Peter Hoffman: Photojournalism to Conceptual Work

Peter Hoffman (1984) is a photographer and educator based in nowheresville/everywheresville suburbia but working in Chicago and throughout the Midwest. He holds an M.A. in Photojournalism from Ohio University and a B.S. in Advertising from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He’s a freelancer who does editorial work portraits and documentary essays for clients including The Wall St. Journal, TimeOut Chicago, and CITY Magazine. But he is also a restless experimenter who brings and artist’s eye to the urban landscape.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A. Usually a Leica M6 with an older 35mm f/2 Summicron. I also have and use with some regularity a Contax G2, Fuji 6×9 and a Hasselblad. For digital assignment work I use a Nikon D700 and some prime lenses.

Q: The Loop series is definitely experimental but in general, how would you describe your photography?

A: It’s intuitive, incessant, and constantly changing. What I shoot is usually pretty reflective of larger issues that are either directly tied to my life or that I have become passionately curious about. I started off as a photojournalist. Now that I am freelancer my roles change, but I still have a keen interest in the human condition and looking at it in different ways. Lately I have experimented with some conceptual work that has tried my patience, but has also been rewarding. I go through a lot of phases, but it’s all pretty much rooted in a documentary practice.

Q: Were you a serious enthusiast before taking on assignments?

A: Ah, not really. I mean, I guess I was for like 6 months. I was always interested in photography but it never felt like something that I personally could do. I loved the photos in my Thrasher Magazine in high school and I did take a B&W photo class, but I spent my money on new skateboards since I broke mine so often, so I was too broke for film costs. I even sold my Pentax after a while (dumb move). I didn’t actually start shooting photos until I spent a fairytale 6 months living and surfing in New Zealand in the middle of college. I felt like I had to shoot every beach and landscape I visited just because I knew that I’d never want to forget that time in my life. I just had a crappy little point-and-shoot for that excursion but I think I milked it for everything it was worth. As soon as I came back to finish college the university newspaper editor hired me based on my pictures from NZ (which, if you think about it makes no sense because I was shooting Big Ten football games based off of a “portfolio” of sunsets and palm trees, but hey, I’m thankful). So, really, I was doing assignment work almost from the start.

I decided to go pro just because I was actually enjoying my days working, which was something I hadn’t fathomed yet since I’d had like 10 jobs prior to that and this was the first time I didn’t wake up thinking “Damn it, I have to work today.” I was just becoming exposed to the world of photojournalism in my last year of college and it was fast becoming front and center in my mind so it seemed only natural to pursue it.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression?

A: What’s funny is that I think I’ve only more recently become aware of photography as a mode of expression. Because I was shooting assignment work almost from the get-go, I never made it that personal. I mean, I would make photos of my friends and family but until the last few years I hadn’t really asked myself what I had to say. I was just trying to say what editors wanted me to say in a completely objective manner. Then I realized that if I embraced my own subjectivity in my personal work it might get more interesting.

Apart from that, I was interested in photography as a profession pretty much from the first day I shot an assignment, which was my last year or two as an undergrad. I photographed this Habitat for Humanity home opening and the picture went on the front page, and I went to a big college, so that picture was printed 20,000 times. It was a pretty exciting way to start. Before that I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was studying advertising, but I didn’t actually want to go into it, I just thought it would be a fascinating major and something I wanted to learn more about. If anything it helped provide me with the skepticism necessary to be a journalist. I never went to college to get a job; I just went to learn about things that interested me and figured the other stuff would hopefully work itself out. Here I am now, pretty broke but pretty happy with what I’m doing.

Q: Having jumped into assignments shortly after your trip to New Zealand, did you fit in any formal training along the way?

A: I learned the technical side of photography by shooting medium format slide film with off-camera flashes. This made messing up expensive so I really tried to not do that. A lot of experimentation and some tutorials on a now defunct website called skateboardphotography.com was pretty much responsible for me learning my f-stops, shutter speeds and guide numbers. There was a formula for shooting skateboarding photos and you had to have that stuff down pat to shoot them, but I was still pretty clueless about everything besides making the picture come out right. I taught myself this stuff in the few months after I got back from New Zealand before I started shooting assignments.

After I finished my undergraduate degree is when I think my real education started. I photographed for newspapers for a year, did a short internship in James Nachtwey’s studio (he was never there, but I had ample time to look through work prints, contact sheets etc) and immediately following this I was lucky enough to go to Ohio University for a graduate degree in photojournalism. I spent two years with people obsessed with photography and with faculty who came at you from varying directions all helping you to try and find your voice. When I wasn’t in class, shooting or teaching I was often looking at different photography and came to find what I personally loved. I’ve always been inspired by Alec Soth and William Eggleston, and I pored through the work of these folks in school. Later on I became enveloped in the work of Joel Meyerowitz, Saul Leiter and Gus Powell, who are some of my favorites today. They just have this magical, but also tasteful, use of color in their work, and I’m really drawn to it. I also have really taken Luc Delahaye’s book Winterreisse to heart. It’s an amazing book.

For the past year or so, however, I’ve found myself much more influenced by other art. Literature, music and painting have probably all spurred my recent work more than photography. I’m just always hungry for new things and for a while I felt like I’d seen almost every photograph so I took a break. Now it’s like, I hear a song and I want to make a picture that would sound like that song, or I read some passage and I want to make a photo that gets at the essence of the passage that I just read. I want to make pictures that look like an RJD2 song or read like a Kierkegaard excerpt. I know this maybe sounds a bit strange and my work may not actually come across like that, but that’s what’s moving me these days.

Q: Where did the concept for The Loop come from? Can you tell us something more about how you came to document the Chicago Loop, the area defined by its transit system?

A: I live in the suburbs of Chicago, which is a sprawling and open area. I’m out here because I have a lot of green space that I can run through and most days not see anyone else. I need that. The train station is just a few miles away so I hop on my bike and get on the train and get transported into another world, spit out three blocks away from one of the tallest buildings on earth and into a mass of concrete, steel and, usually, people. I began to make that trip with increased regularity as I procured different teaching positions and assignment work downtown, and I was really getting into street photography.

All the street work I’d admired was from mostly from New York and though I know NYC is a special place for street photography, Chicago is interesting in its own right and for some reason I just couldn’t find any bodies of color work from my city that spoke to me. I figured I might as well just try and make some myself, it would be a good exercise since I’d been shooting medium format still life images, landscapes and portraits for a few projects prior to that, and I was kind of sick of working so slowly. If I’m going to commit to something though I need a structure, a reason for the work, so I decided to use the Loop as my boundary and I would try to figure out the meaning of this defined space through photography, much like how I have done with other projects. Like in my other work, I’m just looking for the little bits of things that might make the everyday more interesting. I’m looking for non-events. Much of the time I just photograph people going from A to B and hoping that they reveal a bit of themselves or the space they occupy in that walk.

Right now the Loop work is in two parts, the first is the straight street photographs and the second is digital composites from multiple street photographs. I guess I was feeling overwhelmed by the intangibles from the space and I wanted to see if I could communicate that through another method. I just wanted to boil down Chicago’s Loop to it’s color and form, so I just began shooting in a way that let me just find hints of what was happening, instead of it being more spelled out by being in focus and all that. I wanted only to have a trace of a person, an object or a tone in the negative. Sometimes it seems like people on the streets are zombies and maybe this is what they are seeing, or maybe this is what they remember about their walk from work to their car, or whatever. Each Loop Derivative is pretty much the composite of what I shot during one walk in the Loop, and I try to have them all reflect a different sort of abstract notion, but it’s also a matter of just playing with what the negatives give me. The hardest part of the Derivatives pieces has been all the time in front of my computer.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I’m a bit of a minimalist, or at least I try to be. One of my least favorite parts of photography is the fact that you have to carry a camera. Actually that’s probably my absolute least favorite part. The Leica is the closest you can get to not carrying a camera and still making quality work. It gets in your way less than anything else. It’s just a beautifully designed simple, functional tool that is everything it needs to be and nothing more. Also, that shutter click is just cathartic and plain fun.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: What I want most to find with my photography is what could be interesting in the perceived every day, normal existence. If I can pick a certain facet of the world, sort of pluck it out of it’s natural context and show it to someone and they reconsider its importance because of this re-contextualization; that’s what I want. I think photographing is really just that on it’s most basic level. You’re trying to elevate this scene in front of you into one of a perceived higher importance. You’re saying, “look, this is worth seeing again” and you want the viewer to genuinely think “why was I supposed to consider this?” And then hopefully they come up with their own answer. That’s a lofty hope I know, but that’s what I’d like. This world is just really fascinating and strange and oftentimes wonderful and also terrible and I’m saying this as someone who lives in the suburbs, so I hope other people can take a breath and consider that as well.

The other day I was on a run and I came across a coyote. I tried to chase him so I could get a shot with my iPhone but he was a little too fast for my sore knee. It was still pretty great to have some eye contact with a coyote. And that could happen any day. Life is so strange. There’s magic in everyday things like that and if I photograph effectively then maybe I can help people to just stop for a second and consider that. This world is everything it seems to be and nothing that it seems to be all at the same time.

Thank you Peter!

-Leica Internet Team

To see more of Peter Hoffman’s work, please visit www.peterhoffmanphoto.com and you can connect with him on Twitter by visiting @peterghoffman.