Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Conversation with Tema Stauffer

Tema Stauffer also tells stories about America. However her storytelling is very universal. They are stories about struggle and humanity, beauty and life. There is certain quietness about Tema’s work and with one still image she can tell a life’s story - a true photographer.

Whether she is photographing people at a dog show, drifters out West or an ordinary gas station in the Midwest, Tema always portraits her subjects with interest and lets them shine.

Tema participated in the inaugural Nymphoto Show: Nymphoto Presents (as well as in Nymphoto's Filtered Show) and everyone at this jam-packed event loved her work -- and Tema’s Birdfeeder piece was the first to sell that night. We were not surprised. But we were proud!

Birdfeeder, 2001 & Umbrella, 2001 ©Tema Stauffer

NP: Tell us a little about yourself.

TS: I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is college town situated between Chicago and Detroit. Like the photographer, Dina Kantor, who was recently interviewed by Nymphoto, I am the daughter of a sociologist. My family existed within a close-knit circle of friends who were affiliated with Kalamazoo College, where my father taught, and who shared fairly liberal politics and strong values about the importance of education and community. Both of my parents nurtured my enthusiasm for art and literature from an early age, and I grew up playing the violin, taking art classes and reading a steady stream of books.

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 New York City. I spend much of my time at home writing and posting photos on the Internet, and when I do leave my Brooklyn apartment, I leave as a photographer, an artist, a window-dresser and a teacher. I constantly dream about traveling the country to explore its psychology and I plot ways to make it happen as often as I can.

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 Oberlin College, it was clear to me that photography was my greatest passion and what I wanted to do with my life. Making that aspiration a reality has been a long
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: Your previous work also depicts America. Why do you photograph at home?

TS: Actually, I did apply for a McKnight Fellowship in 2005 while I still lived in Minnesota to work on a photography project in Japan examining the ways that the Japanese reinvent American western culture. I was a finalist for the fellowship, but I didn’t receive the grant support in the end. The project I conceived would simply not be possible to accomplish without significant financial assistance to facilitate the travel costs. But that said, and any lingering disappointment aside, I am invested in making work about America in America. The photographers whose work has interested me the most – Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld, Diane Arbus - to name just a few, have all explored the psychology of America through images of its landscape and its inhabitants. I see myself as working in an American photographic tradition that was established in the fifties, sixties and seventies - including the road trips. And perhaps some day, when I am finished making trips to the West, I’ll figure out a way to get to Japan.

NP: What’s next?

TS: I am hoping to make my next trip to Texas later in the fall to shoot new work. And if this season is anything like the last two, I will be devoting much of my energy to my various types of freelance work since this is the busiest time of year in New York for the fashion industry as well as the art world. I am also scheduled to teach a class at The School of the International Center of Photography beginning in October. So, as usual, I will be juggling a number of very different areas of my life and trying to enjoy all of it at once.

NP: Thank you!

To see more of Tema’s work visit her site: and make sure to check out her blog: -where you can see her latest images and find some beautiful writing from Tema about her work.


Candace said...

Tema: Thank you so much for participating. Your work has really evolved over the years, and you are able to speak about it so eloquently.

Nina: Thank you for conducting such a great interview. You 'da bomb!

Anonymous said...

i just discovered this blog and think it is great.
great photos!