Ann Stautberg

By Cammie Tipton, Assistant Curator, Public Art UHS

March 2023 | Throughout her long career, the photographer Ann Stautberg has maintained a close connection with the Texas landscape—from gulf waters to rough terrains and local botanicals—her work is informed by a long history of traditional documentary photography. However, despite this adherence to documentary, Stautberg lends her own personal style to her photographs by  hand-manipulating each work so as to embed each image with an individual touch. Early in her career Stautberg studied painting and printmaking and these arts find their place in her photographs today, connecting her photographs to a long history of craft tradition. This combining technique includes Stautberg hand-coloring her black and white images with photographic oils and sometimes printing photographs on canvas and hand-painting them, allowing the artist to combine her interests in documentary photography with her love of painting. The results make for intriguing collage-like images that ultimately complicate any straightforward categorization of her work as well as extend the traditional definitions of these techniques. 

The practice of hand-coloring black and white photographs reaches back to the nineteenth century and the beginnings of photography itself, before color film was invented, when viewers craved a sense of the “real.” Today, the technique results in photographs that emit a romantic haze of a much earlier time, and Stautberg’s images look as if she is creating distant memories from contemporary moments. Additionally, hand-painting photographs allows an agency to the artist because we cannot know the original colors, thereby allowing the artist to create her own color field. Stautberg’s choice to hand-paint photographs is not only reminiscent of the beginnings of the photographic process but her technique incorporates both practices of photography and painting, fusing the two in a collaging that remains contemporary while also containing an air of mystery and a strong sense of the past.

Ann Stautberg, 6–12–17, #8, 2017, archival pigment on canvas, 60 x 45 x 1¼ in. Coll. Public Art UHS, Gift of Linda and William Reaves, The Linda and William Reaves Collection of Texas Art at UHV, 2023 University of Houston-Victoria, Northwest Campus


Stautberg, along with her husband the artist Frank X. Tolbert, lives and works in Houston where they both enjoy custom-built studios in their home in the Houston Heights. Reviewing her photographs, it is unsurprising that Stautberg is an avid gardener and nurtures an outdoor garden of indigenous plants that are compatible with the harsh Texas climate. A recent collection of photographs from 2016–17 is titled Home, and is formed from a series of images of botanicals—mainly large Mexican fan palms—from her garden. The large photograph, simply titled by date, 6–12–17, lends a temporal precision along with a strong sense of atmosphere. The camera looks up to the sky on a pillowy cloudy day, capturing the black silhouettes of looming palms spiking the sky. 

From her home studio, the artist says she has recently been looking up to the sky, allowing her imagination to roam and seeking images that, as she describes, “aren’t earthbound.” Of this photograph, and others from the Home series, Stautberg explains her intentions: “A clear day was not inspiring. I was looking for a day that felt on the verge of something that would give an underlying sinister quality reflective of the times.” Seeking to provide viewers with an avenue to form their own critical response to contemporary social and political events, the photograph contains strong dichotomies that provide rich tensions while also allowing asymmetries that, when combined, make for a successful balanced image. The photograph follows the Modernist tradition, the early twentieth century golden-age for documentary photography, and included practitioners such as Paul Strand and Edward Weston, documentary photographers who likewise found inspiration in personal gardens and natural environments. 

In Stautberg’s image, the use of basic binary elements such as black/white, soft/hard, amorphous/linear, flat/perspectival, provide strong tensions that captivate the eye, while also layering these tensions with softer atmospheric elements such as clouds, sun, and wind, that provide an accessibility into the photograph. Stautberg’s interest in striking organic forms necessitates the use of high contrast black and white film which allows for the starkest expression of shapes, shadows, and textures in a way that color film simply cannot produce. Although with Stautberg, eschewing color film for the high contrast of black and white does not preclude color altogether. The artist adds her own bit of color—a light bluish-gray sky—applying photographic oils directly onto the paper print. For this series, Stautberg wanted to experiment with scale and attempt the largest size possible, therefore, this final image was digitally scanned from the original then printed in large scale onto canvas. In the photograph, palm fronds become solid black flat spaces, with dramatically spiked leaves jutting out into the sky in contrast to fluffy clouds in shades of soft grays. These contrasts enable the photograph’s textures to appear tactile, as if you could reach out and feel the materials of rough tree bark, piercing leaves and spongy clouds. With a respect for landscape comes a developing awareness of the changing nature of our environment and climate. Recently in 2021, winter storm Uri was a wakeup call to the artist who discovered her beloved garden, a source of inspiration, had suffered under abnormally intense winter temperatures. These dramatic shifts in climate have given the artist a new perspective on our larger relationship with nature and the impact our current climate catastrophe is having on the world at large. In the photograph, the knife-like edges of the palms resemble a much-needed organic armor and a protection against the unbearable conditions that humans force upon the natural world. The clouds, soft and airy, appear as nature’s forecasters of good or bad news for our future.  

