This is a continuing series of interviews with the forty-eight artists whose work was selected for the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. The third OBPC exhibition opened on March 23, 2013, and will run through February 23, 2014.
Tema Stauffer's work Cathy, Market Street, Paterson, NJ is on display as part of the 2013 competition.
Q: What is your name, where are you from, where do you live now?
Tema Stauffer. I was born in Durham, North Carolina, and grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I lived in the Midwest until I moved to New York City in 2005, and I’ve been in the same apartment in Brooklyn for the past seven-and-a-half years.
A: What medium(s) do you work with?
I’m a photographer who, besides taking pictures, also devotes a lot of my energy to writing about art.
Q: Tell us about your technique/creative process.
A: Rooted in a documentary tradition, my work focuses on American spaces and American people, particularly those who are underrepresented because of their social or economic status. Creating my most recent series of photographs involves walking the streets of downtown Paterson, New Jersey, with a medium-format film camera and approaching people to make portraits.
Q: What is your background (education, career, etc.), and how does it contribute to your art?
A: I studied studio art at Oberlin College and then received a MFA in photography from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1998. Currently, I am an adjunct professor in the photo departments at Ramapo College and the College of Staten Island.
I also write about art for Culturehall (an online resource for contemporary art) and other arts publications. Most of the work I do relates to a dialogue about the history and practice of fine-art photography.
Q: How did you learn about the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition?
A: My friend June Glasson—a wonderful artist who also makes figurative work—noticed the portraits that I posted on my blog of subjects in Paterson. I’ve been sharing news about my work on my blog for years, which has led to a number of important opportunities and relationships in my career. June sent me a link to the competition and suggested that I apply. Naturally, I’m grateful for her thoughtfulness and generosity.
Q: Tell us about the piece you submitted to the competition.
A: Since the competition allows artists to submit a single portrait for consideration, it seems as though this should be a hard decision, but it wasn’t in my case. The portrait I chose of Cathy was the one photograph in my Paterson series that spoke to me the most and perhaps best represents the larger series. In fact, I knew even when I was shooting the portrait of Cathy that this was going to be an important photograph for me.
I was so struck by her expression, the light on her face, and her demeanor as a person when I approached her on the street outside her home on Market Street. She is clearly someone who has experienced some struggles in her life and who is also strong and beautiful in her own way.
Q: Tell us about your larger body of work.
A: Paterson is a documentary series of street portraits depicting residents of Paterson, New Jersey, during the years following the economic crisis in 2008. The portraits focus on the self-expression of working-class and economically marginalized Americans of the diverse racial and ethnic groups comprising Paterson’s population.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: I’m still working on the Paterson series and expect to finish the project within this next year.
Q: Who is your favorite artist?
A: A short list of some my favorite artists who have worked in photography and film includes Geneviève Cadieux, Victoria Sambunaris, Lili Almog, Deana Lawson, Rineke Dijkstra, Paul Graham, Jem Cohen, Richard Billingham, Walker Evans, William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Malick Sidibé, Tsai Ming-liang, Wong Kar Wei, Wim Wenders, Terrence Malick, and so many more.
Q: If you could work with any artist (past or present) who would it be?
A: Photographers tend to be loners when it comes to making their work, myself included. I do connect with a lot of artists through teaching, writing, and curating both online and physical exhibitions of contemporary photography. A few writers and artists whom I wish I could have known as friends or colleagues or even just as a fly on the wall in the room with are Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, Dorothea Lange, and Diane Arbus.
Q: What inspires you?
A: Listening to stories on National Public Radio. Reading novels, nonfiction books, and articles published in the New Yorker. Watching documentary and narrative films. Traveling. Meeting people. Sharing my life with my friends, my family, and my partner, Tawny.