10 minutes with Peter Hoffman

Interviews with Photographers November 8, 2013 4:47 am

When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?

I don’t know if there was ever a moment that I knew, but I was interested in visuals from the time I was a little kid. My dad, who is a dentist, was also a painter. I loved his work from college, I would often dig it up from the storage room and spend time with it, and when I was young we would spend time drawing together. A few years later I was really into skateboarding and was seduced by the photography in Thrasher and Transworld, but my attempts at emulating skateboard photography for my high school darkroom classes were frustrating. Up until this point I loved photography, but like with drawing and painting it felt like something I would have to observe from the sidelines because I didn’t feel like I could excel at it. It wasn’t until college when I was spending some time with friends surfing and traveling in New Zealand (and shooting a lot of photos on the point and shoot that I bought for the trip) that I realized I might have some good photographs in me. The building blocks were always there, but that time in New Zealand was when I decided I needed to dig deeper with my camera.



Who were the first photographers that you loved?

Well, again going back to my early years the paintings of Edvard Munch and Salvador Dali were the first visual works that I can remember being fascinated by. My dad had a surreal style to his paintings and that translated into my earliest interest in photography. The first photographers that I got into were contemporary commercial photographers – specifically this guy Chip Simons – who has a lot of absurd work. I also really liked the big name skateboard photographers like Grant Brittain and Atiba Jefferson. My tastes are pretty different now and I wish I had come into photography with some more historical perspective, but I remember when I was starting to explore with my work a professor took me aside to tell me that I should read up on this guy I’d never heard of named William Eggleston (this is how much I didn’t know – I was 21 at the time) because I might like the work and I looked through Eggleston’s Guide at the University Library and thought it was just rubbish. And then, with some time, I realized it wasn’t at all – and that opened up a lot of new possibilities for me.



Can you tell me about your project Garden City?

Garden City is a working name for a project I photographed last year in Christchurch, New Zealand which is nicknamed “The Garden City.” Christchurch is where I lived the first time I was in New Zealand and for a myriad of reasons I just really fell in love with city and the region, and it’s where I first started taking photography seriously. In 2010 the region started to get hit with a series of earthquakes, a few of which were really bad and one that caused hundreds of deaths and knocked down much of the city center and surrounding neighborhoods up in the hills. I had always wanted to get back to Christchurch and when the city started undergoing such rapid physical change a sense of urgency came over me and I decided to get back there finances be damned (and also, I raised about half of the funding for the trip on Kickstarter by pre-selling prints which I am really thankful for).

The thing that really clinched it for me was when a friend told me that one of my favorite spots there – a little grassy field on top of the cliff that looked straight east into the Pacific, had largely fallen into the ocean with the latest quake. It’s pretty sentimental of me but it was a place that I thought I might bring my family to if I ever had a family. I used to go running up there around sunrise because that spot was only about 2 miles from my house in Christchurch and it was just so beautiful. One of those places where all your concerns just disappear. It was just really strange for me to process that a place could be gone like that.

Returning was a bizarre experience. This time I’m not living in a beach house with my friends, not surfing, not partying, realizing that the people I was with the first time I was there is part of what made it so magical. My head knew that well before I went back but it took returning to get my heart to understand that. I’d stubbornly been pushing people away in my life for awhile and I guess I knew it was a bad habit and I needed to fix it. So in this return I’m largely alone for a few months just searching for photographs, fighting a bit of a depression, and trying to remember that this place is still beautiful. I was really interested in how people would approach the day when the ground is still shaking, and the sense that this day could maybe be the last one before your life changes. When you’re feeling aftershocks all the time, and any one of them could turn into the kind of earthquake that has already destroyed your city, you look at things a little differently. I felt probably 30-40 aftershocks while I was there and I’d get jittery about it and my flatmates would just laugh at me tell me ‘this one was nothing!’ So yea, the photographs are really a byproduct of a kind of soul-searching trip in ways that don’t even have to do with photography. I am still working on an edit and design edit for the book with a few people, but in the end I think you’ll see a project that isn’t really about a specific place or even event. It will be more about a place, any place, that has undergone unexpected physical change and explores that from a sort of psychological perspective.



That sounds intense. I didn’t even think about all of the aftershocks and how terrifying that would be for people who survived. Is it important that you always have a personal project going on?

Yeah, I mean everyone there seemed like they got used to it, to an extent – there’s not really an option unless you leave the city. But I talked to people working in therapy and in the health care industry and they told me that it was pretty evident as a population people were struggling. Divorce rates were climbing, suicide attempts increasing, substance abuse on the rise. The kinds of things you wouldn’t really attribute to an earthquake but more just to general social stressors.

But to your question – yes, I always have personal work going on. Usually there are two to three ideas that I am dealing with at any one time. Some ideas are pretty long term, some are pretty open and shut ideas that I execute quickly from start to finish. I couldn’t do without both personal work and commissioned work though. They’re both really important and let me exercise my skills in different ways and I enjoy the challenges of both. Balance is everything.

What would your dream assignment be?

Anything that brought me back to New Zealand would be fantastic. That aside, I love shoots where I’m set free to just wander a new place. It’s exciting being the stranger with a camera in a town where no one knows you. This might sound like a cop out but I’m really thankful for any assignment that lets me go to a place I haven’t been and meet people I wouldn’t otherwise have met. It’s not hard for me to summon curiosity.


If you could go back ten years and give yourself advice, what would it be?

I’d probably tell myself to contribute more aggressively to an IRA, and make sure you understand where people are coming from when they criticize your work. Sometimes the problem is your work for sure, but sometimes the problem is that the critic wants your work to be something it is not, and never will be and that’s just fine. I think I realized that about 5 or 6 years ago, and it was very liberating.

Peter is based in Chicago. See more of his work, here.

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