Alison Nordström: UPSTATE

“Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things?”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Photographs are multivalent. They describe, with encyclopedic detail, what a person, place, or thing has looked like at a singular moment; they show us what has existed in what space, and how people and things in that space have related to one another. Photographs preserve, implying, in their frozen moments, what came before and what will follow, making permanent a unique point in the time continuum that would otherwise pass us by. Photographs also interpret; they are complex combinations of their author’s skills, circumstances, choices, intentions, and taste, shaped further by chance and luck, as well as the often quite separate dimensions of how their audiences receive and understand them. Almost all photographs can describe a space and preserve a time, but it takes a refined human consciousness—a discerning mind, hand, eye, effort, and will—to see with both intelligence and emotion, and to communicate that knowledge and feeling to the viewer. Most photographs inform, but the most successful of them also move, delight, challenge, and surprise us.

In her photographs of Hudson, New York, Tema Stauffer has produced an original body of work while acknowledging the histories and capabilities of her medium. Her treatments of the area’s landscapes and modest buildings often employ a dark and moody palette, appropriate to a region that Minor White described as being always 18 percent gray. The impression this produces is hushed, meditative, and nostalgic, suggesting a degree of timelessness, even as the precise detail made possible by the necessarily slow employment of large- and medium-format film insists on the specificity of a particular moment in a particular place. Thus an image of a singular structure—whether a water tower, a ruined factory, or a shabby aging dwelling painted to mimic the red of aspirational brickwork—can serve simultaneously as document and symbol, information and interpretation. In the same way, this treatment of a visually and historically complex town in social and economic transition presents both one place and many; it is both an indisputable portrait of Hudson, and a general meditation on the marks of human activity everywhere. In her own articulation of this project, Stauffer characterizes her subjects as relics, a suggestion of sacrality that grants these mundane things the role of bridge between the profane and the sacred. We can also read them as sites of trauma; they look, as Walter Benjamin famously said of Atget’s documents of Paris, like “the scene of a crime,” that is, a place worth looking at, not for any inherent beauty or grand significance, but because it resonates with the memory of what has happened there.

The subjects Stauffer chooses to record are primarily buildings, both domestic and industrial, often apparently abandoned, often seen from a middle distance, set in the town’s bleak outskirts where semi-natural surroundings seem on their way to overwhelming any evidence of human presence with vegetation or decay. Hills, vines, branches, and thick low clouds surround and obscure roofless buildings, paneless windows, and rusted cars that will never again roar to life.

Even in the defiantly persistent solidity of Hudson’s more urban streets, there is a sense of emptiness, Hopperesque color and fading light to manifest what the Japanese call natsukashii, the experience, simultaneously bitter and sweet, of something past, dear, departed, and longed for that is often evoked by a taste, smell, or thing. The very distance of Stauffer’s perspective in many images underscores the isolation of both structure and observer. Thus, when Stauffer departs from the stance of the outside observer to take us indoors, we are moved by the specific details that connect us to the people who were there some time ago. The unintended beauties of peeling paint, fallen boards, graffitists’ marks, and akimbo coat hangers graphically decorating empty walls stand as silent witnesses to both presence and absence. The rich light that plays over these otherwise unremarkable surfaces adds the dynamic element of the present, and its warmth is the essential sweetness with which Stauffer challenges the bitter and the dead. This complex emotional quality even colors places that are still in use. A feisty row of fishing shacks perches perilously on river’s edge, their owners’ care indicated only by casual plywood repairs. A last-century red leatherette booth in a roadside diner feels abandoned although it is not. We imagine its jukebox as silent, its cup of coffee cold.

Some of Stauffer’s images may fit the category of landscape, but they do not participate in the romanticism of The Hudson River School painters of the nineteenth century, or the Western landscape photographers inspired by them in the decades that followed. Neither do they subscribe to the deadpan gaze of the twentieth century’s New Topographics. Even without people or buildings in them, the quotidian actions of people are evident in these images; their marks, and Stauffer’s respect for them, are essential to her humanistic approach. The classic landscape proportions that shape a distant river, harvested fields, or expanses of snow mirror each other, despite the factory, bonfire, or weeds that highlight their foregrounds. In the powerful sequence that makes up this book, even a pile of freshly killed deer, tagged, numbered, and laid out on a snowy stanchion, suggests the landscape form. The mountains that so inspired Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt are part of these landscapes, to be sure, but they are poignantly far away, or partially blocked from view by more immediate realities.

The sense of loss that Upstate evokes is not, however, the only emotional note in this complex work. This is not “ruin porn,” nor does this series maroon us in the past. Stauffer’s earlier work concentrated on portraiture as a way to know a place, and both Paterson (2009–2014) and Ballad of Sad Young Men (2008) manifest the artist’s ability to connect with her subjects in a deeply human way; because of this, the three portraits punctuating the sequence of Upstate are key to our understanding of the artist’s intentions, and to the multiple meanings of the work as a whole. While Hudson may be marked with its industrial past, the portraits of three of its present-day inhabitants show immediacy, liveliness, and a connection between artist and individual that helps us see her non-human subjects as equally compelling, understood, and admired. The three men Stauffer chose to depict represent specific subcultures of this town in transition: an older African-American jazz aficionado who runs a junk shop in a neighborhood of fancy antiques; a fresh-faced blue-eyed auto-mechanic with Hudson Valley roots; and a dark savvy artist–type who could have been transplanted from Brooklyn. Identified only by first names, these individuals serve to humanize the visual environment that they, like Stauffer, have come to see and know. As we turn the pages of this strong and quiet book, it is Reggie, Mike, and Peter who look back at us, and, through them, that Stauffer turns our gaze from nostalgic past to the living present in which that past remains.

Alison Nordström is an independent scholar, writer and curator based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, specializing in historical and contemporary photographs of all kinds. Formerly the Director and Senior Curator of the Southeast Museum of Photography (Daytona Beach, Florida), and Senior Curator of Photographs/Director of Exhibitions at George Eastman House (Rochester, New York), she is the author of over 100 published books and essays on photographic topics, and has curated over 100 photographic exhibitions in nine countries. Currently a Research Associate at Harvard, she is also a visiting scholar in photography at Lesley University and the photo/video editor for the Journal of Florida Studies. She has recently served as Artistic Director of Fotofestiwal Lodz, in Poland, and is an exhibition curator for the Hamburg Triennial (Germany) in 2018. She holds a PhD in Cultural and Visual Studies.