More than twenty-five years ago he celebrated his second honeymoon in New Zealand. The German photographer Juergen Schacke (1968) felt so overwhelmed by the beautiful nature that he wanted to capture and share it. He emigrated. His photographs and Wilderness Gallery shop have become a household name in the west coast town of Hokitika and far beyond.
Text: Angelique van Os | Photography: Juergen Schacke
A penguin couple in love darts side-by-side through the foaming seawater. Beaks and wings close together. Just next to it, a curious Kea strikes down and shows his beautiful coloured feather suit. A little further he looks penetratingly into the lens. On another wall hang beautiful beach views, with in the distance the tops of Mount Cook. And I see a crystal clear reflection of another Cook and Mount Tasman in the famous Matheson lake. The Wilderness Gallery, in the small coastal town of Hokitika, is filled with the characteristic and colourful birds of New Zealand. From the shy Tui, lovely Kea parrot, little Waxeye, Tomtit and Bush Robin, to national symbol the Kiwi. Furthermore, the space shows the multifaceted views of the South Island. From the beach to the snowy peaks of the Alps and from pristine rainforests to vast rolling fields. Nowhere, however, is the name of the photographer mentioned. The friendly man behind the counter knows more about it. That’s Juergen Schacke, the modest maker. “It’s not about me, but about sharing the beautiful landscapes and animals of the South Island. I like to talk about that with people in the shop. They do come to me with questions and then spontaneous conversations arise. I like that very much.”
The originally German Schacke visits New Zealand for the first time in 1992. The untouched and versatile nature overwhelms him. He feels at home here and always has in mind that he wants to emigrate. According to Schacke, he had a boring office job as an insurance company at the time. The transition to professional photography followed in 1995. By pursuing his passion, he realizes that sooner or later he wants to settle on the South Island. “I have never felt at home in Germany. It took me years to find out that I didn’t feel, or felt too much, connected to my German culture. When I visited New Zealand, I knew my future could be here and everything fell into place.”
The photographer promotes the ‘kiwiland’ through his business background with large scale slideshows. And together with his wife Monika, he lectures on it and extends it to educational school projects. The great interest opened doors in the tourism sector and allowed the couple to emigrate in 2001 without having a permanent job. This is now unthinkable in New Zealand, which is becoming increasingly popular.
Schacke plans to dive deep into the wilderness, but is unable to do so because of a serious arm injury that will cause him some permanent injuries. “All my pictures are taken in accessible places, simply because I don’t have enough strength in my arm. So the wild mountains are inaccessible to me. That’s why, for example, I focus more on the nature around the beach, places that many people visit and are therefore recognizable. Also, I hardly ever do photoshopping because I simply can’t keep this up for a long time with my hand. And I want to capture the moment as it actually was. Not an ‘adapted’ version of it with totally different light or use of colour. So I adjust my work as little as possible and that’s why I’m very selective in the image I shoot. The advantage is that it has given my work a new, recognisable signature: what you see is what you get. I want to represent reality, not sketch a fake world. And a lot of the visual material I made twelve years ago still sells well today. And my wife Monika supports with the design, printing and in the gallery. We make a good team.”
“This magical land continues to intrigue me.”
By the way, it’s not easy to make contact with the locals. Kiwi’s are very much on their own, despite the fact that they look very friendly at first sight. It takes Schacke and his wife a lot of time to build up a circle of friends. The camera plays an important role in this. Because thanks to Schacke’s work, meanwhile everyone knows the couple in Hokitika. This ‘cool’ small town of about 4000 inhabitants on the west coast is the place where from way back the best green stone (jade) is found and for sale. There are also a number of nice boutiques, as well as interesting festivals, such as the Wildfoods and Driftwood and Sand Festival and the area is known for the beautiful azure waters of The Gorge. All in all a nice place for tourism and a good start to open a photo gallery.
Locals & bird talk
The maker also tries to reflect the personality and characteristic traits of birds as well as possible. “I often talk (German) to the birds. This makes them curious, especially penguins and Kea’s. As long as I move very slowly and carefully, that goes well and in a certain way you make contact with the animals. For example, I ask how fish are doing, haha.”
Before Schacke opens his stylish shop, he becomes known and appreciated for an exhibition in Hokitika. With his quirky prints he portrays the cultural heritage in a different way; with atmospheric light and from different, less obvious angles. As a result, the locals look at their own community in a different and more proud way. This way, the photographer is more accepted in the local community and sells hundreds of prints.
” I’m talking to birds. This makes them curious”.
In addition, the photographer is one of the few people who specializes in birds. He wants to focus even more on macro photography, but birds are fast. They flutter away like this. And that is difficult with this lens and takes an infinite amount of patience and time. That time is scarce by the way, because Schacken is not a photographer who works in the field all year round. He only goes out in the winter months – when it’s quiet and tourism is declining -. “I get a lot of satisfaction from the contact with people in the shop. And I enjoy photography even more because I don’t do it every day. And that also applies when I return to the gallery. We also sell beautiful work and gifts from other makers. It inspires me to be busy with that as well. To give good, high-quality work a platform. For me, everything comes together when customers in our shop share their experiences and interests in and for beautiful New Zealand. This magical country continues to intrigue me. And it makes me very happy to show the beauty of it.”
For about ten years there have been a handful of quality landscape photographers in New Zealand, such as Stewart Nimmo (Greymouth) and Andris Apse (Okarito Gallery, Franz Jozef). Each has their own signature. Schacke’s landscape photographs are often recognizable because he uses a telephoto lens. “I’d rather zoom in and illuminate a number of accents than specifically sketch an overview. This is quite unusable in landscape photography. But less is more in my experience. I like to be close to my subjects. A beautiful red-flowering rata tree, an imposing fern, tangible moss, up close it’s going to be even more alive for me.”