I was recently interviewed by art collector and blogger, Ruben Natal-San Miguel, for his interview series, The Current State of the Art Market, which investigates how artists and figures in the art world have been impacted by the economic crisis. You can find the interview below or a more colorful and illustrated version on Ruben's blog: Ruben and Tema on ARTmostfierce
Ruben Natal San-Miguel - This is your first show in the Chelsea Gallery district @ Dan Cooney alongside Francesca Romeo … Congratulations! How do you feel about it?
Tema Stauffer - I am excited and honored, to say the least. It is a big moment for me.
RNSM - Please tell us about your Binghamton, NY portrait photography series? What inspired you? Why Binghamton? Why Young Men only? Why Upstate NY?
TS - In July, I got involved in a relationship with a musician who lives in Binghamton, NY. She grew up in Binghamton and she has lived there most of her life. I started making bus trips to visit her, and as we drove around her hometown, I was moved by Binghamton on a number of levels. For one thing, it evoked my own experiences growing up in a small city in the Midwest. It had its own unique soulfulness, but also seemed iconic of any number of towns across America with old brick buildings and new strip malls and an economy on the decline. I recognized its potential as a setting for a story I wanted to tell, and I watched its characters unfold from the window of her car, but it wasn’t immediately clear to me what that story would be.
At the end of the summer, I had a conversation with a close friend, a gay man in his mid-forties, who was preparing to teach a workshop in a theatre department at school in Minnesota. He described an assignment he had given his students to create musical performances based on songs that resonate with “our stories, our past, our hopes, our fears and our losses.” The song that my friend had chosen as an example for himself was “The Ballad of Sad Young Men" - a song that has had historical relevance to the gay community as a melancholic reflection on the pain and uncertainty of adolescence.
I began to think about how the song related to both my friend’s and my own struggles as gay teenagers, as well how it expressed something universal about the vulnerability and intensity of that period of life for everyone. I also had been conscious for years that I wanted to make work that addressed themes of gender and sexuality, but I hadn’t determined a clear way to approach these subjects. I had previously shot video footage of men at rodeos in New Jersey and New Orleans, but that work never arrived at a finished art piece. I also took a photograph of a striking teenage boy at a swimming hole in Austin, and what was revealed in that image – something sexy, rebellious, uneasy and haunting – influenced my motivations for photographing these young men in Binghamton.
The easiest way to explain why I chose to photograph young men is that I wanted to create a very specific structure in the concept of a project because one of the biggest challenges for me has been to give myself enough structure to know what I was searching to photograph. I decided to remain in one town, in proximity to one street, to photograph one gender, and to search for young men who resembled a kind of character I had envisioned. I stuck literally to the notion of “sad young men” despite inevitably wondering at times while I wasn’t photographing young women as well. I told myself, if I saw a young woman who seemed relevant to this kind of character, I wouldn’t stop myself from approaching her, but it didn’t happen.
The other part of the explanation for why I chose to photograph young men has to do with my own fascination with masculinity. My earliest memories of childhood involve feeling at odds with the expectations of being a girl and rejecting those expectations at every turn. I felt a longing to be a boy and I was drawn to symbols of masculinity like cowboys and motorcycles. My friends were boys and tomboys, and I had no interest in anything “girly.”
These feelings of being uncomfortable with the conventions of femininity got even more intense and complicated when I reached adolescence and began to understand that I was gay. Once I actually got involved in relationships with women after I left my hometown and went to college, I stopped longing to be someone or something else and began to grow into myself as a gay artist who could carve out an identity and a life outside of the conventions of traditional gender roles. Now, I like the androgyny in myself and I like it in other people.
My attraction to the youthful masculinity of these subjects is an attraction, but it is an attraction altogether different from the emotional, intellectual, sexual attachments I develop for grown-up women. And if you look carefully at these young men whom I choose to photograph, I think there is an androgyny present in some of them as well – a softness – even when they are trying to look tough.
RNSM - How did you meet Dan Cooney? Did you know that he is originally from Binghamton?
TS - I met Daniel Cooney through a reference from my friend, Brett Bell – a wonderful young gay artist who had asked me to participate in the committee for his MFA review at Parsons in August. Daniel had taken an interest in Brett’s work and had invited Brett to contribute a photograph to his first Emerging Photographer’s Auction this past fall. When Dan and Brett met to select Brett’s piece for the auction, Dan asked Brett is he recommended other artists whose work he should consider, and Brett mentioned my name among others, and then called later to encourage me to send work to Dan. I have since discovered that Dan actively makes a point of asking artists for insight about other artists - which I think is great way to search for work, and says a lot about how much Dan respects the emerging arts community.
