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Christopher Boffoli, Photographer

Christopher Boffoli is a Seattle-based photographer, writer, artist and filmmaker. Largely self-taught, he took up photography as a hobby in his teens, honing his skills as a student journalist in high school and college. While still an undergraduate he started his own commercial photography company in Charleston, South Carolina. With a background in literature and English, he worked for more than a decade in the field of Philanthropy, raising money for elite schools like Dartmouth College and the London School of Economics. Christopher was able to integrate his creative skills, in writing, photography and graphic design into much of his fundraising work.

A couple of life-changing events compelled him to pursue a creative career full-time. As a resident of Lower Manhattan, Christopher was a firsthand witness to the World Trade Center attacks of September 11th. A few years later he was very seriously injured at high elevation while mountaineering on Washington’s Mt. Rainier. Since that time he has traveled the world, setting foot on six continents, writing and photographing his travels through documentary photography and video. At home in Seattle, he works as a writer and photojournalist, producing both feature stories and covering breaking news. Christopher’s work has been published – online and in print – in more than 90 countries. His fine art photographs can be found in galleries and private collections in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia.

How did you get into photography?
Well, I’ve always been creative and artistic.  For most of my young life that was manifested through writing and drawing.  But that is probably just because children are not generally trusted with expensive camera equipment.  I grew up near Boston where the winters are very cold and long.  When I was about 9 years old my parents went away to Hawaii for holiday.  My father purchased a camera to take on the trip and came back with all of these photographs of exotic locales.  The Ektachrome slide film was particularly vibrant so the pictures were just stunning.  I’m sure that made a strong impression on me.  At some point my father took a photography course at a local college and used to bring me along to the darkroom when he was developing his pictures.  As a child I found it very compelling to go into dark rooms to watch images develop magically from nothing.

A few years later I received a point and shoot camera as a birthday gift (once again, from my father) and I began taking pictures in earnest.  Many years and many bad pictures later and my work eventually improved.  I never had any formal photography training.  I’m completely self taught.  I didn’t endeavor to make photography my living.  In fact, I studied English in college.  I simply saw it as just one of many creative outlets.  I write, take pictures, draw, paint, make films, play music, etc.  Fortunately, I never felt as though I needed to limit myself to one choice.

I don’t generally regard either of my parents as being exceptionally creative.  If anything, I’d credit them with making my early life so painful and tumultuous that I had no choice but to become a writer and visual artist later in life.  But I must admit, in the process of thinking through this question, that my father’s incidental influences on my photography are hard to deny.

“Being in the humid jungles of Burma, or the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, or being roughed up by a bunch of young anarchists in Athens, or covering the news in the cold, dark and rain in Seattle…”

“Lazy Janet would use any excuse at all to stop paddling.”

Let’s chat about “Big Appetites” – when did you come up with the idea, what was the inspiration and how long did it take for you to complete your vision?
The genesis of my Big Appetites series of fine art photographs was in a lot of the media I was exposed to as a child.  There were so many films and television shows that exploited both the dramatic and comedy potential of a juxtaposition of different scales:  tiny people in a normal-sized world.  It is a surprisingly common cultural theme going back all the way to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in the 18th century and perhaps earlier.I think it is especially resonant with children because as a child you live in an adult world that is out of scale with your body and proportions.  And you constantly exercise your imagination around a world of toys that are further out of scale.  As a child I was an avid collector of Matchbox cars, a model railroader and a builder of models (cars, ships and airplanes).  I was fascinated, as many children and adults are, with tiny, meticulously detailed things.

Jumping forward, I encountered some art exhibits at the Saatchi gallery in London in 2002 that used scale figures in elaborate dioramas.  I think it was the Chapman Brothers’ work “In Hell.”  And about a year later I saw the incredibly brilliant Travelers series by Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz which presented intimate scenes, populated with scale figures, in snow globes.  I particularly liked the idea of engaging a viewer with snowglobes, a format that is typically whimsical and fun, and then presenting something that was dark and often disturbing.  These were really the works that got me thinking about starting work on a series of my own photographs with scale figures.  In the time since my work has gone viral around the world, I’ve become aware of a number of other artists who are doing work with figures, parallel to mine.  But it was really the Chapman Brothers and the Travelers work that were my direct influences.

When I began shooting some of the very earliest images in this series, around 2003, food was a conscious choice as one of the components as it can be very beautiful – in terms of texture and color – especially when shot with available light and macro lenses. Combining what is essentially food and toys makes the work instantly accessible to virtually everyone.  Regardless of language, culture and social status, all people can identify with toys from their childhood.  And whether you eat with a fork, chopsticks or your hands, everyone understands food.  Sitting down to a meal makes us feel most human.

As I am still shooting new images in the series, both fine art images and commissions for editorial and commercial clients, I cannot say the vision is complete.

What was the hardest part about this series?
The figures are exceptionally tiny and I have large hands.  So that’s hard.  I also live and work in Seattle where we drink a lot of coffee.  So big shaky hands aren’t really the best instruments by which to arrange tiny figures.  And the figures are not really designed to stand upright on food, which tends to be soft and sometimes fairly moist.  So it can be tedious work, especially when there are many figures in an image, and more tiny people to fall over.

