Wavepool – Because you’re both an exhibiting artist and an editorial photographer, I’m curious about your background and how you came to work with photography. Did one facet come before the other?
Peter Hoffman – When I made my very first pictures, they came from a purely creative, exploratory place. But very soon after I picked up a camera I found work as a photojournalist, and followed that path for a few years. The approach, the aesthetic, the lifestyle, sort of took over. I eventually realized it wasn’t for me, but I learned a lot during that time and it helped prepare me for freelance. Since I left the constrictions of the newspaper world I’ve focused on taking a balance approached, making sure that I pay attention to personal work while trying to maintain the things I did love about being a working photographer – like meeting new people and going new places – through editorial work. I don’t exhibit much – I would like to change that eventually (who wouldn’t?), but for the time being as I make my living through assignment work, my personal work is mostly about just making it.
Wavepool – Are there any differences in your approach to each facet? In what ways do they blend together?
Peter Hoffman – I think the one thing that you can’t help is that the subject matter for editorial work will vary much more than what you pursue in your personal work, especially if what you are interested in has no real editorial potential. This will undoubtedly give some of your editorial work a different feel, and that’s a challenge. On my own time, I am photographing a lot of dense woods and dark streets these days. I don’t know what to do with this stuff yet, and I especially don’t know how I can use it to help my assignment work, but I do know it’s what I need to be photographing right now.
Although I often wish I could be, I am not the type of photographer that has a seamless transition between my personal and my editorial work – at least not yet. I am always trying to hone in on a more concise vision for my editorial work, and the more I work at it the more I feel like it starts to get in line with my personal work. That said, in editorial you get hired for the stories that editors feel you are well suited to. They’re usually hoping to build on the the kind of world that you have created through your previous work – and much of this is based off of the personal work. The best assignments and the best editors really help here. I am really happy to get any assignment because a day of photographing beats just about anything else in my eyes, but it’s really wonderful when the editor understands how you see the world and lets you just carry that 100% in to the shoot.
One specific way that the worlds collide – moreso than talking about the general notion of ‘vision’ – is through portraiture – I absolutely love making portraits. It’s actually the most rewarding part of being a photographer in many ways. But it is hard. I am a pretty reserved person so in general most of my portrait work is done on assignment. I’m actually making it a goal this year to start making as many portraits as I possibly can, of whoever will sit with me. Because I have specific ideas for how I want this to be I think it will be a good exercise. I shoot a lot of portraiture on assignment, it will help strengthen this skill, and it will also have a place in my heart as personal work.
Wavepool – What make portraits the most rewarding part of being a photographer?
Peter Hoffman – I feel like it’s better to be working out of your comfort zone whenever possible. On portrait shoots this is usually the case. It can be pretty tough for me to just meet and photograph someone I’ve never met, but in that situation you’ve just got to do it. There’s also the fact that life is ultimately about relationships and each portrait is an opportunity to begin a new one or deepen one with someone you already know. Pictures of people mean something, to someone, almost always. Work is always more rewarding when people besides yourself care about it. The rest of the stuff I photograph interests me and is important to me, but it is just, I don’t want to say easier to do well, but I am in an easier space personally when making it.
Wavepool – Do you generally start a project with thinking and researching, or with experimenting and doing?
Peter Hoffman – It depends on the project. I sort of go back and forth between doing straight photographic projects, and doing experimental projects.
The experimental projects don’t really start with research – they just start with a need to create and a need for catharsis – followed by a lot of time doing things that don’t work to hone in on an idea. I don’t really know what I’m going for when I begin them – I just know that I have a notion of some type of conflict that I want to play with – thematically the work is usually about human/environment interaction in some way. The more straightforward photographic projects I do usually start with some research to help me define the constructs in my own head. That research, lately, doesn’t have any real place in the end work though. In Again and Again – which was photographed during a 10 week stay in New Zealand – I researched a lot about the Christchurch earthquakes, was alerted about every tremor going, and reached out to newspapers and university faculty in the area with lots of questions all before I set foot in Christchurch. All of this information helped to frame my initial approach and helped me build relationships while I was there, but doesn’t play an obvious role in what is ultimately a more impressionistic, first-person type body of work.
Wavepool – Was Again and Again intended to be a more research heavy project? How did the work develop when you got to New Zealand and started photographing?
Peter Hoffman – I never really intended for the research to be on display in the final project. I had spent time in New Zealand before and really fell in love with it. I was already familiar with the city (well, pre-earthquakes) – but because I went there with the intent of photographing people who were affected by it I just wanted to make sure I was as familiar as I could be about the general situation – including how it was being portrayed in the media – which was a hurdle I had to get past. I just wanted people to know that I was interested in their particular situation and that I cared enough to educate myself on the issue. People were open and gracious and wanting to tell me their stories, but they were wary (rightfully so) of someone coming and taking a bunch of pictures of broken buildings again. When I was there I actually asked almost everyone I photographed to write in a journal a response to the prompt ‘how has life changed since the earthquake’ – something very open ended. I had thought about using those journal entries in the book but it just was too much material. I used those journals though – I let them guide me to spaces that I photographed and let them dictate to an extent how I photographed the people and the space. Some entries were about finding strength in tragedy, some were about confusion, hardship, frustration, some were ambivalent and some had a sense of freedom or relief. I tried to take all of that and incorporate it into the images I was looking for. I also, invariably was reacting to the scene around me and my own rediscovery of a place that meant very much to me, but had been significantly altered.
Wavepool – What are you working on at the moment?
Peter Hoffman – Last year was a pretty big year for me outside of my personal work. I got married and was quite busy with commissions, and was also busy with the production of the book. Things have slowed down a little so I’m taking this time reevaluate where I want to be (with my work) in like 7-10 years and try to make necessary adjustments. It’s been a little while since I tried to step outside of myself like that.
I’m currently in the editing phase of another book project that is photographed looking through the same window over the course of a winter. It’s more of a study than a big project or anything, but it’s important to me. I made the pictures last winter while I was working on the edit of Again and Again. Aside from that, I’m not totally sure what I’m working on which is a little terrifying. I’ve got a few ideas, but nothing I can talk about yet really. Not because I don’t want to be but because any ideas I have are just in their infancy right now and I am working on making sense of them for myself first.
To see more, please visit Peter’s website.