Thursday, February 11, 2010

Interview on Two Way Lens

Paterson, NJ
December 2009

I was recently interviewed by German photographer Michael Werner for a project on his blog, Two Way Lens. Two Way Lens features an interview series with contemporary photographers in an effort to inform and inspire emerging photographers who are interested in developing careers in photography. It includes interviews with artists Alec Soth, Amy Stein, Zoe Strauss, and Richard Renaldi, among others.

Michael asks each photographer the same three questions. Despite whatever neurosis and insecurities these kinds of questions drag up for me, I tried my best to come up with some simplified answers and to sound a little saner than I feel most of the time.

You can find the interview below or an illustrated version on Two Way Lens: Interview with Tema Stauffer on Two Way Lens

Also see more of my images on Michael's personal blog: The Truth of Beauty

MW: What inspired you to start taking photographs, and what is the primary inspiration for you to keep working in this field?

TS: I spent much of my childhood with my head buried in books or roaming my neighborhood for adventures and places to daydream. I collected baseball cards and wore cowboy shirts and pitched tents in my backyard.

Most of my friends were boys or tomboys. I was a thief for a while and stole coins from my mom’s purse and candy from the corner store. I took naps on the branch of a lilac tree and cried when I read That Was Then, This is Now by S.E. Hinton.

I was fascinated with stories and was determined to invent my own path. Among some of my early fantasies of what I might be when I grew up were a writer, an artist and the leader of a motorcycle gang.

My mother enrolled me in my first photography class at an art center while I was in high school. I took pictures of my friends in fields and cemeteries and jumped out of the car with my camera for the right stranger on the street - someone who looked as restless as I felt.

Photography was license for adventure and storytelling. I liked it even more than drawing, painting and practicing my violin. Taking pictures gave me an adrenaline rush. Photography was sexy and subversive.

If you merge a writer, an artist and the leader of a motorcycle gang, you might come up with someone who explores people and places in America and returns to a Brooklyn railroad apartment to share photographs and thoughts about those experiences. I love driving and searching. I also love nesting with a keyboard and a computer screen.

Photography transforms how I look at the world. Things that are sad, mundane, ugly or beautiful become more interesting and poignant. Both taking pictures and writing stimulate and deepen my perception of reality. I become more engaged in my experiences and capable of reflecting on the most difficult ones. If I stopped taking pictures and writing, I am sure my world would fall flat.

MW: In your opinion and experience, how can emerging photographers evaluate themselves as ready to start promoting their works and seek a broader exposure for their photographs? What is one vital action you would recommend photographers undertake to find their audience, be included in exhibitions, and gain professional representation?

TS: During my twenties, I was involved in a number of shows organized by peers in alternative art spaces. We were eager to show work and commercial galleries seemed out of our reach. Shortly after I finished graduate school, I curated an exhibition of work by twelve photographers at a warehouse space known as The Butcher Shop in Chicago. This kind of show was good practice for resolving work, getting feedback and building relationships with other artists. My first exhibition in New York was organized by a collective of women photographers called NYMPHOTO in a loft in Manhattan, which led to a series of exhibitions at Jen Bekman Gallery.

Artists develop their careers in part through their involvement in a community. Going to openings, supporting other artists, recognizing where one’s work fits in, looking for mentor figures and reaching out for advice are all important steps in this process. I wrote to a number of artists and writers whose work I admire, often with the result of forming lasting relationships.

The Internet has expanded the notion of an arts community, and it is critical for young artists to make their work visible in this environment. One of the most important steps I took was starting a blog, PalmAire, which gave me a place to share work-in-progress and develop my thoughts about photography and the photo community. Many of my opportunities have arisen organically through personal contacts and exposure on the Internet. My relationship with Daniel Cooney, who is currently representing my work, resulted from a friend mentioning my name to him and Daniel discovering portraits on my blog.

The efforts I made to write about photography on my blog furthermore led to a position for an arts website called culturehall, whose mission is to support the careers of a community of artists. culturehall is an online resource where selected artists can share their work with curators, gallerists, collectors and other artists. My role as a curator gives me the opportunity to help artists create online portfolios of work and promote their exhibitions and events. culturehall’s director, David Andrew Frey, and I also invite guest curators to bring artists to the site and write about their work.

MW: How did it come about that you achieved the status of successful, professional photographer? What steps were involved in reaching your level of success?

TS: When I first read this question, I laughed out loud and squirmed a little. The notion of a “successful, professional photographer” conjures a mythic figure with a studio, fancy cameras, interns, magazine assignments, and a substantially greater income. Of course there are many versions of a successful, professional photographer, but still, it isn’t the most appropriate definition for me.

It is more accurate to describe me as an artist and teacher whose life is deeply invested in the arts community. What constitutes “success” is subjective. I am driven and passionate about the arts, and my efforts and involvement have lead to some significant exhibitions, recognition from my peers, and a relationship with a great gallery, which are some of the most satisfying forms of success.

On a day-to-day basis, I feel acutely more aware of my “struggle” than my “success.” Feelings of accomplishment are rewarding but also fleeting. When the high of one accomplishment fades, it creates an opportunity to work through a set of more challenging feelings towards the next one. For most artists, developing a career in the arts is a series of small steps over a long period of time. It demands the ability to experience rejections, creative blocks, financial constraints, self-doubt and anxiety. And then to brush off the dust, strategize, produce work and move forward.

Family, close friends, therapy, swimming, biographies of artists and writers, steady correspondence and supportive relationships with other artists are crucial to my own survival. I think there is good karma in helping others and I try to keep that principle at the forefront of my relationship to the art world.


Ryan said...

Congrats Tema! I'm a big fan of Two Way Lens and your work!!

What a great interview. Hope you're doing great!!!


Tema said...


That is so weird - I was just thinking of you this week.

Thanks for reading the interview and for your comments. It looks like you are doing great.

Take care,


-K- said...

This is an especially good interview. I really (and agree) with what you say about an arts community being formed online. This has been very true for me as well.

And your photos are just so good. I haven't seen many yet but the Austin shots are incredible.

Tema said...

Thank you, Kevin. I will have to take a look at you work - looks intriguing.


Doug said...

you did a great job tema. you should be proud.


Tema said...

Thanks, Doug. See you soon. xx

mark said...

Great interview.

I like envisioning you roaming around your neighborhood in a cowboy shirt looking for adventure, or the romantic image of you riding through the desert on a dusty old harley.

Hope you're doing well.


Tema said...

Actually, I am really clumsy and afraid of motorcycles now that I'm all grown up. Picture me in a cheap rental car. Or broke at home fantasizing.

joe medina said...

Very good interview ! I loved your response to the question
"How did it come about that you achieved the status of successful, professional photographer?"