Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Art Space Talk: Tema Stauffer

Tema Stauffer was born in 1973 and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1995 and received a Master's Degree in Photography from The University of Illinois at Chicago in 1998. She received CAAP grants in 1999 and 2000 for a project photographing dog shows throughout the Midwest. She also contributed a series of photographs shot on ride-alongs with police officers to the CITY2000, an archive of photographs examining the city of Chicago in the year 2000.

A large body of her work was shown at The Minnesota Center for Photography at The Katherine E. Nash Gallery at The University of Minnesota, and in a solo exhibition at The Rochester Art Center in 2004. She has participated in seven group shows at Jen Bekman Gallery and her solo show, "American Stills," opened in October 2004. Fifteen images from this body of work were selected by The Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia in Chicago for their Midwest Photographer's Project.

Her work has also been exhibited at The Chicago Cultural Center, The Terra Museum of American Art, The Musee Departmental d' Art Contemporain de Rouchechourt, The Hyde Park Art Center, The Detroit Contemporary, The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, The 3rd Ward Brooklyn, Tyler School of Art, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Adrian College Gallery, Central Lakes College Gallery, The Joymore Gallery, The Butcher Shop Gallery, The Gallery 400, The Icebox Gallery, Heaven Gallery, David Allen Gallery, Jon Oulman Gallery, The Lyceum Theatre Gallery and Moti Hasson Gallery. She was a finalist for the McKnight Photography Fellowship in 2005 and was nominated for the KLM Paul Huf Award in 2008.
American Stills: Winter Gas Station / 2003

Brian Sherwin: Tema, you graduated from Oberlin College in 1995 and received a Master’s Degree in Photography from The University of Illinois at Chicago in 1998. Can you tell us about your academic experiences? Did you have any influential instructors?

Tema Stauffer: My group of friends in the art department at Oberlin was close and incestuous. Some of these friends continue to be an important part of my life in New York and to shape my relationship with photography. I’m glad that I chose to go a small liberal arts college and I am certain that studying literature and history while also studying art inspired my work as a photographer. I also loved living in a small town in Ohio. I liked to drive around in borrowed cars and to explore flea-markets, cemeteries, cornfields and nearby industrial towns like Elyria.

I saw this small town itself, outside the realm of college life, as akin to the setting of a Carson McCuller’s story, except in the Midwest instead of the South. The soulful town drunk, Jerry Goodson, was my main subject throughout three of my four years at Oberlin. I took hundreds of photographs of him dressed and undressed on cheap 35mm film and shot some video as well in the virtually empty rooms of his family’s old house on Lorain Street, and when he left Oberlin to find sobriety, I made trips to visit him at his new home in Cleveland.

While most of these negatives and prints remain in boxes in my parents’ basement, this relationship with Jerry fueled my early interest in photography. I have never since, as a photographer, felt as strong of an attraction for a single subject or reached the same level of sustained intimacy as what I shared with him.

My experience as a graduate student in Chicago felt more independent than my experience at Oberlin, and my focus was entirely on making photographs. Most of the books I read during this period were true crime stories and biographies that I found at The Myopic bookstore in Wicker Park. I lived near Humboldt Park and commuted to a big and ugly urban university. I studied with some great professors, like Esther Parada and Doug Ischar. Doug took me under his wing a little, probably because I was gay, not to mention a little shy and awkward.

The most important experience I had in graduate school was the relationship I formed with a visiting artist and professor from Montreal, Genevieve Cadieux. Her friendship, encouragement and insight were invaluable, and her recommendation to the former director of The Musee Departmental d’ Art Contemporain de Rouchechourt led to my second exhibition after graduate school at this contemporary art museum in a castle in France.
American Stills: Front Yard / 2003

BS: Tema, you currently teach at The School of the International Center of Photography in New York City. How do you find balance between teaching and working on your personal art?

TS: Since the winter of 2006, I have taught two classes per year at the ICP. I teach a class called "Photographing at Night" in the winter and I teach a class called "Photographing the Everyday" in the fall. During these ten-week sessions, I focus on my students’ work and on studying photography through reading, writing and seeing exhibitions. I also work on my images, but most of the trips I make occur when I am not teaching.

