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Henrike Stahl, in praise of gentleness

Photographs by Henrike Stahl for the INSTANTS residency, Château Palmer & Leica, 2023

Arts

Henrike Stahl, in praise of gentleness

Arts

Henrike Stahl, in praise of gentleness

Nature is always the one in control, whether in art or in wine.

Henrike Stahl, in praise of gentleness

Born in Germany in 1980 and now based in the Seine-Saint-Denis département outside the French capital, Henrike Stahl works in sectors ranging from fashion to the press. She first made a name for herself with a magnificent photo series about a young rider from the “93,” her district’s nickname, traveling through the town of Montreuil wearing a motorcycle helmet. This image broke with the stereotypes so often associated with this Parisian suburb.Henrike likes to play with paper, creasing and cutting it but never manipulating reality itself; focusing on the things that slip out of her frame of reference to discreetly plough their own furrows, from peripheral characters to situations caught in the void and the fragility of society’s margins.

As the second guest artist with the INSTANTS residency program at Château Palmer, following on from Dutch photographer Paul Cupido, she will be spending the coming months capturing the winemakers’ work with a complicit sensitivity. Observing knowledge being passed down, experiencing it for herself, and literally plunging her shots into the earth so that new images might grow.

© Henrike Stahl for the INSTANTS residency, Château Palmer and Leica, 2023

Château Palmer : You have worked extensively on urban landscapes and suburban inhabitants. How have you felt about this sudden immersion in nature amid the Château Palmer vineyards?

Henrike Stahl : I have settled right in! I naturally came across young people from the suburbs, kids from the Grand Parc neighborhood in nearby Bordeaux, who had been trained in vineyard work. I took photographs of them, observing their learned movements and techniques. One of the first things that struck me when I arrived was how many novices work with the earth, supervised by more experienced winemakers. I soon realized just how much this act of transmission was part of an overall philosophy. Château Palmer doesn’t just make wine; it helps others to grow. It gives young people a chance; it believes in the power of learning. The kids here are buds, and my role is to capture them as they blossom.

© Henrike Stahl for the INSTANTS residency, Château Palmer and Leica, 2023
© Henrike Stahl for the INSTANTS residency, Château Palmer and Leica, 2023
“The kids here are buds, and my role is to capture them as they blossom”
Henrike Stahl
© Henrike Stahl pour la résidence INSTANTS, Château Palmer et Leica, 2023

Château Palmer : This delicate connection with humanity appears to have always been a cornerstone of your work…

Henrike Stahl : The human side of life is what makes me tick. That’s all I know how to do – capturing the humanity that exists within each of us. The fragility, the in-between, the resilience that I observe and reproduce with as much tenderness as possible. I can just as easily photograph my daughter Rio, who has Down syndrome, as kids I’ve never met in Marseille, but whose beauty I want to share with the world. Real people, nothing fake. When I moved to the Paris region, I was astounded by the difference between the horrible image of underprivileged suburbs splashes across the media and the far more peaceful reality of these places. It is very easy to photograph violence. It is much harder to tap into the collective consciousness with a gentle vision. I told myself that this would be my mission: restoring a gentleness to these suburbs, without lying, betraying, or enhancing. My exhibition, Mon Roi, in Arles in 2018 was well received because it offered a realistic and kind perspective of marginal people. This gentleness has become my language.

© Henrike Stahl for the INSTANTS residency, Château Palmer and Leica, 2023

Château Palmer : Which artist(s) inspired this creative calling?

Henrike Stahl : I grew up in a village of 200 inhabitants in Germany, 40 miles from Frankfurt. My parents were teachers, yet they never took me to a single contemporary art gallery. I therefore discovered photography relatively late, around the age of 16. It was a shock to discover the autobiographical works by Nan Goldin, then those by Wolfgang Tillmans and the Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra — pictures of women who had just given birth, young people photographed on the beach at a turning point between childhood and their adult lives. These images have stood the test of time because they are humanistic, and humanity is timeless.After I graduated high school, I moved to Paris and was hired as a photo assistant in the fashion sector. At the age of 20, I published my first personal series in magazines before going to Berlin. I spent ten years here, the ultimate multicultural city and creative hotbed where all barriers seem to have been torn down.Today, I am still attuned to this human perspective. I never slip into obscene representations; I show the margins without ever stigmatizing them. I see myself most in the work of artists such as French photographer Léo d’Oriano and Italian photographer Nicola Lo Calzo. They never indulge in sensationalism and they don’t need to bash their heads against the wall to make their voices heard!

