Camera-Wielding Soprano Still Life with Tomatoes

Fruits and vegetables pose for photographer Christine Schäfer
Fruits and vegetables pose for photographer Christine Schäfer | Photo: Christine Schäfer

In art history, the tomato was a prominent feature for Andy Warhol with his Campbell’s soup cans. Yet Christine Schäfer reveals that vegetables can be more than industrially produced foodstuffs. And that she is more than a world-renowned soprano.

Schäfer, who many do not know originally wanted to be a painter, photographs turnips, pods, grapes, tubers and her favourite subject, tomatoes, in a very singular way. Her exhibition Nachtschatten (Nightshades) is now being shown for the first time at the Goethe-Institut Freiburg. It is the quiet solanum-based challenge to pop art, it is the rediscovery of kitchen garden aesthetics and a rebellion against vegetable uniformity.

Painted with a camera – a still life Painted with a camera – a still life | Photo: Christine Schäfer Tomatoes have had an intriguing history. They were long considered poisonous in Germany and only very late would become an integral part of our menu. Only a few of the once great number of over 1,000 tomato varieties still exist in industrialized agriculture. But Christine Schäfer prefers the old, often forgotten varieties. Four years ago, she began photographing the fruits she grows in her garden in Brandenburg with a plate camera. In the basement of her country house, she experimented with exposure times of up to 15 minutes.

Christine Schäfer’s pictures take time to evolve and they need time to behold. “I need a whole day for one photograph,” explains Schäfer. “And in the end there’s a group shot, like in opera. They all may gather on stage.” The great stylistic confidence that Christine Schäfer uses in her singing to express a period of musical history is also reflected in her photography.

Christine Schäfer in Freiburg: Opera and vegetable expert Christine Schäfer in Freiburg: Opera and vegetable expert | Photo: Anne Stoll The meticulously composed, boldly coloured photographs are still lifes of the style of the old Flemish and Florentine masters. We recognize Pieter Claesz and the 17th century Caravaggists such as Vincenzo Campi, Bartolomeo Bimbi, Jan Davids de Heem and Osias Beert.

At first glance, Christine Schäfer’s images have no symbolic meaning. Yet on closer look, one might imagine seeing the stubbornness of a fruit that has stood up to the adversities of the Brandenburg climate. Thus, Schäfer’s pictures tell the story of a passion and give us an inkling why tomatoes were called a “love apples,” amoris poma, until the late 19th century and are still called Paradeiser and Paradiesapfel (apple of paradise) in Austria today.
 

Christine Schäfer is an opera singer who performs regularly at the Metropolitan Opera, the Salzburg Festival and the Berlin Philharmonie. She has recorded with the leading orchestral conductors Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Claudio Abbado, Simon Rattle and Christian Thielemann. Her exhibition Nachtschatten (Nightshades) will be on show at the Goethe-Institut Freiburg until 10 April.

Rebellion against vegetable uniformity: Christine Schäfer focuses on old varieties Rebellion against vegetable uniformity: Christine Schäfer focuses on old varieties | Photo: Christine Schäfer