Charles Baxter on the Photography of Tema Stauffer

Look closely at these photographs by Tema Stauffer, and you will see two seemingly incompatible qualities presented next to each other and holding each other in a kind of suspension—stillness and wildness. The first is a particular kind of stillness that seems American to the core, and which is surrounded by open spaces. The objects within the photographs are a net in which to catch a lyrical emptiness; they seem to attract it. The gas stations at dusk and at night, the empty bedroom, the brushfire: these pictures, with their careful geometrical arrangements that nevertheless always seem slightly askew, give off a mind-haunting effect of silence and solitude. The photographs insist on in-betweenness: we are between day and night, light and dark, somewhere between waking and sleeping, but always between categories. The objects in these pictures have been carefully positioned to have empty space around them, and the locales seem recently vacated: no one is there, but whoever was there has left some traces behind. In the other photographs filled with objects—the fairgoers, for example—the people and things seem to be radically separated somehow, lost in their private worlds, even when they’re in close proximity to each other.

And then there are the pictures in which something wild—a white horse, a snarling dog, a teenaged boy—is caught in mid-gesture. Tema Stauffer’s eye has captured an almost indescribable contradiction in these pictures: the boys and the dog are straining to get loose, but they’re not free, and neither is that horse. The boys in particular are marked by shyness and are still almost girlish, and like boys everywhere they are half in love with death and its symbols; their wildness makes them seem only half-domesticated, but it’s their eyes that you remember best. Their eyes are as alert as children’s, but children who have been frightened by something they’ve seen and who wish to disguise that fear out of self-protection. The resulting energy is kinetic: they seem almost ready to bolt, and at the same time they seem burdened by an affliction that they cannot name. So we have stillness and wildness, almost at war with each other, trying to occupy the same space.

The photographs are fascinated with the look of cast-offs and of working people who are not conventionally beautiful but whose expressions are full of an amazing intensity. You can almost glimpse their lives behind them, and before them.  But to say this is to suggest a mood of desolation, whereas these images are full of energy and a grim good humor. They do what photography must do, and what much good art does: they defamiliarize the very objects and scenes that we have taken for granted and now see almost without thinking. No one pays attention to gas stations or fairgoers until an artist shows us how to do so. The eye for color is astonishing. But it is the hauntedness of the photographs that stays in the mind: these pictures continually suggest a presence of what is not shown but still felt, something that is still, invisibly, there. Every viewer will have some idea of what is outside the frame, or unseen within it, because the hauntedness provokes reveries and conjectures. In a sense, these beautiful photographs are alive with what they evoke; it may seem odd to praise photographs for the way that they present the invisible by means of the visible, but that is what Tema Stauffer’s photographs do; it is their great achievement.

Charles Baxter is the author of five novels and four books of stories including The Feast of Love, a National Book Award finalist.  He lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota.