Peter Hoffman lives and works in Durham, NC and occasionally Chicago, Ill. He splits his time between his personal photographic practice, teaching at UNC Chapel Hill, assignment work and collaborative projects.
Fake Lakes (and Other Curious Sites)
When and where did Fake Lakes (and Other Curious Sites) begin?
The idea for this project began when I was looking for places to go hiking and kayaing in my new home of Durham, NC and I realized that so many of the lakes around were artificial. I’ve had an enduring interest in the relationship between landscape and people, and while the idea that humans have changed the landscape is not a revelation, I wanted to use this idea as a prompt to explore different sites in the state.
To try and briefly sum it up, I am trying to create landscape and nature images that slip and slide between documentary and fiction, in the hopes of accessing a novel way of imaging within this genre. Taken as a whole, a new world that represent real places morph into representations of a human-altered world where the signs and marks of alteration are visible, structural parts of the image compositions, in a nod to the idea that nothing about these “natural” locations has escaped the human (and therefore technological) touch. These warped, fractured, discolored representations of place are evocative of the unseen narrative embedded in the soil.
Getting a bit more into detail, the first pictures I made were at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. It’s a giant sand dune on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The Outer Banks are barrier islands, they naturally erode (and shift) over time. Because Jockey’s Ridge is a major tourist attraction, it needs to stay in place. There is a process of moving sand back to the dune by the truckload. Standing on the dunes out there you feel like you are in a natural, preserved landscape. That’s…sort of true. But sort of not.
From there I began looking into other sites around the state. Many of the sites that I ended up at hold stories of environmental, colonial, or what I would consider capitalist violence – significant (connected) issues that I am interested in touching on, however abstractly. Some of the stories of places I photographed come across as a little bit more benign (like the dune), but then when you think about it more, I’m not sure they stay that way. They’re all places that humans have basically tried to assert a dominance over in some way…which really opens a can of worms…but anyways, these are the locations I’ve been interested in.
I have a background in documentary work (because of this I still usually have rules for my projects, even if they’re not Documentary types of rules), but I’ve long been frustrated with its limitations, and this really came to a head visiting these types of sites. The photograph itself often can’t reveal much of anything, all it does is aestheticize the place. But for an effective documentary photograph, you need some visual evidence. At these locations, the evidence often isn’t there, or isn’t easily accessible. Documentarians do that work effectively when the situations present themselves (I am thinking of Daniel Beltra, Richard Misrach’s Cancer Alley, things like this), but I am interested in the scenarios where this isn’t really plausible, which also happens to present and endless potential when you consider translating ideas through proxy methods (like digital manipulation).
In this work I consider the photograph made at the location as an indexical, documentary image. It’s evidence, a surface record of a place I stood (or crouched) when photographing. But I wanted to see what would happen when I would alter the image (through analog or digital methods), in an attempt to arrive at something like an abstracted document – something clearly grounded in the indexicality of the photograph but at the same time representing a new place, one that doesn’t exist – a place that only is conjured up through technological interference or artificial imaging. Conflating these images that have different degrees of manipulation throughout an edit of images starts to build a world that slips between the familiar and the strange, which echoes how I think of these places.
To your question about notable experiences – for me the biggest takeaway has been philosophical. While working on this project I’ve also done a lot of research that discusses how we conceive of and talk about nature as a culture. There tends to be this binary way of thinking – society:nature or something akin to this. A lot of the people writing about this (like Bruno Latour) argue that it’s this core attitude that is largely responsible for climate change. It’s tied up with capitalism, industrialization, colonialism, all of it. This way of thinking seems so deeply embedded that it was, at first, difficult for me to fathom a different worldview. But it’s not the way that things have to be. If that’s not the way things are, we can conceive of humanity as part of, at one with nature. Not separate.
So, employing this type of thinking, on a basic level, my pictures are a representation of perceiving the collapse of this binary. On one two-dimensional surface there is a real landscape, a “natural” place represented, but there are the marks of the human or the technological intervention there, whether through pixels or colors, the aberrations are the sign of a human embeddedness in these places. It’s a take on how our industries have now rendered themselves part of the fossil record. I am attempting to make images that, wherever they break with the document, they may get at a representation of landscape that is more suitable for this current moment of human caused climate change.