I have to say that, since this work has become known around the world, there is a new aspect of the work that I would say is hard. That is the theft and misuse of my photographs.  There is a tremendous power in the Internet to move messages and information around the world very quickly.  But for a visual artist there is also the problem of a lack of understanding or respect for artist copyrights.  I am always honored and flattered when people are enthusiastic about my work and want to share it with a wider audience.  But all too often people take my work to increase traffic, readership and advertising revenue for their own websites.  Many people take the images and use them without asking me and by doing this they fail to present the work in context and often do not present any information about it.  Overall, I think it cheapens the value of visual art.  It is a persistent problem for me that consumes a lot of my time, especially when people upload my work to websites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.  These large corporations automatically take rights to use, change and even to sell my work for themselves.  But really I think the worst part of all this is that so many people are wasting time aggregating the content of others and not creating anything new themselves with their own voices.  We live in a time of tremendous technological privilege and yet we’ve become a world full of digital parrots.

If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?
I can’t really answer that question because I don’t look at my role in such a limited way.  “Photographer” is really nothing but a label to put people in a category.  But as I said previously, my work as a photographer is only one facet of who I am.  I can be a photographer and simultaneously be many other things too.  And I am many other things.  Some days I am a writer.  Some days I am a photographer or a journalist or a graphic designer.  Some days I am just a friend, a brother, a son.

Do you ever get tired of photography?
My cameras are a vital tool that I use to record the world around me.  Essentially, they see more truth than I can.  They record a hyper-reality of captured time and eventually what they capture becomes memory itself.   So I can’t say that I ever get tired of cameras or photography.  Photography is a vital part of who I am and what I have been for a long time.

What can be tiring are some of the external factors of photography.  Being in the humid jungles of Burma, or the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, or being roughed up by a bunch of young anarchists in Athens, or covering the news in the cold, dark and rain in Seattle… there are many times when it is unpleasant to be shooting, when you’re exhausted and wish you weren’t carrying around twenty pounds of camera gear.  Even when you’re done you’re not done.  You have to drag yourself back to base to unload and edit images, clean your optics, charge your batteries, get ready for the next day’s shooting.  Mostly the results of the effort are worth it.  But the process can exact a toll.  It is important to keep perspective and sometimes to put down the camera and see the world for yourself with both eyes.

What is something you had to learn the hard way?
I think many of the most important things there are to learn in life are learned the hard way.  But if I had to pick just one I’d say I learned the hard way that it can be very dangerous and painful to fall in love with broken people.

What makes great photography?
I know photographers who have had fine art photography careers for decades and even they admit that they still don’t know quite what makes a picture work.  It might sound simple, but I seem to think that an image is successful if you can make someone feel something as a result of it.  If you can shed a beam of light on a certain time, place or moment in the world.  Maybe reveal a bit of truth that wasn’t so apparent before.

Humans are very visual creatures and we look at everything.  But despite this we rarely actually SEE very much.  I think that one of the keys to being a great photographer is not so much the mastery of the technical aspects of the equipment and learning to manage light, but to work very hard to learn to really see things.

What’s your advice for aspiring photographers?
This is a hard question too because I think a person’s work is so personal.  And certain lessons resonate for me that might not be important for others. The artist and photographer Chuck Close said that photography is the medium in which it is easiest to become technically proficient but the hardest in which to distinguish your own personal style.  That’s a bit frustrating but ultimately true.  Along those lines I’d say that it is important to trust your intuition and to be quiet enough to listen to your own voice.  Shoot the things that interest you and that you want to shoot, even when everyone else in the world is questioning your judgment or telling you you’re crazy.  When you’re starting out, try a huge variety of different things.  But along the way do try to focus on something.  That is what is going to make great photographs.  For instance, you’ll never get the same quality of work by visiting a place for one day and shooting there that you will get if you stay for a while and develop a relationship with your subject(s).  Be diverse when you’re young and work towards specialization when you figure out what you like and what interests you.  You can still progress to new things.  But focus is essential to find truth in your work.

A photographer I admire taught me so much about working on portraits:  Don’t let people smile in portraits.  A smile is a construction and is not the face at rest.  If you encourage your models to be peaceful with their faces and to just be natural about how they’re standing, you’ll get much better stuff.  Don’t try to pose people.  No one knows better than you how to be you and how you move.  So don’t impose that on your models.  Let them be who they are.  Think about all of the family photographs you’ve ever seen on mantelpieces.  Everyone is looking happy and smiling.  But obviously, those smiling pictures probably bear very little relation to the true dynamic of that family and the people in those pictures.  So forget the smile and try to find something more true.

Absorb all of the visual art and literature that you can.  Inspiration is everywhere.  Don’t over-rely on equipment and gear. Sometimes having a shortage of something forces you to be innovative and produces a better result.  Never forget the mantra that no piece of camera equipment is as important as what is standing at the end of your lens.

How do you think we can make the world a better place?
I think that creative people are often put up on a pedestal, as if there is something rare and unique about them.  And while it is true that most people in the world don’t spend their time creating things, I think we could if we only put our minds to it.  I don’t think there is anything particularly special about me.  Everyone is born with the capacity for genius.  If we maybe focused on that a bit more we could make the world a better place.

Big Appetites is currently being shown at Winston Wächter Fine Art:
June 21 – August 24, 2012
Visit their site for details: www.winstonwachter.com

More about Christopher Boffoli and Big Appetites:

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