TEMA STAUFFER — BROOKLYN-BASED PHOTOGRAPHER, WRITER AND TEACHER — SHARES HER VIEWS ON PORTRAITURE, MIDWESTERN VALUES, AND MAKING ART IN THE MIDST OF A RECESSION.
Edited by Kirsten Matthew
DIRTY: WHAT WAS IT LIKE GROWING UP IN KALAMAZOO, MICHIGAN?
TEMA STAUFFER: My father taught in the sociology department at Kalamazoo College, and I have good memories of growing up in a liberal academic community. I also have more difficult memories of the experience of being a gay teenager in the 1980’s, struggling in a town where, like most American towns then, homosexuality was nearly invisible. When I was in high school, I knew two openly gay students. One, a young man, tried to commit suicide, and the other, a young woman, was arrested for a minor crime. It certainly wasn’t the kind of social atmosphere in which one could feel comfortable or safe expressing gay sexuality, so, as a result, I spent much of my adolescence feeling troubled, guarded, and restless to be somewhere else. My choice of Oberlin College was strongly influenced by its historical reputation for progressivism and its substantial gay community.
Kalamazoo is a place to which I still feel a connection though. It is a Midwestern college town with a rich cultural life and a strong sense of community, a place which hasn’t been lost entirely to strip malls and suburban development.
D: HOW WOULD YOU SAY THAT GROWING UP THERE HAS AFFECTED THE STORIES YOU ASPIRE TO TELL?
TS: In my adolescence, two literary figures I admired were Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, both gay writers from the South who eventually moved to New York City. And who wrote extensively, especially in their earlier work, about themes of human relationships, spiritual isolation, and self-acceptance set in the places of their youth. McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding, and Capotes’s Other Voices, Other Rooms were especially significant works about coming-of-age for me. In my own work, I have created portraits and told stories which, if not literally set in my hometown, were certainly influenced by the kind of people and places I grew up with.
I moved to New York City at the age of 32, after living first in Chicago and then Minneapolis. In one sense, I feel at home in New York because of its density of artists and its diversity of cultures and lifestyles. However, I also feel more “Midwestern” in New York than I ever felt in the Midwest. I am often aware of my Midwestern character traits, values, and biorhythms, and I think my writing style and images have a straightforward and earnest quality.
D: YOU CREATED A BODY OF WORK ENTITLED “BALLAD OF SAD YOUNG MEN”, THAT YOU SHOWED AT DANIEL COONEY FINE ART. IT WAS BASED AROUND A SERIES OF TRIPS TO BINGHAMTON, NY WHERE YOU SHOT PORTRAITS OF VISUALLY ARRESTING LOCAL YOUNG MEN. HOW WAS THE SHOW RECEIVED?
TS: The exhibition, which was a two-person show that also featured portraits by Francesca Romeo, gave the work more visibility in the photography community. We were happy to receive a positive review in The New Yorker by art critic Vince Aletti, who described my own portraits as “tender and erotic,” and the show generally inspired some enthusiastic responses. It was my most important exhibition to date in New York.
D: HOW DID THAT WORK INFLUENCE WHAT YOU ARE CURRENTLY WORKING ON? YOU HAVE SAID THAT YOU ELECTED TO SHOOT PORTRAITS OF MEN TO ADHERE TO SOME SORT OF STRUCTURE; TO ALLOW YOU TO CREATE A BODY OF WORK. ARE YOU STICKING WITH THAT FORMULA FOR NOW?
TS: Partly for personal reasons, my trips to Binghamton came to an end shortly before the exhibition opened in February 2009. I started shooting portraits of strangers again in the summer of 2009, both in Austin, Texas and Kalamazoo, but my subjects weren’t specifically young men. When I began teaching a photography course at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey in the fall of 2009, I discovered the nearby city of Paterson. I was immediately struck by the potential for another setting in which to create portraits. In the past year, I’ve made bus trips to Paterson from Port Authority and walked the streets of its downtown looking for subjects. I continued to approach strangers whom I noticed on the street, just as I had approached the young men in Binghamton, but the range of subjects was broader.
These new portraits are concerned with self-expression in the everyday experiences of working-class Americans. The subjects variously reveal strength, sensitivity, sadness, defiance, and resilience. I am still in the process of developing this series.
D: YOUR WORK DEFINITELY DEALS WITH MASCULINITY AND VIRILITY TO A DEGREE. ARE THE IMAGES MEANT TO ADDRESS SEXUALITY IN ANY WAY?
TS: The portraits of young men in Binghamton were inspired by the song, The Ballad of Sad Young Men (recorded by Shirley Bassey, Roberta Flack & Petula Clark among others), which describes the fragility of adolescence. The series addresses sexuality in the sense that it refers to my own struggles as a gay teenager, while it also captures the vulnerability, youthful masculinity, and sexuality of these young men in Binghamton. In creating the more recent portraits, I was less focused on questions of sexuality. The portraits of both men and women are nevertheless sensual, in some cases, even if it is a gritty sensuality.
