Photographer Anke Stäcker’s imaginative vistas of ruins, desolation and hope

Photographer Anke Stäcker’s imaginative vistas of ruins, desolation and hope

By Deborah Singerman

Anke Stäcker’s photographic work creates narratives about her personal history from two continents. Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1947, she migrated to Australia almost 40 years later, in 1988, and has continued her work practice and techniques, inspired by ongoing influences and passions.

Stäcker’s archive of photos reflects her abiding interest in memory and its relationship to photography. She uses urban streets and places, in recent years mainly from Australian cities, as a platform to translate her observations into subjective and emotionally charged stories. She is attracted to features and the look of Australian cities, which she believes represent something typically Australian and different from European cities.

She loves Australia for its wide, open, endless sky, and for its ocean and sparkly, beautiful beaches. But it is the grittier, land-based, remnants of an industrial past and reworked present that informs Stäcker’s photography. There are the corrugated iron structures, disused factories, and the workers’ cottages and rows of Victorian terrace houses reminiscent of Australia’s colonial past.  Even though she has no personal, early memories of Australian urban spaces she is interested in how her own past memories influence her imagining of these buildings and streetscapes.

The shifting boundaries between reality and imagination permeate her urban landscape photography. She seeks out transient places, wastelands, ruins, back lanes, vacant lots, deserted backstreets at night, derelict industrial or residential sites, (often historic), seemingly abandoned but containing within them fragments of memories, their own and the ones Stäcker brings to life from her own history.

These are what she calls ‘zones of uncertainty’, places that are not what they were and yet not what they may later become. They connect with her perception of childhood, raising questions and offering opportunities for visions, giving an inherent freedom to the imagination.

Rather than represent these spaces and buildings literally, Stäcker looks for different ways of seeing them, capturing the slightly surreal moment of transience. This fluidity decided her on her choice of medium. Photography reflects the fleeting moments encountered in a city, a sudden change of light, the sight of cloud formations or a passer-by, a stranger who momentarily enters your frame of reference. Photographs have a relation to time, mortality and the eye that witnessed the scene, immediately linking the viewer, the photographer and the resulting image.

Stäcker uses the inherent quality of photography by playing with light, reflections and movement or by using simple camera techniques.  She has adopted the expression “terrain vague” from the Catalan architect and philosopher Ignasi de Solà-Morales, who warned against “trying to rationalize and organize all of the spaces within a narrowly defined set of uses”. Her photography is informed by the “apparently forgotten places (where) the memory of the past seems to predominate over the present”. (1) This displacement of memory is more important to her photography than are organised built-up spaces and objects such as shopping malls or artificial concrete parks.

For her investigations into memories of growing up in post-war Hamburg, Stäcker sets up, and photographs, miniature dioramas with dolls to re-enact or reinvent childhood impressions of that significant time, revealing the role of photography in preserving and subverting this memory as it also uncovers the real subject itself.

For children, dolls are like real people yet her pictures also convey that memories are partly the product of imagination. Her dolls are from a range of eras. They are found in markets, in the street or in forgotten corners of a cupboard, their hair mostly in thick, long ponytails, which Stäcker cuts or braids. She sometimes makes new clothes for them or leaves them as they are, pinning and gluing them together as appropriate, with changes to hair styles and clothes reflecting the role the dolls are playing. The scenes, she says, are like miniature movie sets and the dolls act their parts in what for her is a homage to cinema.

These cinematic elements can already be seen in her early undergraduate and postgraduate work where she let real people and herself be the performers for photographic stories about erotic fantasies and subconscious desires. She used perspective, light and shadows to create disorienting images of half-dressed female bodies, often with an ironic hint at a male dominated history of art and sexuality.