I like teaching and being involved in a photography community and sharing a dialogue about photography with students, but I also value having some time away from it to really return to my own work.
Dog Show : Mexican Hairless / Kalamazoo County Fairgrounds / Kalamazoo, MI / May 1998

BS: Tema, one could say that you got your first break with your Dog Show project. You received CAAP grants in 1999 and 2000 for the project, which involved photographing dog shows throughout the Midwest. Can you recall that experience? How did it help you to grow as a photographer?

TS: It might be an overstatement to describe those CAAP grants as a "break," but they did provide some support to develop the Dog Show project. Mostly, I used my own resources to finance the material expenses and the trips that I made to shoot photographs at state and county fairgrounds, hotels, lodges and convention centers in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio.
I began working on this project shortly after I finished graduate school, and those next two years were a difficult period in my personal life (which is an understatement).
I left Chicago abruptly to start a new life in Minneapolis and I never felt that the Dog Show project was fully realized. But at that point, I began taking an entirely different approach to making work.For one thing, I questioned my feelings about satirizing these kinds of people and environments, though I had always meant it with some genuine affection and appreciation for their eccentricity.
Chicago police ride-alongs: Officer views body of dog in parking lot of Antioch Haven Homes / Chicago 2000

BS: Since that time your work has involved space and locations that many of us would view without a second thought in our day-to-day lives. However, you photograph them in a way that reveals the surreal quality of life in general. Tell us about the thoughts behind your work …

TS: While I was living in Minneapolis, I started making photographs that examined how ordinary spaces and architecture become surreal and mysterious at exceptional moments that are influenced by light and time of day, which resulted in a series called American Stills. I was constantly looking at places like parking lots and streets and yards and searching for a quiet beauty and otherworldliness, which really is quite an elusive phenomenon to capture, at least for me.

I rarely had access to a car, so sometimes I wandered my neighborhood, and when I did get to make some road trips, I mostly photographed things along the highways. I was less interested in the idea of a subject and more interested in a mood and a quality of light and color.
American Stills : Newark / 2006

BS: Tema, your photographs are often like open visual stories in that viewers can construct their individual interpretation of your work upon observing. Upon viewing your photographs the viewer’s imagination is free to build upon your original intentions. The viewer may create scenes in his or her mind based off of these locations – did a crime occur here? Did young lovers have their first kiss sitting upon those steps? – in that sense there is a level of interaction between you, the viewer, and the photographs. What excites you about that process?

TS: I like mystery and ambiguity. And I am often drawn to people and places that are sad and eerie. I am drawn to mystery in other artists’ work, and I like to leave room for people to wonder and to feel something emotional and even uncomfortable in my own work.

BS: With this in mind … give us an example of places that you explore. Do you create scenarios involving these places in your own mind before photographing them?

TS: As I mentioned above, some of my earlier work was made by simply wandering on foot or in a car and looking for environments that resonated with me based on some combination of light and character. On my most recent trip to Arizona and Utah in April of this year, I was interested in exploring places where violent episodes had occurred in American history, including Colorado City, Mountain Meadows and The City Center Motel in Provo, where Gary Gilmore murdered Ben Bushnell in the summer of 1976.

I also took photographs of anything that struck me in the landscape on the drives to these destinations. I imagined what these places might be like, but I did not plan any scenarios. My work is about searching for beauty and strangeness and sadness in existing settings, and perhaps suggesting a narrative by how I photograph these settings, rather than constructing scenarios.
American Stills : Highway / 2004

BS: Tema, what are you working on at this time? Also, will you be involved with any upcoming exhibitions?

TS: Since I moved to New York City, I have been making trips to other parts of the country to shoot new work. My first trip was to Louisiana, where I shot the image, Back Door, and my second trip was to Florida, where I shot the image, White Horse. I have since been making trips to the West, including California, Texas, Arizona and Utah. I am interested in using the landscape and mythology of the American West to explore themes of masculinity, alienation and violence.

None of these newer images appear yet on my website ( but they can be found on my blog ( I will be showing both older and more recent images in an exhibition called "8" consisting of work by eight photographers at Randall Scott Gallery which opens on July 11th.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art and the goals that you have?

TS: My goal is to continue to make trips out west to further develop my current project. And ultimately, I would love to see this work arrive at an exhibition and a book.

You can learn more about Tema Stauffer by visiting her website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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