The Uncategorized, Undifferentiated, and Unexplained: Eli Lotar

Teagan Harris

Eli Lotar’s Rostrum of a Shrimp (1929) is a work composed of sharp but nonetheless organic lines. Upon close viewing, one can detect round scale-like shapes contained within the implied border of a spindly object. Since the object is not easily identifiable, the viewer is left to their own devices to work through what they might be looking at. Yet even without knowing exactly what is depicted, the picture’s lines and small cilla-like spindles, which seem to undulate beneath the more prominent spikes, offer a certain aesthetic satisfaction. The problem of scale also draws the viewer in, posing a perceptual puzzle. Although the photograph itself is quite small, its close perspective and lack of recognizable coordinates might initially leave the viewer wondering whether they are looking at a microscopic or aerial view. Unlike the original viewer (the photographer), we are unable to zoom in or zoom out, yet we are also in relationship with the photographer who, at some point, also looked at this same image and deemed it worthy of our attention. Are we looking as the artist did, as an observer of beauty, or are we looking to classify this object as it attempts to escape our categorizing gaze?

Fig. 1. Eli Lotar and Jean Painlevé, Rostre de la crevette (Rostrum of a Shrimp). 1929, gelatin silver print. Gift of the Estate of Lester and Betty Guttman, Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, 2014.529.

In this way, one is forced to recognize their dependence on the photograph’s title—Rostrum of a Shrimp—to discern the relevance or importance of the image. Initially attributed to the Romanian born French photographer Eli Lotar, the picture entered the Smart Museum of Art’s collection as part of a large donation of photographs from the Lester and Betty Guttmann Collection in 2014. The photograph represents an enlargement of a still from Crabes et Crevette (1929), a short popular science film directed by the pioneering animal filmmaker Jean Painlevé, for whom Lotar served as a cameraman. The film itself whimsically dwelt on the formal beauty of its aquatic subjects’ anatomy, and this formalism is even more pronounced in this photograph, which extracts its subject from the explanatory framework of the film’s narration.

Lotar’s name is seldom breathed without mention of one of his more famous colleagues such as Germaine Krull, Jean Painlevé, or Alberto Giacometti. His portfolio is often tacked onto the discussion of other artists, with the notable exception of his series of slaughterhouse pictures, which are often positioned as paradigmatic examples of surrealist photography.[1] His work is sometimes used to support the common thesis that surrealists viewed the city through its gritty underbelly.[2] That being said, Lotar’s body of work treated a wide variety of subjects, yet his work in other areas is often attributed to other photographers. Many of Lotar’s portraits have been attributed to his mentor, Germaine Krull, and his pictures of sea creatures are often credited to Painlevé alone.[3]  These misattributions have contributed to a scholarly tendency to use Lotar’s work as a window into the larger cultural context of surrealism, rather than engage with it on its own terms.

What then do we do with a piece like Rostrum of Shrimp, which is essentially soldered to the work of Painlevé and whose subject matter departs notably from that of Lotar’s more well-known pictures? In this essay, I would like to examine the strange connections between Lotar’s fame, chosen subject matter, and the nature of the print that has been chosen for this exhibition. In doing so, I would like to pose the question of whether there is value in differentiating Lotar from his more well-known collaborators, or, alternately, whether leaning into the connections between this network of artists offers a more productive path. My contention is that this photograph has a lot to say about Lotar’s practice, and that the case of Eli Lotar, as an art historical subject, raises questions about the problem of individuality in the evaluation of art. Ultimately, I will argue that Lotar’s apparent lack of individuality contributed to his flexibility as a photographer even as it rendered him difficult to classify in histories of avant-garde photography.

Before delving into Lotar’s practice, it is important to first consider the context in which we are encountering this print, which belongs to a large collection of photographs at a university museum. Photographs in large collections have a complex relationship with the museum institution as whole. On the one hand, photographs are often used by museums to support other works in exhibits, much like evidence.[4] However, they can also be seen as works of art in and of themselves. Nonetheless, museums have often, historically speaking, treated photographs as though of lesser value than more conventional fine arts mediums like painting and sculpture because of their inherent reproducibility.[5] Does the value of a photograph lie in the individual materiality of the print, or in the image it conveys, which can be multiplied in further prints or translated into a digital file?[6] At the same time,  museums also rely on photography for the digital documentation of their collections, making photography inseparable from the museum’s collecting mission.[7] By problematizing the photograph’s relationship to questions of documentation and classification, Eli Lotar’s Rostrum of Shrimp builds into this inheritance.