D: WHAT DO YOU TEACH AT ICP?
TS: I began teaching at ICP in the winter of 2006, half a year after I moved from Minneapolis to New York City. In fall of 2010, I am scheduled to teach digital photography and color darkroom courses, and also to co-teach (with photographer Juliana Beasley) a personal vision course called Truth or Dare: Building Intimacy with Subjects. In August, Juliana and I are co-teaching an intensive workshop on this same subject at Toxico Cultura, “a creative think-tank” in Mexico City. I also will teach a color theory course at William Paterson University during the fall semester.
D: WHEN DID YOU START/BECOME INVOLVED WITH CULTUREHALL, WHERE YOU ARE A CURATOR & ALSO A WRITER?
TS: I started working with Culturehall’s founder and director, David Andrew Frey, in early 2009. Due to budget cuts during the recession, I lost my day job as a display artist and photographer for Bergdorf Goodman’s visual department. I searched online listings for job opportunities in the arts and responded to David’s description for someone to assist him with a project involving photography, writing, and research on the Internet. We met for coffee in Long Island City, and our interests in art and the Internet clicked. We have since developed a great relationship – a natural ease in our communication, a shared passion and vision for Culturehall, and a mutual respect for one another’s ideas and skills.
D: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PIECE OF EQUIPMENT TO SHOOT WITH?
TS: I shoot all of my personal work with one camera, a Pentax 67II which I bought on Ebay from a police officer in Omaha, Nebraska. I’m still attached to the experience of shooting film cameras and the quality of film. I like simple medium format film cameras with good lenses that are easy to transport and easy to handle. Too many buttons and features on a camera confuse and distract me. I do use digital technology to produce prints. I also use a digital camera for snapshots and almost all commercial photography jobs.
D: WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO VISIT/SHOOT THAT YOU HAVE YET TO VISIT?
TS: It’s a strange time for me to answer that question. For years, I’ve had fantasies of places around the country where I wanted to travel to make photographs – mostly in the American South and the West. I even had a list of towns and cities I wanted to explore taped on the wall next to my desk. But since the recession, the expenses of traveling have been out of the question and it has been unrealistic to imagine going anywhere on my own budget.
D: HOW DO YOU THINK THE ECONOMIC CLIMATE AFFECTS THE ART THAT ARTISTS CREATE?
TS: A short answer to a big question is that some of the art that might be produced were there more resources is not being produced. Artists have always struggled to create work, and the recession has made that struggle even harder for many of us, with fewer job opportunities, reduced funding for the arts, and a weaker art market. Some artists have found ways to adapt their art-making to these financial constraints. Economic stress is certainly a part of my reality every day, and, as I mentioned, this has affected my ability to produce work. Even the cost of buying film and getting film processed is a consideration for me and slows down my ability to produce work, and making exhibition prints is entirely out of reach for me at this point.
My own economic challenges have led me to feel greater concern and empathy with the economic challenges of Americans at large, and this has influenced whom I choose to photograph.
D: WHO INSPIRES YOU CREATIVELY?
TS: Three contemporary photographers, whose images of people inspire me, are Paul Graham, Richard Billingham, and Rineke Dijkstra. I was intrigued with an exhibition this year at Yossi Milo Gallery of street portraits of anonymous strangers in American cities shot by Robert Bergman, who, until recently, worked in obscurity. My photographer friends and peers, and some of the photographers whose work is included on Culturehall, are also great sources of inspiration.
D: HAVE YOU DONE ANY EDITORIAL OR COMMERCIAL WORK?
TS: I’ve shot some editorial assignments in the past for The Reader in Chicago, The City Pages in Minneapolis, and The Village Voice in New York. I also documented window display for Bergdorf Goodman’s visual department from 2006 to 2008, and shot a series of portraits of employees for Fashion Week 2008. I still sometimes shoot portraits and events and document work for artists. It has been critical to be versatile as a photographer, and I enjoy shooting all kinds of projects. But primarily, I think of myself as an artist, teacher, curator, and writer whose goals are to produce, exhibit, discuss, and promote fine art photography.
D: WHAT ARE YOU LISTENING TO RIGHT NOW?
TS: When I am home, working in my apartment in Brooklyn, I mostly listen to National Public Radio. I’m particularly interested in stories about the lives of creative people and Americans. My favorite place to listen to music is in the car with a view of the landscape in motion, which happens infrequently since I don’t own a car. So that’s a rare treat.
The one disc I did buy this year, I bought for $4 from a musician named Blake Charleton whom I heard singing and playing the guitar on a subway platform. His voice was so haunting and full of emotion, and I’ve listened to his homemade disc of cover songs over and over again.
D: TELL US A DIRTY SECRET ABOUT YOURSELF.
TS: I’m pretty private about my dirty secrets. They are perhaps undertones in my images and writing, but they are there, I think.