Lutter’s images of a coal mine track energy production, the source of modern industrial accomplishment, to its geological root. Her images of enormous land-levelers complement her project photographing London’s Battersea Power Station in 2004. In that series, Battersea, an inoperative coal processing plant, is shown in a state of noble ruin. Sites of industrial activity recur often as subjects of Lutter’s work, underscoring the relationships between technological ambition and the transformation of the Earth’s surface both in urban and isolated environments. Likewise, the artist’s use of analog photography points to the parallel of the medium’s beginning and western industrialization.
A constantly growing population tries to improve its standard of life, which forces society to reach for new resources while also laboring to maintain its old ones. Stripped from the surface of our planet since antiquity, brown coal is one of the oldest energy supplies known to man. Over the course of centuries, humans have started to dig deeper and deeper to seize this dwindling source of energy. Near the rural town of Hambach, Germany, the energy company RWE (Rheinisch Westfälische Energiewerke) - formerly Rheinbraun - is now harvesting coal 300 meters beneath the topsoil.
Due to the very specific circumstances in which brown coal is embedded in the ground, the material has to be shaved from the surface of the land in a process similar to strip mining. This procedure requires the removal and relocation of enormous amounts of soil and sand in order to gain access to the coal. Gigantic machines, like the bucket wheel excavator seen in Lutter’s images, have been developed to carve soil and excavate the lucrative coal reserves. Elliptical patterns are dug into the landscape, where villages were relocated and mountains turned into valleys, creating terraces of soil, sand, and dust that extend as far as the eye can see. This process destroys the fragile structure of naturally layered soils and root systems turning the mine into an enormous mud pit during rainfall, and in the dry summer months, into a desert-like, infernal cloud of dust. All vegetation has disappeared. The landscape is both devastated and redesigned.
Lutter’s images of the Rheinbraun mine explore both the capabilities of an industrialized civilization and the place where such efforts culminate in ruin. Working with a forty foot shipping container as a camera obscura, her photographs reflect the immensity of this undertaking. In the images, one finds the sublime not atop a mountain but through the awesome mechanization of modern industrial accomplishment. Though Lutter does not show the vast pits created by the excavating machines, one sees their track marks across the barren earth stretching to the edge of the photographs insinuating the disfigurement of the land extends far outside the frame. Yet this deformation to the landscape is not without order or even beauty to which Lutter’s works testify, but it is a kind of cautionary beauty manifesting both the desirable production of energy and all its waste. It is this dichotomy of seduction and repulsion that lends her work its paradoxical edge. Lutter’s pieces, of which some are close to twenty feet in length, not only give evidence to the monumentality of the mining project but also reflect the haunting sublimity found within this system of destruction and recreation.