This particular print of Rostrum of a Shrimp arrived at the Smart Museum as one of 830 images donated to the institution from the personal collection of Lester and Betty Guttman. Photographs that arrive at museums through large donations often come with minimal tombstone and acquisition data due to the donation’s volume. For this reason, prints from large collections often go years before being thoroughly researched, depending, in the case of a university museum like the Smart Museum, on the needs of upcoming exhibitions, teaching activities, and student or faculty research.[8] That being said, Rostrum of a Shrimp is far from being the most anonymous of photographs in the museum’s collection, as other prints of the same picture exist in a number of other institutions and can be put in conversation with other works by Painlevé.

Although these connections help situate Lotar’s print, I would like to suggest that there is a connection between the lack of information that accompanied the print’s entry into the Smart Museum’s collection and Lotar’s status as a figure at the margins of the history of surrealist photography in France.[9] Unlike many artists, whose work might be discussed in terms of a unifying subject matter or stylistic approach, Lotar tended to pick up traits from artists he worked with throughout his lifetime and this heterogeneity has made it difficult to pin him down art historically. Although photographs that enter collections through large donations often come up against resource constraints that prevent them from being fully researched at the time of acquisition, many other factors enter into the equation, including the fame or art historical significance of the artist, which is often a factor of their apparent “originality” and “individuality.”

 This print of Rostrum of a Shrimp originally entered the Smart Museum’s collection as Dos de la Crevette (back of shrimp) and upon close looking the distinctive spikes found on the anterior carapace of a shrimp can be identified. This image is highly magnified and closely framed, obscuring any other identifying features and leaving the uninformed viewer unsure of the picture’s subject. Given its highly abstract nature, the photograph’s title—determined by the collecting institution based on acquisition data and subsequent research—acquires a high degree of importance in its interpretation, creating a context for the viewing experience. Interestingly, the French title originally attached to this print is not reflected in the title of similar prints from other collections in North America and Europe. Further research on the print revealed that the image was excerpted from the aforementioned film by Jean Painlevé, a filmmaker who specialized in underwater and microcinematography. Prints of this same image can be found at a multitude of institutions outside the Smart, including MoMA, the Centre Pompidou, the Jean Painlevé archives, and the Gitterman Gallery. Some of these institutions attribute the photograph exclusively to Jean Painlevé, but the Gitterman gives a dual attribution to both Painlevé and Lotar. This dual attribution, which was adopted by the Smart Museum after research for this exhibition, has interesting implications for thinking about the status of a photograph excerpted from a film, as well as implications for the way we think about questions of authorship, individuality, and originality in the context of artistic collaborations.

The film Crabes et Crevettes, from which this image is derived, attempts to reveal the otherworldly nature of underwater life, a common theme in Painlevé’s work. Lotar worked with Painlevé on a number of films, and although this image exhibits many of the trademarks of Painlevé’s filmmaking practice, it also departs from the film in notable ways. Depicting a highly magnified view of a shrimp’s carapace, the photograph takes something familiar to many viewers (a shrimp), and makes it seem alien, strange, even unidentifiable. Painlevé often used this technique to disorient viewers and foster a sense of curiosity, fascination, and wonder with his films[10]. In his writings, Painlevé expresses an interest in threading the gap between scientific film and artistic documentary[11]. His films not only encouraged viewers to look at the world of underwater creatures with new eyes. Although Painlevé’s films aimed to reach a general audience, his approach to educational film would interest even an audience composed of specialists. The sense of estrangement his films foster and their careful balance between the scientific and common place is a common effect of Painlevé’s films. In the case of Crabes et Crevette, strikingly magnified images like the one depicted in Rostrum of a Shrimp appear in the context of a didactic, if whimsical, anatomy lesson. Excerpted from the film, however, the photograph loses this explanatory context. By removing the image from this larger context, Lotar—acting on his own initiative alone or with Painlevé—isolates a single, arguably inconsequential, moment, turning it into a spectacle that thwarts the operation of analyzing or classifying while amplifying its potential to foster aesthetic engagement, critical viewing, and abstract thinking. This attention to detail at the expense of a larger image or context is characteristic of many of Lotar’s photographs, which typically isolated fragments of the built environment to produce visual puzzles for his viewers. Here, however, Lotar has his attention on a humble object that would hardly be unfamiliar to any viewer, prompting us to see it in new ways.

This approach represents a combination of surrealist interests of the day. Lotar seems to be leaning into the spectacle of the everyday created through photographic strategies such as close framing, the use of unconventional angles, and an attention to contingent moments that reveal the strange in the familiar. Lotar’s print also enhances the dream-like strangeness of the subject by confronting the viewer with a peculiar perspective, which, in isolation, prompts them to see it differently than they would have had they been watching one of Painlevé’s films. Lotar uses a well-established method of capturing an enlargement through microscopic photography— something he almost certainly picked up working with Painlevé.[12] This undermines and creates a coy perversion of the scientific method by using the same tools to create something essentially unclassifiable[13]. However, outside of all these commonalities, this image still reflects the artist’s unique preoccupations. Lotar has gone against convention by almost eliminating any recognizable subject—a departure from his more well-known photographs of built environment, which are often discussed in relation to Germain Krull’s influence—and he maximizes intricate details rather than lighting, positioning, or any other method discussed above. In this way, we can see Lotar’s artistic choices blending in a piece that falls outside of easy classification.[14]