It’s a question of perception, and how the photograph of a place circles back and can shape our perception of the place, often glorifying or aestheticizing it in a way that is necessarily incomplete. A picture of a lake just looks like a lake – very often there are not obvious visual cues that it’s artificial, that it may also be a de facto chemical dumping ground, or something like that. I think the photograph is uniquely positioned to examine issues of perception because it presents itself as believable, factual, even, but we all know it isn’t necessarily.
Where do you see this project going?
This project is in-progress – right now I’m planning to continue making pictures for about another year. This work is the first time in years that I’ve really dedicated my time to landscape, something that was tough when I was doing more freelance work. So I’m not in a huge rush to finish at the moment, just to keep making.
A version of it has been shown locally in Durham as part of my thesis exhibition when I was finishing up my MFA at UNC, but it just isn’t finished yet, and I’ve decided that I want to show it differently. I am beginning to think about a book version of this work though (where the conceptual framework may change a bit), probably collaborating with my friend Ben Alper.
Additionally, this line of inquiry that started this project is sort of a 3 headed monster – it also led to my other body of work Climate Anxiety (https://www.peterghoffman.com/projects/climate-anxiety/) that I am working on at the same time. This work is quite different – this work is intended only for installation. They are visually complex large scale (42”x63” or 60”x90”) digital prints that fall somewhere between painting and collage I suppose. This work is rooted in some of the same locations as Fake Lakes but pushes the use of algorithmic blending and incorporates the addition of textual markmaking (that reference the history of the places depicted) to further obfuscate the photographs that make it up.
As far as outcomes, I would be happy if this work simply raised questions about how we perceive landscape, nature, whatever word you want to use. I don’t think we’re going to make much progress in stemming climate change unless our attitude towards nature changes, and I don’t think that our attitude can change until our perception changes.
What helps you sustain your current creative practice?
I actually find that having a balance between assignment work, teaching and art making is helpful for my creative practice. Not that I would ever be in the position to do so, but art making as a full time pursuit is not something I'm sure I could handle because it can feel too solitary. Questions of purpose and validity would (and do) eat at me. I love solitude, but fully subscribe to the idea of too much of a good thing being possible. But I know when that when I teach, or work collaboratively with others, or do assignment work there is immediate value that is exchanged, and I love how it mixes things up.
I've also been pretty physically restless since my teenage days as a skateboarder. These days I maintain a consistent practice of kettlebell training which is probably best described as endurance strength training combine with weighted yoga - so it is at times meditative and requires total focus and at times just a great way to go all out and clear your mind. But hiking, running, getting outside, getting moving in any way is important to me. I also like reading, mostly political philosophy, which is directly tied into my practice.
I also try to sporadically assemble a photobook club here in Durham, which is great fun. Which reminds me I've been slacking on that...
What’s next for you?
I'm working on a few collaborative projects with others that involve curating and publishing, but we're not to the point of making anything public yet. Hopefully in the next few months, or early 2020.
I'm a graduate fellow at the Useful Fictions Symposium in Paris coming up (http://usefulfictions.ucdavis.edu/) so I'm excited to see what that yields. Aside from that, I'm still making images for this body of work, teaching, working on assignments.
What other artists should we be keeping an eye on?
I look at a lot to my circle of friends and contemporaries for inspiration (I'd make a list but there's no way it would be brief enough), but at this moment I'm getting more interested in artists who are addressing the contemporary representation of landscape. Artist's that I've looked to recently include Ron Jude, Aaron Rothman, Barry Stone, the Everything is Collective crew.
I saw that some people mention music - which for me is an inherent part of my practice. The presence of it when editing, shooting, road-tripping, etc., is important. Some of the artists on heavy rotation for me lately are Boards of Canada, Rival Consoles, Demdike Stare, Blanck Mass, Roly Porter.