MON ROI, MA REINE © Henrike Stahl, 2019-2022
“I don’t like hanging my images on walls. I prefer suspending them in mid-air, allowing the works to breathe, and spin as if reflecting the viewer”
Henrike Stahl
© Henrike Stahl for the INSTANTS residency, Château Palmer and Leica, 2023

Château Palmer : You fear tricks and artifice while creating very “artistic” photos. You enjoy playing with the medium, the paper itself, and you design your exhibitions as if they were installations. Could you tell us more?

Henrike Stahl : I don’t tamper with reality; I simply notice that the image of a concrete wall becomes beautiful when it is bathed in pink light. This unexpected beauty is what I am interested in. I can play with colored smoke, float my prints in water, or even paint over the images, but I don’t use Photoshop to transform the people in my work. I saw too much editing, stylistic devices, and filters designed for Instagram when I worked in fashion.I like working with living matter, focusing on the tactile aspect of photography. I try to develop projects rooted in the lives of normal people before they are displayed in museums. For example, in my exhibitions, I don’t like framing my photos or hanging them on walls. I prefer suspending my images in mid-air, allowing the works to move, breathe, and spin as if reflecting the viewer. If I ever have to set photographs, to be published in a book, for example, I like to organize them into diptychs and triptychs that create omissions and electroshocks between several images. That’s how I tell stories.

MON ROI, MA REINE © Henrike Stahl, 2019-2022
MON ROI, MA REINE © Henrike Stahl, 2019-2022

Château Palmer : For your INSTANTS residency, you are pushing this experimentation even further by planting your images in the earth…

Henrike Stahl : At Château Palmer, the winemakers are having amazing experiences and carrying out incredible experiments, and I am lucky enough to take part in this vast, circular trial. I have captured the machines and the water scarcity tests. I have also photographed the men and women of the estate: Sina, a refugee who traveled for thousands of miles underneath a truck to take fate into his own hands and build a life in France; Sofiane, who wants to become a boxing champion; and Mathis, a young cellar worker who has stepped from adolescence into adulthood thanks to this highly demanding world.
My next priority was to study how they interacted with nature. I floated a selection of prints on the Gironde River. I buried portrait shots where the cow horns filled with biodynamic mixtures are placed in the earth. I put others in the 140°F aged compost to see what would happen. I realize the importance of the soil here and I feel the underlying fear about the effects of climate change. I have noticed that the team at Château Palmer is not just seeking to preserve its wine or its land; it wants to protect its entire ecosystem. I find this vision so beautiful, and I am trying to reflect it in my photographs.

This is why nature is the true curator of my exhibition, the one who will decide what becomes of the images. I am following the winemakers, pushing nature just a little, before letting it do the rest. Nature is always the one in control, who has the last word, whether in art or in wine. As it should be!

© Henrike Stahl for the INSTANTS residency, Château Palmer and Leica, 2023
“I am following the winemakers, pushing nature just a little, before letting it do the rest. Nature is always the one in control, who has the last word, whether in art or in wine”
Henrike Stahl
© Henrike Stahl for the INSTANTS residency, Château Palmer and Leica, 2023

An exhibition at the new Leica gallery in rue Boissy d’Anglas, Paris, and a book published by Filigranes Editions will showcase the fruit of Henrike Stahl’s residency as from spring 2024.

© Henrike Stahl for the INSTANTS residency, Château Palmer and Leica, 2023

More information

The works resulting from Henrike Stahl's residency will be presented to the press and public from April 2024: at the Leica Store Village Royal in Paris, in the Grand Parc neighborhood in Bordeaux and in an artist's book to be published by Filigranes Éditions.