by Prof. Dr. Gottfried Jäger
The photographs of Karen Stuke offer room for multiplicative associations. First of all, there is light, which plays an important role in her work. It allows scenarios to be recognized, even though they take place in the dark. Photographs are based on light. Light is the essence of photography, its actual medium. But it is evident that for Karen Stuke, light is not only a medium but her actual subject. Secondly, her photographs are defined by space. They not only reproduce various spaces but are created in them. One view a stage, a room. For all intents and purposes, the camera itself is nothing more than a dark room. A third factor shaping Karen Stuke’s pictures is movement. Here, movement is fleeting, and unlike traditional shots, is not recorded in a single „crucial instant”, but rather comprehensively and holistically over a span of time. In this process, the outlines of the objects become blurred. One recognizes movements, which aren’t necessarily the result of an individual moving object, but whose elements remain somehow enigmatic and inscrutable, open for interpretation. Direct access to these movements is impossible. On the contrary, a feeling of time emerges, a notion of a timeframe in which the photograph was originally created. Thus the photo refers to its own production process and reflects itself. Light, space and time are the coordinates; the intersection of these coordinates becomes the photographic works which Karen Stuke has created.
An instrument that bundles these coordinates in a special way is the camera obscura, Karen Stuke’s preferred tool since her student days. The camera obscura was basically the first camera, nothing more than a black box with a pinhole opening. Perhaps it’s best to casually visualize the principle first, in order to arrive at its meaning. One imagines a darkened room. It is midday in a southern city. Due to the intense heat and brightness, the black curtains are closed. The garish sun lights up the facades across the street. There’s only a small hole disturbing the darkness, through which a tiny beam of light is able to shine in. Suddenly, like a shadowy phantom, one recognizes a picture, a real picture, on the ceiling or the far wall of the room: the upside-down projection of the houses from the opposite side of the street. If one is lucky, people might pass by outside, and in their projection, they move across the wall, head over heels. The picture is also in color and when one studies it closely, it seems to become more and more realistic. Finally, one begins to accept this visual headstand and starts to mentally imagine it upright. Wonderful – small miracles happen all the time. Thus one finds oneself in a “camera”, and in its dusky light one directly experiences the genesis of a photographic picture. And also roughly that which was once described by Plato in his Parable of the Cave. One recognizes within the inner cave a part of the outside world, which is nevertheless an integral component of the cave – bound by the very conditions and circumstances of the cave, which for purposes of comprehension the viewer also embraces, must embrace, as a condition of his own perception. After all, the projected picture possesses an independent existence, which one needs to understand in order to assess it properly and perceive it adequately. The image is elusive and moves with the course of the sun; ultimately, it also disappears with it. “We know that we dream” (Vilém Flusser).
Karen Stuke’s camera obscura dreams a double dream: as a camera within a camera. Patiently and silently, the black box observes the production on a theater stage or in a bedroom. Over minutes and hours, it absorbs fleeting images and gathers the impressions of light on film. These are long-term observations, in which the phases of time overlap and merge into a general impression. A comprehensive picture evolves. It corresponds to an impression which clings to memory and is called up when one tries to recall a theatre performance some time later. This leaves the visual sense of brightness or darkness, of spontaneous movement or a calm flow, of color or drab grayness. Details, on the other hand, do not appear. Perhaps a detail or two surfaces, if it was very striking or remained still for the entire time and thus managed to leave a lasting impression. Such moments can also be recognized in the photos and it is these moments that keep them grounded. In observing them, the viewer is offered a certain orientation, allowing them – for all their abstract nature – to seem very realistic. Not in terms of anchoring a concrete event in front of the camera, but rather in terms of its perception and storage in one’s own memory. These are not direct reproductions but rather pictorial reflexes, which, produced in this way, become indexical symbols articulating their own references actively sealed within themselves. The concept of the image determines its own form and shape.
The sleep pictures occupy a surprising place within this oeuvre. Here the photographer has observed herself over the course of a night. Hours pass, and the camera, set up calmly with opened shutter, gradually captures and stores the impressions of the darkness. Only as dawn arrives does this intimate view end – the day begins. Left behind are calm and peaceful photographs revealing the boundary between closeness and distance, between day and dream. Yet this silent witness is unable to record the dreams of the young sleeper.
According to Karen Stuke, theater photography occupies a central role in her work. In this respect, she has certainly been shaped by her parents. They provided her with an early impression of the theater scene, allowing her to become familiar with its characters and its language. A theatrical internship intensified this connection. Karen Stuke is well versed in the theater. Once when I casually mentioned that I intended to go to Malta on vacation, she recommended a visit to the theater on the neighboring island of Gozo… In addition to a section devoted to experimental camera obscura images, Karen Stuke’s master’s thesis consisted of a respectable documentation of productions by the internationally renowned stage designer and director Gottfried Pilz, whose work she continues to document in photographs, traveling around the globe. At the time of the documentation, he worked together with the chief opera director John Dew and artistic director Heiner Bruns, contributing to what was known as the “opera miracle” in the German city of Bielefeld. By rediscovering operas banned by the Nazis as “degenerate”, Bielefeld became an important center of German musical arts in the 1980s and 1990s. These happenings, occurring as they did in direct proximity to her university studies, also shaped Karen Stuke. Her knowledge of the unwritten history of theater photography – from the Gustaf Gründgens photographer Rosemarie Clausen through the irrepressible Chargesheimer to the colorful dance impressions of Walter Boje – reveal that Karen Stuke has always wanted to engage in the “other”, an “absolute” theater photography. In other words, an image that unites everything, the entire scene, the entire act, the entire program. Thus she inevitably came to the camera obscura, an anachronistically slow instrument, which allows just such a view and with which she is meanwhile so intimate that she doesn’t even consider it anything special – so masterly is her perfection of this tool. The images she records with it are “different” – this much is irrefutable. Whether they are proper and “correct” is unverifiable. They are the visible expression of a deep desire to respond to the extravagant world of the theatre with extravagant photographic images. Her production is doubled and even tripled. The artist responds to the production on stage with the production of the camera, which follows the production of the image in stagelike boxes. A new system of images is created.
In her most recent group of works, “City Lights”, Karen Stuke not only employs light as a scenic aid but as a generative instance, producing autonomous image structures. The works rarely bring objects to mind and even their method of production retreats to the background. However, the dimension of the movement is not hidden to the well-informed eye, forming a pattern of explanation and a constant within the visual game of the traveling photographer. Here she is the one in motion. She installs her camera in lofty rotating towers, which are often furnished with chic restaurants high above the cosmopolitan cities of the world, such as Berlin, New York or Kobe, Japan, where they lead a dizzy and vertiginous existence. With an unlimited view into the depths, the stationary lights of the large city flash by. The picture is constantly changing. But we are actually the ones that are changing and moving. The photo-eye remains calm. It simply records at its own discretion, allowing a singular image to be created over space and time within its hollow cavity. The impression is no less true, good or beautiful than our own. Merely different.
text by Prof. Dr. Gottfried Jäger, 2007