backstory: andrea stappert

The first time I met Andrea Stappert, I was sure she was a rock star. It was early 2005. She came into my then magazine office to meet with our photo editor. We were introduced. I was intimidated by this impossibly tall woman with a quiet yet powerful presence, huge green eyes and deep voice, showing us pictures of artists that she'd taken over many years; artists that had defined the Cologne and Berlin scenes. Some were taken long before the artists were famous. The intimacy in the images was disarming. She was disarming, too, in a way I couldn't define.

A week later, we were on a train to Leipzig to interview and photograph painter Matthias Weischer. Weischer wasn't famous yet, either, but he soon would be—the Leipzig School hype was still building. I quickly realised what was so disarming about Andrea was her honesty. We went back and forth to Leipzig many times, and became friends. I watched her work, always with analogue equipment, always with natural light. She quickly creates an unspoken dialogue with her subjects that sets these images apart from the usual portraiture.

She told me about her life. She'd studied painting in Hamburg, then moved to Cologne in the mid-1980s, where she soon met seminal German artist Martin Kippenberger. In the late 1990s she came to Berlin. She photographed artists for galleries, for magazines, for the artists, for herself. She told me fascinating stories but was never gratuitously nostalgic; she simply felt a connection to art and its makers that transcended time and place. Every time we met—for lots of coffee, or lots of wine—she talked about the photography book she had in her head.

The book she had in her head is, as of this month, a book to hold in your hands.

Under the Radar: Photographs 1983-2011 is a 240-page volume of Stappert's photographs showing 175 images covering the past three decades. It opens with dreamlike street scenes taken from the then-art student's window in Hamburg in 1983, and continues with black and white images from her time in Cologne and the many art-world figures she knew, ranging from Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen to James Lee Byars and A. R. Penck. Around the late 1990s, the photographs begin appearing in colour and depict Berlin artists like Jonathan Meese, Michel Mayerus and John Bock, with the cast of characters growing more international. The book's title suits the photographer's approach—Stappert herself is rarely portrayed (not even for this article).

For berlin art journal, I met with my friend, now 53, to have a sneak peek—and catch up on art history.

Kimberly Bradley: Martin Kippenberger figures largely early in the book. How did you meet him?

Andrea Stappert: Cologne was a powerful art center in 1985. Everyone was there, and it seemed like every second person was an artist. Like here in Berlin, now. In my first week, I was in the bar where all the artists hung out, Hammerstein's, and I met this guy. He gave me a business card. It said, "Martin Kippenberger, artist." No artist back then would ever think of having a business card. I felt immediately connected to him through this humour. Fabulous. I was in my late 20s, he was maybe 35.

KB: How did you start photographing him?

AS: He started giving me little jobs. I knew I wasn't a painter, but I didn't think of myself as a photographer, either. It was just something I did. I took pictures for documentation, or pictures of him that he'd use for posters or his book projects. I also sewed his canvases, sometimes out of the ugliest fabrics I could find. I cut the sleeves off his expensive Uli Knecht shirts because he was going to Brazil. What was left of the sleeves then became art. When Kippenberger had his show in the Tate Modern, long after he was dead, I realized, "No one knows I sewed all of those things!" (laughs) I also never, ever thought to ask him for a work. He was just part of my life. I never thought he'd leave us so early.

KB: So you were his assistant?

AS: Kind of. Unpaid, of course. But mostly we were friends, and I got so much out of it.

KB: When was the last time you saw him?

AS: I photographed him in 1997 two or three weeks before his death in Mönchengladbach, his last exhibition. Then I randomly walked past Walther König's bookstore in Cologne and I saw Walther putting in a huge window display. I saw [ed note: Austrian photographer, and Kippenberger's wife] Elfie Semotan's poster that said "Martin Kippenberger, 1953 - 1997" and then I knew he was dead. I ran home, sobbing, got my camera because I knew this was an important moment, and took a picture of the window display as it was being assembled. In the night I went back and shot the finished window. I knew that getting a whole window at Walther König, with all of his books, was more important for Martin than being in the Documenta. Walther König did that for him. It was touching and wonderful.

KB: You moved to Berlin around 1998. Some of the Cologne crowd was already here by then, and Berlin's scene was starting gain momentum. How did you know when to come?

AS: I turned 40, and I instinctively knew I had to come to Berlin. A lot of people had already moved. I knew I didn't have anything left to do in Cologne.

KB: What was it like in Berlin in your early days?

AS: It felt great, coming from Cologne, to enter a city without a centre. It was a huge construction site, and you knew it would never stop changing.

KB: You started photographing here. Look at all of these pictures of the old Berlin crew.

AS: Here's an early one of Tillmans. Then Monica Bonvicini, Jonathan Meese. Here's Lawrence Weiner again. These are all shot in Mitte, near Kunst-Werke. There's a shot of Olafur Eliasson in Basel; here he is super-young. John Bock, an early one of Nicolaus Schafhausen, Thomas Demand.

KB: And here some Brits.

