Whether she is photographing people at a dog show, drifters out West or an ordinary gas station in the
Birdfeeder, 2001 & Umbrella, 2001 ©Tema Stauffer
TS: I grew up in
Probably the most significant thing about my childhood is the fact that since the moment I could talk, I was in total opposition to the idea of being a girl in any of the expected ways. My mother tells stories about how I went to grade school dressed as a cowboy, a carpenter, a clown, a tramp and a baseball player. I was essentially a scrawny and sensitive tomboy- willful and rebellious at times, but also studious and introspective. In physicality and temperament, as well as in my various curiosities and empathies, I was not unlike a 1970’s version of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird and Mick Kelly from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
After the painful adolescence of a gay teenager growing up in a Midwestern town in the eighties, followed by a tumultuous and self-destructive period in my twenties, I am now a recently turned thirty-five year old transplant living in
Winter Gas Station, Front Yard, 2003 & Tampa Gas Station, 2007 ©Tema Stauffer
NP: How did you discover photography and what inspires you?
TS: My mother encouraged me to take my first photography class at the local art center when I was a junior in high school. I fell in love with photography immediately – it was the perfect medium to combine my interest in stories and images. My first pictures were of friends in cemeteries, abandoned buildings, rooftops and cornfields, as well as pictures of intriguing and seductive strangers who I spotted on the street – basically, the typical adolescent stuff. From as early as my first photography class at
struggle, one that continues to this day. What inspires me has of course changed over time - from friends and girlfriends, to quirky American environments, to the drug and crime riddled neighborhoods of Chicago, to quiet and minimal landscapes, to more recently, the history and dark undercurrent of the American West and its characters.
Car Skeleton, 2008 & White Horse, 2007 ©Tema Stauffer
NP: The other day, looking at a prospectus from your 2004 “American Stills” exhibit at The Rochester Art Center, I was struck again by how serene these landscapes are and how you seem very comfortable with solitude. In your interview on My Art Space with Brian Sherwin, you mention that you are – or were – shy. You recently posted portraits of people you encountered during your travels on your blog. Is photographing people who are at first strangers more challenging for you than photographing landscapes or organized/structured events (Chicago Police “Ride-alongs”,“Dog Show”)?
TS: I’m shy and I’m not shy. I’m a loner and I am people person. One of the aspects of photography I love the most is its ability to allow one some access to people and to experiences that might not otherwise happen. However clumsily I might approach these interactions at times, I am certainly motivated by an interest in people and a desire for intimacy.
I do appreciate solitude and empty space. I can happily travel alone for days at a time but I can barely make it a day in this city without some substantial email correspondence and a nocturnal phone conversation with a friend, as I am quite driven by communication, emotions and attachments.
I think photographing anything presents a set of challenges. Photographing people one knows intimately is challenging. Photographing strangers is challenging. Photographing an empty parking lot is challenging as it a might not be as obviously compelling as a human subject. The biggest challenge in photography for me is figuring what I want to photograph, and why, and how to put myself in proximity to that particular subject, whatever it may be.
Jesus Boy, 2007 & Spanish Fork, 2008 ©Tema Stauffer
NP: You mentioned your interest in the American West and recently posted images and stories on your excellent blog: www.palmaire.blogspot.com Your previous work also depicts
TS: Actually, I did apply for a McKnight Fellowship in 2005 while I still lived in
NP: What’s next?
TS: I am hoping to make my next trip to
NP: Thank you!
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