When I sent a link to my website and blog to Dan, he wrote back immediately. Having noticed the first couple of portraits I had posted on my blog of young men in Binghamton, he asked, “What the hell were you doing in Binghamton, the place of my childhood??!” I think we both found it both funny and uncanny that I had been shooting young men in his hometown, and I met him at the gallery shortly thereafter. The following day, he wrote to ask if I might be able to bring this project, which was in its very early stages, to a point where it could be exhibited along with Francesca Romeo’s work in February, and of course I said yes.
I am grateful to Dan not just for providing me this opportunity for an exhibition, but for having faith in the idea of what I was trying to do and what I might accomplish. His enthusiasm and encouragement were integral to motivating me to make the work this fall, and the chemistry and communication between us felt natural and open throughout.
RNSM - Do you think your Binghamton series are in some way reflecting, documenting, or a demonstration of the current economic times we are experiencing now?
TS - I started shooting these photographs of young men shortly before the market crashed in September. As my fears grew in the following weeks along with the rest of the world’s with the news becoming more grim each day, I felt a greater sense of urgency to be connecting to people, photographing people, understanding what people were experiencing during this anxious time. At that point, I also made the decision to remain on or near Binghamton’s Main Street in my search for young men, to give the portraits the context of this literal space that was becoming a metaphor in the media for middle and working class America.
Since I had already embarked on the idea of photographing these young men, many of who were clearly struggling economically, I made a point of asking some of them about their anxieties and their search for work. A number of young men talked about the difficulty of finding jobs and how they had walked along Main Street asking about work in the various establishments with no success in landing jobs.
The subject with whom I talked at greatest length and who is pictured twice in the exhibition, Jacob, immediately opened up to me about his struggle to find work as a construction worker or anything else, and I sensed his anxiety and discouragement, which was heart-breaking. Before we parted after I shot the first portrait of him in a green doorway on Main Street, I suggested to him to set up a free email account at the library and explained to him how to search for jobs on the Internet, and I received an email from “Joker B” the following week – “hey tema its jake.” He made my day with that message.
Throughout the fall while I was shooting this work, my own income in New York was deteriorating rapidly with the collapse of the economy. I was, and still am, in a difficult place in regard to making a living, so these anxieties and pressures were constantly part of my consciousness while shooting this project and preparing for the exhibition.
RNSM - How do you feel as an artist showing your work in these turbulent times in a gallery?
TS - These turbulent times feel like the perfect time to show my work. I mean that because this work is about people who are struggling, or who are marginalized in some way, or who are rebelling against conservative and mainstream forces in America. It is an exceptional, painful, fascinating moment in American history, and I am grateful to have even a small voice in the dialogue.
Of course I recognize that this is a harder time for galleries to sell work in the current art market. While those considerations are very real and important to my survival, and to the survival of artists and galleries in general right now, the single most important driving force behind my desire to exhibit this work is for it to be seen and to be felt. I also think that the exhibition it is a great step forward for me with an excellent gallery.
RNSM - I read several of your blog posts in Palm Aire and was mesmerized by how you came across your portrait models and the stories behind them … How did you get started? Were you scared? How did you make a connection with the subject? Did anybody refuse to be part of the project? Please tell us.
TS - There was nothing intimidating about approaching these young men in Binghamton. The worst thing they could do was say no, which happened in just a few instances. During my trips to Binghamton, I spent many weekdays driving up and down Main Street searching for subjects. When I saw someone compelling, I simply got out of the car and introduced myself as a photographer from New York City who was working on a project shooting portraits of young men on Main Street in Binghamton. I told them I was planning to show these photographs in an art gallery in February once I was aware of the exhibition. I was happy to discover how open and willing so many of these young men were to participate in being photographed. I think many of them were flattered to be noticed and to have someone ask questions about themselves.
RNSM - Is this portraiture series a departure from your previous body of work?
TS - As I mentioned above, I created a tighter structure for this project. The work I had been shooting for the past few years which falls into my ongoing American Stills project explores the psychological character of American spaces – mostly images of landscapes and interiors in the Midwest and more recently, the West. This series of portraits shares this same kind of distinctly American setting, but it is its own body of work. While I had been shooting some portraits during these previous trips, I hadn’t been focused on a specific type of person in a single location.
