Tema Stauffer provides the photos and leaves the narrative to her viewers
When something catches Tema Stauffer’s eye, it’s through the lens of a camera using expandable bellows and 4-by-5-inch film.
“I can spend quite a bit of time getting every corner of that image in focus, and to spend the 15 minutes to half-hour setting that shot up and get it really precise,” Stauffer said. “And as someone who is learning at a much later stage shooting 4-by-5, it was a high learning curve.”
For her latest series, Stauffer took long drives to the homes and hometowns of some of the South’s most legendary novelists. Writers long-deceased inspired the series, titled “Southern Fiction,” so Stauffer’s images there are devoid of people. That context and subtext is necessary to fully appreciate the blend of beauty and neglect captured in her images.
The exhibition is on view through Dec. 23 at Tracey Morgan Gallery in Asheville.
“I’m interested in letting viewers of this work fill these images in with their own imaginations,” Stauffer said. “It’s supposed to be open to bringing narrative into these pictures rather than explicitly showing narrative.”
In one image, Stauffer shows us the house in Natchez, Miss., where Richard Wright grew up. It’s a bright yellow house neighboring another awash in faded colors, its metal roof curled at the edges, its windows boarded up. In another, Stauffer brings viewers inside the kitchen of William Faulker’s onetime home in Oxford, Miss., its current neatness and care relatively rare in this series.
Stauffer began the series in 2018 with a trip to the Andalusia estate of Flannery O’Connor.
“I wanted to explore some parallel themes with previous bodies of work, but it’s new geographical territory for me,” Stauffer said. “It’s also moving away from talking about human experience, human condition through portraiture and exploring it through landscapes and interiors.”
She often waited hours and made return visits to locales for the right lighting or to ask someone to move a car or other object in her view.
“Some of the final images, I might have photographed that same barn or landscape or church—I might have taken countless pictures at different lighting situations that just didn’t work,” she said.
Stauffer grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich., and studied photography as a teenager. She took a documentary approach from the beginning, capturing friends in cemeteries and on rooftops and asking strangers if she could take their pictures. Her portraits were outdoors, but Stauffer saw the environments as complements to the mood rather than as features to notice.
“I think it was to increasingly get closer to the subject in a sense of their psychology and their identity and their emotions,” she said.
Stauffer has produced a dozen distinct series, minimalist portraits of real people and places, nearly every frame washed in loneliness. She works back-and-forth from sagging, desolate buildings and landscapes to worn out, desolate people. Stauffer said she sees American history and the American experience as connecting threads.
She dove into her “Southern Fiction” series four years ago after joining the faculty at Eastern Tennessee State University in Johnson City. She moved to Asheville this past May. This is her second solo show at Tracey Morgan Gallery.
“This gallery has been a kind of central place for me in Asheville and part of how I’ve built my community of friends and peers in the arts here,” she said.
Stauffer is spending the next year preparing a book of these images, which she expects will publish next October.
NOTE: An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified Richard Wright's former home in one of Tema Stauffer's images. Wright grew up in the bright yellow house on the right side of the image.