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.

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.

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.

Read the rest of Alison Nordström’s essay in Tema Stauffer’s new book Upstate

Alison Nordström

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.

Tema Stauffer

Tema StaufferTema Stauffer is a photographer whose work examines the social, economic, and cultural landscape of American spaces. Her work has been exhibited at Sasha Wolf Gallery, Daniel Cooney Fine Art Gallery, and Jen Bekman Gallery in New York, as well as galleries and institutions nationally and internationally including a survey of Contemporary U.S. Photography at the Houston Fotofest 2010 Biennial. She was awarded an AOL 25 for 25 Grant for innovation in the arts in 2010 for her combined work as an artist, curator, and writer. She has contributed articles to PDNedu, American Photo Magazine, Ciel variable, Culturehall, and other publications.