AS: Sarah Lucas, Angus Fairhurst and Herbert Volkmann in London with Sadie Coles.

KB: So you didn't consider yourself a photographer, but it's clear that you became a photographer at some point.

AS: I'm an autodidact and I always stayed an analogue photographer. When I came to Berlin I joined a lab collective and I started working in colour. Then I realised that my photos have a very clear composition, which leads back to the painting I'd studied. I printed my first large-format picture, mostly to check if this really was a picture, or not. The first one I blew up was the Sarah Morris shot in Las Vegas [pictured above] and I hung it on the wall. I realised, yes, this picture makes my heart beat faster. That's when I knew I'd found it.

KB: Your calling.

AS: Yes. But when people ask me what I do, I can't bring myself to say, "I'm a photographer." That's as superfluous as saying, "I'm an artist." I can't bring it past my lips. Saying "I'm a photographer" or "I'm an artist," always feels like I'm not saying enough. Or it sounds too vain. I don't know. I'm amazed at how easily other people can say things.

KB: What do you say?

AS: To be honest, I'm always a bit embarrassed when I have to answer that question. And then I explain what I do. That for more than 25 years I have worked with artists on a very personal and biographical level. It turned out that most of them became famous through what they did during that time. But it simply comes down to the affection I felt toward these people and their work. Even though I decided not to be a painter, art and its production was always one of my greatest interests. It's a very personal story.

KB: How did you select the images for the book?

AS: I spent hours in the lab to see how much I had, and I put everything on the floor. I was totally blocked at least five times. My graphic designer, an old friend, helped me, and I narrowed down the book's concept. In terms of selection, I'm very critical. I know within one minute—or maybe three—whether a photo works. This was never meant to be a book where you look through and think, "She has this person, check; this person, check." I wanted the most authentic images. In most of them it's about something that shows the subject's vulnerability on the one hand, but protects that vulnerability at the same time. It's always about this. I never, ever expose someone.

KB: Was there also an emotional side to it?

AS: Christof Kerber, the publisher, approached me about the book and I found myself feeling frozen for a month. Putting a book together can be an exercise in getting over personal fears. For years I always felt like I was outside of something, but still part of something. I was the observer, but still standing in the centre. It's the idea of looking through the window, which the book begins and ends with. But now I realise that the window—which is, in a sense, a clueless gaze at what's going on around me—is now slowly starting to dissolve.

KB: It's also a look back, through both space and time.

AS: That's true. It's been fascinating to find out just what it is I'm actually working on—and how many interesting encounters ran through my life. I could only say this after many years. I observe my body of work as if it's someone else's. It's like putting together a puzzle. I can also see I lived in the right place at the right time for 30 years. In Hamburg I studied with people like Albert Oehlen and Werner Büttner. Sigmar Polke was definitely a very influential mentor for us. Later I met many of these people again in Cologne. All of this was the beginning of the German art scene, as well as the formative period of an international art market.

KB: You can almost see the world accelerating, too. But also, the newer the pictures, the more the subjects pose a bit.

AS: One's own portrait and self-presentation seems to be a lot more important now. Martin [Kippenberger] knew what he wanted when he posed, too, for his posters and such. But he also made himself unattractive and played with illusions. Today things are a lot more controlled and commercialised. Artists have to represent themselves in the world.

KB: Has Berlin topped out in terms of hype?

AS: I'm the wrong person to answer this properly. Certainly Berlin is somehow really real and cheap, and I understand why people from abroad love it so much. You only have to enter Berghain, the club—it’s like Fritz Lang's Metropolis. You know there's no other place in the world that could capture that feeling, and there's no other place in world where you party for three days straight.

KB: How is the art world changing?

AS: Right now I notice that more artists are also curating, which I personally like very much as an idea. And there seems to be a new interest in history, in a life's work, in looking for the roots of things. When I think of it this way, this book seems to be appearing at the right time. It couldn't have happened five years ago. There's more attention paid to work that has a longer trajectory.

KB: Which artists would you still like to photograph?

AS: So many, including artists who are already icons, like Julian Schnabel or Jeff Koons, and also people I shot earlier in their careers. Wolfgang Tillmans, who now lives in my neighbourhood, would be someone I'd like to photograph again. He's already in my book, but it's a quite shy shot I did years ago. Now it would be more eye-to-eye. He's already agreed and I'm curious as to what will happen.

KB: Tell me about the last image.

AS: It was taken in Philip Johnson's Glass House. I was there with Sarah Morris and her son. I was more interested in exploring the view than the house. This photograph is so beautiful that I chose it as a final statement.

KB: The window metaphor again, wonderful. Thank you.

Under the Radar: Photographs 1983-2011 by Andrea Stappert, published by Christof Kerber. Essays by Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield, Marc Glöde, Veit Loers, and Julie Sylvester. Interview with Max Dax.

[Images: Sarah Morris, Las Vegas 2001; Cerith Wyn Evans, Frankfurt am Main 2004; Jonathan Meese, Berlin 1998; all courtesy the artist and Kerber Verlag]