RSNM - Are any of your portrait models coming to the opening?
TS - I recently sent messages to the subjects for whom I have email addresses. I told them about the opening and the exhibition and gave them links to my website and Dan’s website. I also told them that if they were interested in coming to the gallery at any time during the exhibition, I’d be happy to take them to the gallery. I haven’t heard back from anyone yet. Partly, they don’t check their email as often as you or I do. Also, it is hard to know what is happening in some of their personal lives. I imagine that New York might seem inaccessible to many of them.
RNSM - Do you think that by recognizing, documenting and for a brief moment of time, being in contact with these young men, you were able to inspire and influence their future in any way?
TS - I don’t want to overstate any influence I had on these young men. The time we spent together was brief – even if poignant in some way. It is unclear at this point how much contact I will have with any of these young men in the future, though I certainly hope to stay in touch. Perhaps I will even photograph some of them again.
RNSM - I had seen most of the portraits and there is so much vulnerability and defiance expressed in them … was that your main purpose … to show a diamond in the rough sort of speaking?
TS - I think you said it well, Ruben. It was this combination of roughness and vulnerability, defiance and tenderness that I was looking for in my search for subjects. I only took photographs of young men I thought I’d like as people – guys who seemed sensitive on some level. Daniel mentioned in his press release that there is a “sexual tension” that surface in the exchange between the photographer and the subjects. Well, if there is a sexual tension, which I think there is in some cases, that tension is purely about the relationship created between my role as a photographer and them as subjects expressing themselves to the camera. On simply a personal level, I felt more like an older sister would feel towards a younger brother.
RNSM - As a Juror from Photolucida’s Critical Mass 08, your were one of my finalists 50 choices … the body or work shown there was so different than this series … I must tell you this series which I think elevates your work to a higher level! Can you tell us a bit about that experience?
TS - I am still invested in goal of making work in the vein of my American Stills series. But the biggest challenge for me is finding the resources to travel for any length of time, and it has made the progress of that work move slowly. I’d like to have longer stretches of time to travel and to explore these charged American spaces in the West, but it is difficult to afford that kind of wandering at this point.
RNSM - Are you planning to continue this series in another part of the USA? I mean the Americana feel to it is so strong … If so, why?
TS - I hope to continue shooting portraits of young men in Binghamton. But I always hesitate to talk too much about future plans, because life is so complicated and unpredictable, especially right now. I don’t know what I can do or will do until I am closer to doing it. I prefer to talk, or even better, to write about experiences after they have happened.
RNSM - Do you feel that the average eye will relate to these portraits in the same way as a sophisticated art collector? How? Why?
TS - I don’t know that there is such a thing as an average eye. Everyone brings their subjective experiences to looking at photographs. But I do think that these images are relatively accessible to people who don’t necessarily have an education or background in the arts. I mean that because they are portraits and they are straightforward and classical in some ways.
RNSM - Your work is different that Francesca Romeo but there is something that binds them together … what do you think it is? Why?
TS - I think Francesca and I share an attraction to people who are on some kind of an edge. And I think we both bring a sense of narrative to our work. Seen together in the context of this exhibition, it is almost as though the subjects in my photographs are the young people in their hometown who feel some isolation, restlessness, discontentment – who might dream of being in cities and finding people who are more like them. And then in her photographs, they have grown up a bit, moved to New York City, fallen in love, had their hearts broken, gotten bruised chasing their dreams and figuring it all out.
RNSM - I had purchased your work done by 20 x 200, which I like, but this series in my opinion, your work crossed the barrier of commercial art into the serious fine art territory … I mean, Tema, the portraits series to me is your breakthrough … how do you feel? You think you finally found your voice? Theme? Passion? (they do have a museum portrait quality?)
TS - I want to stay as open-minded as I can to exploring different people and stories and places of interest. I do think this series of portraits has a strong and specific focus and I am committed to the idea of continuing to address these themes.
RNSM - What is next for Tema?
TS – Something good, I hope. Thank you, Ruben, for your excellent questions and for the efforts you have made to understand what artists and various figures in the art world are experiencing right now. I’m honored to have a voice in your interview series. And I greatly appreciate the support and enthusiasm you have brought to this group of portraits.