Lotar’s shining achievement comes from his pictures of the slaughterhouses of La Villette in Paris, a series commissioned in 1929 by the surrealist writer George Bataille. In this series, Lotar employed an aesthetics of distance—cold and ironic—to create perceptual puzzles from highly visceral subject matter.[15] Although this series was created around the same time as Rostrum of a Shrimp, which is to say, as Lotar was working with Painlevé, little is known about how these two projects related to one another. Lotar’s focus on marginalized urban spaces continues in a film that Lotar later directed, Aubervilliers (1946), both of which allow us to recognize Lotar as an artist of political convictions who used his camera to explore the world of the urban periphery. Lotar’s larger interest in offering striking and disorienting images of the neglected, marginal, and everyday can certainly be related to his collaborations with Painlevé, and perhaps even allows us to perceive a link between the surrealist interests in flânerie, ethnography, and natural history.

Lotar’s period of intense engagement with cinematography, which began with his work alongside Painlevé, was followed by his collaboration with another well-known artist, the surrealist sculptor Alberto Giacometti. In this context, Lotar became known not as an artist, but as a model for another’s artistic work. The historiography suggests that Lotar’s own artistic output had by this point slowed, if not stopped altogether. This modelling period is generally regarded one of decline and disintegration, something captured by Giacometti in his sculptures.[16] Yet the image of Lotar as a subject, to be molded by another artist as Giacometti formed his image in his final years, seems a fitting metaphor for Lotar’s flexibility and tendency to absorb the approaches of his collaborators, a practice that resulted in heterogeneous body of work that continues to puzzle scholars and viewers alike.

So what, then, do we do with an artist like Lotar? I do not hold that good art is isolated, unique, and revolutionary, nor that it should be treated as the product of an isolated individual when presented on the white walls of an exhibition. Rather, I believe the case of Eli Lotar dispels such notions in an illuminating way. Artistic practice, his example shows us, is a system of relationships, which becomes especially apparent when considering the work of surrealist photographers and filmmakers in interwar Paris.[17] Lotar’s work is at once neglected and omnipresent in scholarship on the interwar Parisian art scene, just as his Rostrum of a Shrimp might be easy to miss in our own exhibition, especially between larger and more theatrical works engaging with the scientific gaze that like Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Birds of Japan (1994) and Mark Dion’s Roundup: An Entomological Endeavor for the Smart Museum of Art (2000/2006). Yet Lotar’s work is as interesting for the questions it raises about art historical classification as it is for its approach to the scientific image.

Lotar’s photograph also does not fit comfortably alongside the other works on display in this section, which might easily dominate it. Yet even as the print blends into the larger ensemble of the exhibition and its section, it subverts the plot it joins by foregrounding the paradoxical relationship of the scientific and aesthetic gaze. Ultimately, Lotar’s photograph uses the methods of scientific photography to declassify. It cannot be used to educate; it does not inspire a specific line of thought. I feel this melds with Lotar as an artist in scholarship today. Each time his biography is used to bolster another’s (Painlevé’s for example), his work subverts it. For instance, Rostrum of Shrimp is a direct quote—a frame enlargement from Painlevé’s film—and yet it completely subverts the film’s educational aspect. Instead, it encourages an open-ended engagement with aesthetic form, fostering a sense of curiosity amongst its viewers.

[1] Donna West Brett and Natalya Lusty, Photography and Ontology: Unsettling Images (New York: Routledge, 2019), 87

[2] Ian Walker, City Gorged with Dreams: Surrealism and Documentary Photography in Interwar Paris (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), 72.

[3] Kim Sichel, “Photographs of Paris, 1928-1934: Brassaï, André Kertész, Germaine Krull, and Man Ray” (PhD Dissertation, Yale University, 1986), 73.

[4] Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Morton, Photographs, Museums, Collections: Between Art and Information (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 14.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 18.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 68

[9] Mitra Abbaspour, Lee Ann Daffner, and Maria Morris Hambourg (eds.), Object:Photo: Modern

Photographs, the Thomas Walther Collection 1909-1949 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2014).

[10] Andy Masaki, Marina Bellows McDougall, and Brigitte Berg (eds.), Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 119.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Walker, 72.

[13] Ibid., 71.

[14] Sichel, 73.

[15] Brett and Lusty, 88.

[16] See Christine Robinson, “Double Vision: Germaine Krull’s Photographic Relationship with Eli Lotar in Interwar Paris” (MA Thesis, University of California Los Angeles, 2013).

[17] Sichel, 4.

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