Artist Vera Lutter Is Using Camera Obscuras to Photograph LACMA’s Old Buildings Before They Get Torn Down

The artist has been recording parts of the museum from the 1960s that are due to be demolished.

Vera Lutter, Ludovico Mazzanti, The Death of Lucretia, c.1730: February 10–March 16, (2017), copyright Vera Lutter 2017.

In 1965, Ed Ruscha famously painted the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on fire when it moved to its then-new home on Wilshire Boulevard. Fifty years later, artist Vera Lutter is following in the LA artist’s footsteps: As part of a residency that began back in February 2017, the German-born artist has spent the past 12 months capturing the original LACMA buildings ahead of their planned demolition.

The museum’s East Campus—the Ahmanson, Hammer, its Arts of the Americas buildings, as well as the Leo S. Bing Center—are all due to be torn down to make way for the institution’s new $600 million Peter Zumthor-designed home in 2019. (The new LACMA structure is scheduled to be completed in 2023.)

To capture LACMA’s original buildings—which date back to 1965 and ’66—Lutter turned to one of the world’s oldest optical devices: the camera obscura. The artist had several created for the project—one so large it had to be craned into position. “Moving a camera for Vera is a big deal,” Michael Govan, LACMA’s director, told Sotheby’s, which supported the commission. “Museums are not usually welcoming to giant wooden boxes.”

Vera Lutter and assistants at work at LACMA, courtesy of the museum.

The camera obscura is a familiar tool for Lutter. The artist began to use the device in the mid-1990s after moving to New York, where she turned a room in her apartment into a walk-in camera obscura to document the city outside her window.

At LACMA, Lutter used the device to follow in the 19th-century tradition of “gallery paintings”—creating a series of images of rooms hung with works of art. She not only recorded the museum’s exteriors but also the interiors of the condemned galleries. (One image of the European paintings gallery is the result of a seven-month-long exposure.) In addition, Lutter focused her lens on individual historic paintings from the museum’s permanent collection, including Ludovico Mazzanti’s The Death of Lucretia (around 1730).

Vera Lutter, Jan Porcellis, Vessels in a Moderate Breeze, c. 1629: March 21, 2017 (2017), copyright Vera Lutter 2017.


With the residency now complete, the commission will culminate in an exhibition of Lutter’s large-scale, ghostly images at LACMA next year.  For those who can’t wait that long, the artist and Govan are scheduled to speak about the project at the museum on March 12.

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