Ann Stautberg, 6.21.96 Texas Coast, 1997, hand-painted photograph, 54 x 54 inches. Acquired in 1998. Coll. Public Art UHS University of Houston, Clinical Research Services Center Building

In many ways Stautberg continues the traditions of classic documentary photography. Of her photographic process, she explains , “I always shoot full frame and never manipulate anything,” letting the landscape tell the story. This lack of production-manipulation is a hallmark of traditional documentary as a trusted  site of “realism.” Additionally, in true documentary style, Stautberg chooses titles that contain simply the date the image was taken, and sometimes, as in her earlier pieces, they may include the location or the print number. This practice of titling by date or location originated in the earliest practices of nineteenth century photography when society widely viewed the camera as an instrument for capturing “reality” and used it primarily as an evidential tool. As a machine, the camera innately captures a precise moment, and this temporal precision makes photography unique from other artforms. Early in her career, Stautberg would frequently make only one print of her photographs. In a perceived dedication to the single art object, this decision speaks more to her early training in painting than in her use of the camera. The camera, as an instrument, was developed to make rapid and endless image reproductions, therefore the single photograph is a rarity in the field. However, in the 1980s, as trends in photography art grew and museums began to collect more widely, photography slowly began to be accepted as an art form. It was around this same time that major developments in photographic technologies gave room for dramatic shifts in scale and styles. What was once considered a commonplace scale for a photograph–a portrait layout a few inches high and wide–was soon replaced, thanks to digital technologies, with much larger images that were easier to reproduce. With these advances, Stautberg began producing editions of her work in large-scale form, enjoying the strong sense of presence that larger sizes allow. The photograph 6–12–17 stands at a stunning sixty inches high and forty-five inches wide, allowing the viewer to access the smallest of details when standing closely, while also creating the feel of a total environment when stepping back and viewing in full. Today, Stautberg leans into the natural reproducibility of the camera, however, always enchanted with the art object, she creates mostly limited-edition collections.  

Stautberg spent a decade living near the Texas coast in the 1990s, and as an artist, established a visual relationship with coastal waters, skies, and the horizon line. This photograph from her earlier period, 6.21.96 Texas Coast (1997) captures the essence of quiet life on the Texas gulf coast. In the foreground, a wooden pier floats above the water holding a solitary rocking chair facing outwards towards the horizon. The empty chair is a peaceful invitation for the viewer to place themselves within the photograph, to sit and participate in viewing, an act of displacement where the viewer becomes the subject of the photograph, making us aware of the complexities of the viewing process. The horizon slopes downward, the camera angle tilted to the right as if off balance on a slippery slope. Along with the empty chair, the unbalanced landscape carries an air of a dreamy surreal state of viewing. The distant horizon gives only the smallest hint of buildings on the left that vaguely intersect in the middle of the image with a long pillared bridge snaking through the horizon line on the right. Stautberg is playing with the effects of scale which she felt intensely during her days living on the gulf, saying, “On the coast you feel small, because it’s so vast.” The built environment is so tiny as to be nearly imperceptible, seeming insignificant, as if they are a distant abstraction instead of a necessity of modern urban life. Urban necessities are not central to life on the coast and the photograph perfectly portrays that sense of ambient remoteness. In Stautberg’s usual accompaniment of craftsmanship with her process, the image is a black and white photograph that she has hand-painted. Adding shades of blues and peach, on top of the original gray tones from the film, adds a hazy romantic element that feels tinged with history and nostalgia. The only visible sign of life is a small white seagull, mid-flight and nearly out of sight, in the lower right, who accentuates a quiet calm and absence of human interference.  

When Stautberg began her career in photography over forty years ago she was drawn to capturing images of local couples in dance halls, parading with big hair and leather boots–images that exemplified Texas culture of the 1970s. As she and her work have evolved, her initial documentary approach has turned towards the bold Texas landscapes of botanicals, shores, and skies. Today, Stautberg primarily uses a large format Japanese Mamiya camera for her larger images. Her earlier works were made with an old German Rolleiflex, a camera frequently used in the early days of documentary photography because of its portability. She admits that she misses the analog days when great photo-products provided more room for craftsmanship. She says, “I’m really pleased to be working on canvas again and that had to do with lack of materials in the digital age. They stopped making so many of the beautiful silver papers in the large scale, and it took me a long time to figure out I could be doing what I love to do on canvas. I now have the negative scanned, then printed on canvas, then I work on it on a hard surface and then it is stretched.” As photography has shifted towards the digital, Stautberg has embraced many of these newer technologies while at the same time looking to the past for pre-digital inspirations that provide a more tactile and material experience. Lately, she is influenced by the nineteenth century American artist Albert Pinkham Ryder, a painter of the natural world who created poetic works full of great tonal atmosphere. Her work always seems to display these romantic and historical references and are never far from the nineteenth century, while also engaging with topics from our contemporary era. 

Stautberg currently lives and works in Houston, Texas. She received her BFA from Texas Christian University and her MA from the University of Dallas. Early in her education she trained as a printmaker and painter while also studying acting and drama. Her works are in the collections of several major art museums throughout Texas, including the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Museum of South Texas Corpus Christi, among others. Stautberg frequently exhibits in solo and group shows throughout Texas. She is represented by Andrew Durham Gallery in Houston.