Peculiar portraits

Loretta Lux is displaying her art in Israel for the first time.

Loretta Lux's ‘The Rose Garden, 2001.' (photo credit: COURTESY LORETTA LUX)
Loretta Lux's ‘The Rose Garden, 2001.'
(photo credit: COURTESY LORETTA LUX)
German artist and photographer Loretta Lux is best known for her haunting and meticulously staged photographs of young children gazing intensely at their audience. The effect on viewers ranges from endearing nostalgia to awkward discomfort. But whether or not that was her intent, her work presents us with a different view of the way we visually represent and perceive children in art – and in a way, how we perceive ourselves.
“Imaginary Portraits” is an exhibition of 19 portraits of children that Lux photographed between 2001 and 2008.
The exhibition came to the New Gallery in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood via the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York City, which represents Lux. This is the first time her works have been to Israel.
The exhibition, which opened earlier this month, coincides with the upcoming annual Musrara Mix arts and music festival. The gallery will feature Lux’s work through July 13.
Curator Avi Sabag, the founder and director of the Naggar School of Photography, Media and New Music in Musrara, says that “looking at ‘Loretta’s children’ does not awaken our childhood memories; rather we are drawn into a tense and cold world. Loretta Lux’s work demonstrates both her impressive technical use of photography as well as her deep awareness of the history of portrait painting.”
This combination of technical precision and knowledge of the artists who came before her could very well be the secret to her success. Her influences are primarily the Italian painters of the Renaissance, such as Raphael and Bronzino (Mannerism), as well as those of the post-Renaissance, like the children in the paintings of Velazquez.
She is also one of the first artists to fully embrace digital photography and use it as an artistic medium. Unlike traditional artistic photographers, who dared not venture into the world of digital imaging, she says she felt empowered by this new technology and saw it as a means of gaining greater control in the works she created.
Before finding photography, Lux moved to Munich from Dresden, East Germany, to study painting at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in 1989 – a meaningful year, as it was the year Germany was reunited.
Because she had grown up behind the iron curtain of communism, her feelings of individuality and curiosity about the outside world had largely been suppressed.
“Growing up in East Germany, Dresden was really cut off from the West. At a certain age, I realized I was stuck there,” she says. “You had to be careful of what you said or did. Individualism was not encouraged.”
Moving West to study art, however, helped to satisfy her desire for creative and personal expression.
After her studies, it was too expensive and impractical to continue painting while she was living in Munich, so she decided to try photography. At first, she found it difficult to get a handle on film photography, so she experimented with digital and found it was an ideal solution and medium to create her images.
To her, not only was it a more economical solution, but on a creative level, it opened up a world of new possibilities. Having the ability to take her inspiration from painters and artists of the past and then to translate them digitally gave her an artistic advantage and a level of ingenuity rarely seen in photography at the time.
Once she was ready to start shooting, she couldn’t find many models for portraits, so she used her nephews and children of her friends. It wasn’t until she discovered the true differences between adults and children that her work was able to evolve.
The “realness” she managed to capture in photographing children was something she found nearly impossible when she attempted to photograph adults.
“Adults are too self-aware, and children are not bothered and are more playful and open, so it’s easier,” she explains.
The self-consciousness of the adults she photographed created a lack of control on her part in achieving the results she was seeking. With children, she had no need to ease the insecurities and “control issues” of adult subjects.
“Children are more free and transparent,” she says.
Tapping into these genuine behaviors and gestures of her subjects helps her create a hyper-real and even surreal atmosphere in her images.
Still, she says, “portraits are deceptive and not suitable to represent character or psychology at all.”
Fully aware of the discomfort some of her images cause her viewers, she responds that “it makes no sense to pose or smile or laugh, because it’s artificial, because there’s no reason to laugh or smile in front of a camera.”
She explains that children in art history, or at least until the Age of Enlightenment in the 19th century, were basically portrayed and perceived as adults; paintings and sculptures depicted them engaging in “grown-up poses and gazes.”
After that time, though, the portrayal of children drastically changed. Today, the perception of children has changed so much that it clearly affects how the viewer perceives her works.
Lux does not have any children of her own, and perhaps this adds an extra layer of detachment in her approach to her subjects and in the end result.
Unlike many artists, who feel obligated to provide a statement about their works, Lux strongly believes that she couldn’t put a real message into words, because pictures have multiple meanings and communicate in a more intuitive way than words can. In other words, she welcomes any reaction or interpretation to her works.
Looking back, she says that if she were to do it all over again, she wouldn’t have done portraits.
Instead she would have pursued still life, she says: She feels there’s more of an openness with objects and the way the viewer perceives them. While she has found that in portraits, the viewer will essentially always focus on the person in the frame, “still lifes are more metaphorical, and therefore open to more interpretation,” she says.
That isn’t to say portraits don’t have their virtues and advantages, she adds. “Portraits are intriguing. It gives us a chance to study a face intently.
In our society, it’s improper to stare, and with a portrait we can stare as long as we like and without having the accountability of the subject looking back at you.”
With that in mind, she just wants her Jerusalem audience to “enjoy and take your time.”