Q&A: Christopher Boffoli

“My work is designed to be funny, surprising and a little bit snarky.”

When are you happiest? I’m not sure that a state of happiness is something that I’m all that familiar with. For me it is more about alternating between a state of contentment or stress. But with that said, and recognising that the creative process can by trying, I often feel happy (or at least satisfied) when I have created something – a story, a video, an image – that I know is good.

What is the best part of your job? Using the word ‘job’ is a bit of an awkward construction for me at this point as I left my career (in Philanthropy) behind in 2005 and since that time have never worked regular hours in an office. What started as a creative sabbatical without much of a plan has, very much by surprise, turned into me making an actual living as a visual artist. I often think about how fortunate I am to be in my studio working while I see people looking grim as they’re commuting off to their jobs to sell insurance or do whatever else it is people have to do to maintain the lives they think they want. Certainly, being able to do what I love and make a living from it has definitely got to be up there. But if I had to choose the one best thing I would say it is the freedom to work, play or travel whenever I want. I mean, who knows how long my art career will last and what I’ll do later in life if I don’t have a retirement fund. Though I doubt I’ll regret being able to enjoy complete freedom during the bulk of my young, healthy years.

And the worst? Copyright infringements. This is something I’m dealing with constantly and it bothers me for a number of reasons. First, I should say that I’m genuinely flattered and humbled when people connect with and enjoy my work. But I just don’t know why certain people feel the need to take large numbers of my images and republish them without asking. The worst of these situations is when it is about a website taking my content for free and using it to generate traffic or advertising revenue for themselves. As much as I appreciate the open nature of the internet, I think it is an unfortunate thing that there is a sense of entitlement among many that content should be free. I just don’t understand why any artist (musician or filmmaker) should work to create something if some stranger, or corporate entity, can come along and take it without permission. I often hear that “exposure” is the reason why artists should embrace this. But I’m from New England and I was always taught that exposure is something you can die of.

I’m a working artist trying to support myself and my studio. My work has value and should not automatically be treated as if it is in the public domain. Above all, the worst part is that in the United States – a nation known for its culture of innovation – so many of us have become so derivative. I see this from top to bottom as Hollywood studios constantly turn out sequels and retread old television concepts rather than take risks on new and original ideas. And there are millions of people who spend time on websites like Tumblr and Pinterest squandering endless hours aggregating the content of others while creating nothing new or original of their own. I wish people would be more mindful of how finite time really is and how their own unique point of view is so much more valuable than just regurgitating the ideas of others.

Ice Cream Sandwich Monolith. © Christopher Boffoli

Ice Cream Sandwich Monolith. © Christopher Boffoli

Describe your typical day There is no typical day for me. When I’m home in Seattle and not traveling across the world somewhere, I’m either spending time creating new work in the studio or managing the work I’ve already created. A day’s work might include answering interviews, negotiating with an art director about an editorial commission, or managing production of photographs for orders from galleries. My work is represented by galleries in Seattle, New York, Toronto and London at this point so I’m very fortunate that there always seems to be a steady stream of interest from collectors. Beyond that I have a book (Big Appetites) coming out later this year from Workman Publishing in New York so there has been a lot of work to do recently for that. Above all I’m a pretty tech savvy person so I always try to stay connected and on top of e-mail. But that’s not to say that my schedule still isn’t flexible enough that I can’t pop down to the nearby beach whenever I feel like it. Also, putting on my photojournalist hat for a moment, I sometimes will help to respond to breaking news stories in my neighbourhood. So in general there isn’t enough time in any day. Boredom is an emotion that I rarely experience.

Tell us one thing you can’t live without A question like this seems to beg a flippant answer: water, oxygen, sleep. Or the typical: coffee, chocolate. But having traveled a lot in the developing world I have to say that I’m inclined to look at it conversely and marvel at how little people need to live. Having been born and raised in North America, where we have a minority of the world’s population but consume a majority of the world’s resources, I think it would be irresponsible to look at it in any other way. I’m at the age where a lot of my friends are having babies and I see them going out and buying massive SUVs and mountains of stuff with lots of disposable packaging. Meanwhile, about 750 million people in China are living on less than $2 a day. It’s a remarkable disparity.

Who is your hero? Martha Graham. Considering that she’s one of the greatest artists of the 20th century I don’t think she is as well known as she should be. I was exposed to her work just a couple of years after she died. I’m probably one of the least coordinated, non-dancer people on Earth and I know very little of the dance world. But seeing her work performed moves me in a profound and surprising way. I’m still not sure why. There is much to admire, not only in the body of work she created but in her life story, in what she sacrificed for her art. She overcame self-doubt and defied everyone who told her she would not succeed. In the process she invented a new language of movement that indelibly altered everything that came after her. It is generally regarded that in photography there are no great depictions of dance. And actually, Martha Graham worked for most of her life to prevent her performances from being recorded on film. However, one of the rare exceptions if the work that Barbara Morgan did with Graham in the 1940’s. I have a print of Morgan’s “Martha Graham, Letter to the World” photograph in my office and it inspires me every day.

You’re holding a fantasy dinner party – who’s coming? I guess most people would stack the guest list with amazing people like Einstein, Gandhi, Picasso, etc. But I have to say that it would be so great to have all of my grandparents and maybe even my great-grandparents back together for a meal. I only have one surviving grandmother left at this point and I’m very lucky because she’s in amazing health. But I miss the ones I’ve lost.

If you could live in a fantasy foodscape, what would it be and why? Probably something resembling a fruit bowl as fruit smells great and has wonderful, shapes, textures and color. Nature always gets colours right. They never clash. And I think tree fruit is a perfect example of that.

If we could take three messages from your photographs, what would they be? Well my work is designed to be funny, surprising and a little bit snarky. And there definitely is an angle towards exposing America’s sometimes dysfunctional relationship with food: with our oversized portions, our industrial production of food and the problems that causes for human health and the environment, and our proclivities for food spectatorship. But above all I think it is important for me to shut up, get out of the way and let the work speak for itself. While art certainly needs to have a context, people should be left to find their own way into the work.

Complete the sentence: “The meaning of food is…” The meaning of food is something that seems simple but is actually quite complex. Because we’re all so familiar with food and are exposed to it for our entire lives, we assume that we have this level of expertise about it when food actually encompasses much more than most of us consider. Obviously there’s the basic sustenance of food. But there are also the issues of emotional comfort, cultural identity, social class and economics, the environmental aspects of food production, government policies like food subsidies, and the list goes on. In the scope of my work food is something that allows me to engage and entertain while also using it as a gateway to explore some deeper issues.

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