter. Unlike the demolition crew and builders who wanted to realize LACMA’s forward-looking vision, Lutter was hired to capture the past, to be seen by future generations.

Lutter set out to do so with a camera that Aristotle had known. In its simplest form, the camera obscura is a dark room that has a wall pierced with a hole. The hole acts as a lens that focuses light from the outside and projects an image of the outside world onto the opposite wall.

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This imagery was transient in the time of Aristotle, and even as late as 18th century: Inside the room you could watch a movie in real time, one that could never be played again. With the invention of photochemistry, a scene could be solved permanently. Lutter’s camera obscura does just that and preserves grayscale images. Due to the way black and white photography works, the tones are inverted, making light spots dark.

The mere use of a camera obscura – a pinhole camera in modern language – was not an anachronistic choice. Over the past few decades, Lutter has implemented pinhole techniques to produce photography as visually and conceptually advanced as the finest contemporary art generated with digital technology.

Lutter has made room-sized pinhole cameras of plywood and recycling containers, as she has photographed monumental views from everything from ancient temples to aircraft hangars. The hole hole opening makes the depth of field almost infinite, an effect that becomes dizzying when seen in mural, and which is made all the more disorienting by the black-and-white inversion. In other words, the images are simultaneously hyperrealistic and other worldly. They invite close scrutiny and defy easy recognition. Living in a time when almost everything in the world seems to be instantly available on screen – and especially after a year in which most experiences have been vicarious – we may be seduced into perceiving a false equivalence between image and subject: to accept a substitute that denies the power of images to reveal what we cannot see directly.

This is a particularly appropriate topic to explore in the museum’s image galleries. Although the LACMA buildings were erected for demolition, erected in the 1960s, paintings have transported people to other times and places for millennia and have often provided visual information that would not have been available in person.

Gallery space has changed over the centuries, and especially recently as palace bombast has made way for subdued neutrality. A similar trajectory in theaters suggests that galleries should be seen in the form of staging, and that the neutrality of spaces such as the old LACMA buildings serve to enable viewing as much as the gilded splendor of the Louvre.

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Lutter has paid tribute to this dynamic by giving the LACMA buildings an active role in documenting their own deaths. Instead of bringing a plywood obscura camera, she made pinhole cameras out of the galleries themselves, where their openings observed adjacent spaces. The photographs took many months due to the low light level. As a result, the photographs are devoid of people whose presence is too short-lived to make an impression. The architecture made self-portraits on an architectural time scale.

Lutter’s photographs bring us as close as possible to experiencing art as a gallery, while at the same time giving galleries the opportunity to create art: the self-portraits possess the inner expression of self-expression. Although the past can never be revisited, Lutter’s photographs have the potential to bring future generations into greater intimacy with these demolished buildings than people experienced while the buildings existed.

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