“It is necessary for me to create, and photography is where I feel I am most effective in creating. It is, for now, my sense of purpose and without purpose I would not do so well. With my pictures I want to get people thinking about what is important in life and how we arrange our priorities.”
Peter Hoffman (born in 1984) is a contemporary photographer currently based in Lisle, Illinois (USA). He first learnt about photography on the internet through a website called skateboardphotography.com. Later on Peter Hoffman studied photography at Ohio University.
“My personal work tends to be a response to questions of an existential nature. A theme that I repeatedly explore is that of how we can best exist in harmony with our surroundings (both natural and constructed). In my projects I often use a defined location as a limiting element.”
Interview with Peter Hoffman
Peter, what was your most memorable moment shooting pictures?
I had to photograph the scene of a car accident where a drunk driver killed 5 teenage passengers she was transporting home from a suburban party. The accident happened sometime after midnight and I was sent there the next morning.
When I arrived at the accident scene there was no wrecked car, only wreathes, crosses and mourning friends gathered along the marred, snow-covered roadside.
“I couldn’t hold back tears being there and more importantly I’m still not sure if my pictures had any social value.”
I was one of many news photographers there but it seemed like I was the only one that talked to the teens who had come to memorialize their friends. I spoke with them for about 20 minutes before one of them told me that I should take pictures.
Other photographers took pictures from their car, or they just ran up photographing as if these mourning teens were simply a zoo exhibit. I couldn’t hold back tears being there and more importantly I’m still not sure if my pictures had any social value.
My editor would say definitely and the picture went on the front page but I haven’t forgotten that experience and the conflicted feelings that arose from it. It’s not the only time I photographed tragedy but it was the only time I felt sufficiently dirty doing so.
That was the day that I figured out that I wasn’t really cut out to be a news photographer.
Why did you become a photographer?
Since I was first exposed to it, it held my interest in a way that no other creative outlet or practical topic of study had. I couldn’t ignore that. In a way I feel like it wasn’t up to me but to circumstance and experience. It was only later that I understood what you could do with it. It began by making pictures of my friends skateboarding and later surfing while I spent a short time living in New Zealand.
What does photography mean to you and what do you want to transmit with your pictures?
It is necessary for me to create, and photography is where I feel I am most effective in creating. It is, for now, my sense of purpose and without purpose I would not do so well. With my pictures I want to get people thinking about what is important in life and how we arrange our priorities.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
This constantly changes, and not so often are they photographers but painters, writers, musicians, scientists. Currently I am feeling inspired by Stephen Gill and his recent work Coexistence is both in concept and execution very similar to work that I tried to do a few years ago. I failed miserably in my attempt and he made something poignant and beautiful. It is both inspiring and admittedly a bit frustrating to see this successful execution – but I am learning a lot from that work. Currently I really enjoy the journals of Peter Beard and the portraiture of Lise Sarfati.
I also draw a lot of inspiration from the people unfortunately labeled as outsider artists. In general I feel I connect with work that tends to be unaffected by overly academic constructs and is a more pure and cathartic mode of self-expression and inquiry.
Photographers who are friends of mine inspire me a lot though, and I probably would never get anything done without them.
Josh Birnbaum has been making really interesting work lately, unfortunately the stuff I really like is not online so I can’t show you. John Francis Peters, too. I think they work harder than just about anyone else I know.
Your favorite photography quote?
It’s not directly about photography, but I think it applies quite well, at least to how I try to photograph.
“The more profoundly baffled you have been in your life, the more open your mind becomes to new ideas.”
Neil DeGrasse Tyson
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
Injecting a more patient analysis into my natural and often spastic curiosity about the basic principles of leading a meaningful existence.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic voice?
Probably most important is to get out-of-the-way of yourself, but to be aware of the implications of the work you are doing. I try to photograph with ideas and content at the forefront of my process and the aesthetics usually follow. I am still a work in progress.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
“I am always looking for ways to show a little of my love for life to others.”
I just try to photograph sincerely and simply. I understand that my work has a certain aesthetic but I also expect it to change. I hope that the one thing that stays consistent in my work is the fact that I am always looking for ways to show a little of my love for life to others.
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?
They have to give a shit. The rest can be taught. Sure, there are different levels of photographic skill but the most effective photojournalists care deeply about their stories.
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes?
Usually my favorite images just seem to strike me as coming from a place of honest self-expression, curiosity or concern. My tastes vary widely so there’s no specific thing it needs.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
This changes. It can often be things about society that I feel need to be addressed. I tend to get many ideas while running in the woods.
More of my recent work stemmed from the ideas I had while studying writings of Kierkegaard, Sartre, and others in that vein.
What kind of photography equipment and photographic supplies do you use?
Right now it’s some Rolleiflexes and digital equipment, but I switch up what I use. I’ve owned a lot of camera equipment in the past, but if I don’t use it for 6 months or a year, I sell it. I don’t like extra crap filling my limited space.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
I don’t really know – I don’t feel that up to date on what’s out there. I like American Suburb X but really nothing beats a good photography book. When online I probably enjoy looking at people’s online portfolios as much as anything.
What photography book would you recommend?
The soul of photography is a very difficult thing to address verbally and I learn much more from looking at work. I love to read, but I tend to read books other than those that address photography. I don’t think I’ve ever really read about photography in a way that really hit me. So my answer is, I don’t know.
“Photography allows you to learn to look and see. You begin to see things that you’d never paid any attention to.”
What photography book would you recommend?
Some of my current favorite photo books are Julian Germain’s “For every Minute you are Angry you Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness” (video presentation of the photography book) and Saul Leiter’s “Retrospective” (video). A long time favorite of mine is Alec Soth’s “Dog Days Bogotá” (video), which is just a beautiful work.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a (professional) photographer?
Mostly just work really hard and don’t be a jerk. Also, you need to have a pretty good idea of where your work fits in the grand scheme of things. You’ve gotta have something to say.