In her series “The Diary of A”, a masked woman, her elegance in disarray, a skirt lifted up, a top falling down, seems to be fantasising about sexual encounters in her brightly lit apartment. There is no one else in the pictures, only mysterious shadows, shoes, gloves and hats serving as disembodied traces of another presence. Stäcker photographed herself, but points out that this was not a matter of self-portraiture. “I was playing a part, but I wanted to do everything. The self timer of the old Rolleicord I was using would have been too fast for me to arrange myself into the right position. So I used a long shutter release cable and though this was extra work to try to disguise it, I derived a certain pleasure out of the skill to integrate it as a part of the composition. In the end the cable, only just visible if you were told that it was there, showed that I am behind and in front of the camera at the same time.”

Stäcker alludes to the dark side of life like a fairy-tale, a big psychological subject lingering in the subconscious that she can put in perspective and not be overcome by, and details in her pictures sometimes develop surprisingly.

Giving her urban compositions verisimilitude, Stäcker was a taxi driver for many years in Melbourne. Her photographs reveal her love of being on the road, with the accompanying freedom to set out somewhere without knowing what is going to happen or what the destination is. Tram depots, variegated walls, disused factories, industrial settings, where she might have to squeeze through a fence to take the picture, are her habitat, with graffiti, people’s writing and thoughts on different surfaces, also piquing her interest.

She also identifies with freedom on foot, being a flåneur, sauntering through the city, as Judith Duquemin (2) pointed out in the introduction to “Drift: Flânerie in Contemporary Art”, an exhibition that she and Stäcker curated at Articulate Project Space in Sydney. The camera has been an attribute of the city stroller who explores and records the city, the contemporary version of the 19th century French flâneur. Art theorist Susan Sontag writes, “The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.” (3) Similarly, Duquemin writes in the exhibition’s introduction, “The geographically mobile, digitally equipped, artist flâneur/flâneuse connects with the city of today through accessible global travel; through cyberspace, and like the 19th century heroic flâneur, through types of walking.” (4)

“Gerda: Berlin Revisited” is Stäcker’s contribution to the exhibition, a series of photographs of a grown-up, chic doll walking in Berlin. Stäcker, as observer, historian, detective, has Gerda as a stand-in for her own experiences of a divided Berlin during the time of the Cold War. History meets the present as Gerda is photographed in iconic, public spaces that act as a microcosm of city life showing the artist’s own relationship to the city.

Stäcker first lived in Melbourne and then moved to Sydney. She has exhibited her work in both cities in numerous group and solo shows, sometimes acting as a co-curator and developing long-lasting connections in the world of independent galleries. She has been a finalist in various prestigious Australian award exhibitions, including the Helen Lempriere Travelling Award, the Alice Prize from the Alice Springs Art Foundation and, most recently the Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert Photography Award in 2015.

She seeks opportunities outside of galleries to connect with global art projects, such as participating in a UK-based artists’ initiative where an exhibition of small works travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Beijing. Her work, Zora, from her series “Family Legends” about childhood memories was published in the Finnish online magazine “Hesa Inprint”.

There are many threads running through her work, including desolate landscapes, urban landscapes, surrealism, iconoclastic images, dystopia, science fiction, road movies, psychological thrillers and institutionalised violence. Her work over the years reinforces that within the realm of the individual Stäcker is not afraid to confront life’s hardships and beauty. Based on conversations between Anke and Deborah from May 2015 to March 2016.

Photography ©Anke Stäcker

Deborah Singerman runs her own writing, editing and proofreading consultancy and specialises in culture, design and society with the urban environment;; @deborahsingerna

(1)  Ignasi de Solà-Morales, “‘Terrain Vague’. Anyplace”, ed. Cynthia Davidson, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1995

(2) Dr Judith Duquemin describes herself as “an experimental geometric reductive artist mostly working within the fields of painting and digital media”.

(3) Susan Sontag, “On Photography”, Penguin, London, 1979, p.55

(4) Dr. Judith Duquemin, “Drift: Flånerie in Contemporary Art”, Exhibition Catalogue, Sydney, 2013, p. 4.