Ancient Greece Through the Lens of the Camera Obscura

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In early August, when The Times Magazine reached out to the photographer Vera Lutter about documenting ancient Athenian ruins, she was in her native Germany mourning her father, who died this summer. At the time, European news had been dominated by reports of wildfires in Greece — an ill omen for the clear skies and uphill hikes required to shoot atop the Acropolis.

And Shannon Simon, a photo editor producing the project for the magazine, said they needed the pictures by September.

On Monday, during an interview at her studio about her work that appears in the Magazine’s Voyages issue, Ms. Lutter had a question of her own to ask about the newspaper.

“What I would love to hear from you,” she said, “is do you think they knew what they were getting themselves into?”

The Times could not have anticipated everything. There were the physical challenges of lost sleep and skipped meals, a gamble with rare artistic materials, a punishing succession of treks and a rush of improvising an ungainly photographic technique, all while navigating gusting winds and heat and wildfires. Regardless, the idea paid off.

“Great pride is taken in these feats,” said Kathy Ryan, the magazine’s director of photography, adding that such obstacles are often “the nuts and bolts that lead to great art.”

Ms. Lutter practices the labor-intensive form of photography known as camera obscura. She hangs photosensitive sheets opposite lenses in pitch-black spaces (anything from a wooden shack to a shipping container). Light streams in and burns onto the paper a black-and-white negative of an image, turning bright skies into darkness and shadows cast by daylight into an eerie, pale glow.

Her photographs accompany a story on memories of a classical education. Ms. Ryan said she had long wanted to work with Ms. Lutter, and this project presented the right opportunity because “it was taking the oldest form of image-making, the camera obscura, and applying it to this contemporary subject of looking back at antiquities and Greece.”

To plan and execute her process can take Ms. Lutter months or years. The Times asked her to start and finish a new project in a few weeks.

Yet she has long admired classical architecture — and her father had taken her to see these same sites in Greece during her youth.

“It seemed kind of a dream come true, and completely impossible,” she said.

In a few days, she was on a plane.

Once she got to Greece, she had to construct a dark room in the bathroom of an extra hotel room. From years of experience, Ms. Lutter had no trouble turning the shower into a wash sink. For a workstation, she asked her taxi driver to buy a small table. He returned with a stand that looked like it had been designed for eating in bed. With tape and creativity, it was good enough.

Her main site was the Parthenon, the temple to Athena at the Acropolis, an ancient citadel. She awoke at 5 a.m. Aside from her driver, she was accompanied by an assistant and a local fixer. They brought with them a rickety rented tripod, ladders and three cameras, two of which were repurposed particle board suitcases Ms. Lutter bought at a Woolworth’s around 25 years ago.

The hotel had not started serving breakfast by the time they set off, and eating at the Acropolis is not allowed, so the group worked on empty stomachs. When they arrived, they pushed the equipment up the Acropolis’ hill.

After reaching the summit, they fastened the suitcase-cameras to the tops of the tripods and, to guard against Greece’s fierce summer winds, stabilized the contraption with ropes attached to the ladders.

Hours later, Ms. Lutter and her crew traveled back to the hotel to reload her cameras with the photosensitive paper, which could only be done inside the makeshift dark room.

The group set out again, arriving back at the Acropolis around 3 p.m. The wildfires had weakened, but temperatures still approached 100 degrees.

She and her assistant ate a brief dinner and worked until after midnight. At 5 a.m., they started over.

Over time, the handle on one suitcase-camera broke. A third camera proved too heavy to use comfortably.

But she met her Sept. 2 deadline.

Back in her Midtown Manhattan studio, Ms. Lutter studied around a dozen pictures tacked onto the wall.

In one photograph, she said, the sun “takes a bite into the white marble.” The long exposure time of another recorded a beguiling contrast between a tree, its leaves blowing in the wind, and the Parthenon, among the most stationary man-made objects in the world.

“The predictability of me coming back with an image,” Ms. Lutter said, “is much smaller than with another photographer. But if it works, I would like to say it’s enormously interesting.”

Steve Liem

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