Years ago, I stumbled upon a book of photography by Loretta Lux at Casco Bay Books. The book felt like a fairy tale, featuring the mysteriously dreamy portraits of children with porcelain skin and eerily wise expressions seeming to want to tell a story— but holding it back. I carried the book around with me, sharing it with others and with the empty hope of it finally revealing the fairy tale it has locked inside.
Loretta Lux’s work is captivating and beautiful. It’s very 3D to me in that it has so many abstract qualities that pose questions and conjure up memories of childhood, playing with friends or alone in weathered places and under milky skies. She manipulates her images a bit, softening skin and lengthening limbs at times— all to a perfection that is mesmerizing and haunting. Her work is inspiring in a way that makes you stop and think, wonder and dream.
“At the opening of the Paris Photo fair last November, a cluster of collectors were drawn to one of a series of lush, unsettling images of children by Loretta Lux, a 35-year-old German painter turned photographer. Entitled The Rose Garden (2001), it shows an impassive, digitally enhanced, doll-like little girl dressed in a vintage mini-dress standing carefully posed with her hands behind her back and an averted gaze. Lux’s solo American debut at the Yossi Milo gallery in New York just a year ago prompted a slew of articles in art and photo magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, plus sales of more than 500 of her photographs (worth roughly $5 million), most selling out their editions. She has now won America’s ICP prize for art photography – previously awarded to Cindy Sherman and Lux’s fellow German, Andreas Gursky.
Lux’s minor sensation has taken years of meticulous planning: “I started this work in 1999, but I didn’t want to share it until I was ready, which was when I met my dealer, Yossi Milo,” she explains. Her eerily beautiful, self-contained creatures – aged between two and nine and placed in dream-like settings – have a calculated charm tinged with eroticism. The effect is, in part, thanks to Photoshop, a software programme introduced 16 years ago that allows artists to manipulate images in a vast number of ways. Thus Lux delicately distends the heads, eyes and limbs of her sitters, while lending a flawless, translucent quality to their skin – akin to the portraits by Velázquez and the 17th-century Italian mannerist painter Bronzino that she so admires.
Also, like these Old Masters, Lux would like her works to “transcend their subject”. Study of a Boy, No 1 – on the cover of New York magazine last April for a story on toddler therapy – has a weirdly powerful presence as he crouches down to touch the floor with his flat hand, facing the viewer with a chilly blue stare. The Bride depicts a childhood fantasy with a little girl wearing a white dress and tiara, while the reclining girl in The Wanderer (2003), set in an isolated, light-filled landscape, is reminiscent of work by Balthus, famous for his paintings of very young girls in languid, suggestive poses. Yet, for one New York collector who bought the image: “It evokes a universal solitary quest out of a mere child.”
With a precise vision of what she wants before she starts an image, Lux likes to control every aspect of her work. That, of course, includes her young subjects – all sons and daughters of friends – whom she dresses, whether they like it or not, in 1970s vintage clothing, including skirts and dresses kept by her mother from her own childhood: “I never allow them to wear their own clothes,” she says. But then, as she points out, her photographs are not intended as portraits: “My work isn’t about these children,” she explains. “You can recognise them, but they are alienated from their real appearance – I use them as a metaphor for innocence and a lost paradise.”
Lux selects an image of a child from a hundred-odd taken over two or three sessions, “dropping” it into a separate computer file of backgrounds that she has painted or photographed during her travels around Europe – grassy fields, a country garden, a pebble beach, or abandoned buildings and interiors. She then crops and arranges her composition, removes extraneous details and alters the colours until they have attained her trademark pastel perfection.
“Her photographs mark the very end of the German documentary tradition,” claims Inka Graeve Ingelmann, curator of a major German photography show – including five images by Lux – opening in Tokyo this autumn under the aegis of the Goethe-Institut. She is referring to the rigorously thought-out, unembellished photographs free of sentiment or cliché characterised by Bernd and Hilla Becher and their pupils – including Thomas Struth, whose stunning large-scale photographs have dominated the contemporary art market in recent years.
Nevertheless, Lux’s charming yet creepy compositions share a cool formality that belongs to that German tradition. The images are also, as Graeve Ingelmann points out, partly self-portraits. Indeed, her first photographs – taken when she started experimenting with the medium in 1999 – were just that. The self-portrait on her website (www.lorettalux.de), for example, is a powerful image of an immaculate, porcelain-faced woman with a raven bob in front of a moonlit sky – like a grown-up version of the flawless children she creates.“ >> Huffington Post
Loretta Lux, self-portrait