• 07.31.13

Why This Photog Sets His Negatives Ablaze

He’s not protesting, or even erasing the evidence: Photographer Peter Hoffman burns film negatives to make an environmental statement.

Back in 2010, the photographer Peter Hoffman attended an artists’ workshop. The BP oil spill had recently occurred off the Gulf of Mexico, and it got Hoffman thinking about oil and water: “These substances are symbolic,” he tells Co.Design. “Water means things like purity, healing, nourishment. Oil, to me, is reminiscent of destruction, consumption and greed.” The artist was, at the time, also looking for a way to create a more chaotic, less prescribed kind of photography.


The result is a series called Fox River Derivatives, and it’s layered with metaphors. On film, Hoffman took classic landscape portraits of the Fox River (near his home in Illinois), chosen for its banks that are partly commercialized, partly untouched by man. He douses the developed negatives in small amounts of gasoline, and ignites. “The process only lasts a few seconds…but it’s not controlled on a micro level, and that’s part of the beauty of it.” (Perhaps not surprisingly, Hoffman says he scrapped a lot of negatives–“burnt to a crisp”–at the beginning).

Artists often create from their surroundings, and they often craft work with an eco-political message. But Hoffman’s iridescent pieces (some even resembling oil slicks themselves) come with a novel dose of self-awareness–and perhaps a helping of guilt: “In a sense I feel helpless,” he says. “I created toxic smoke in transforming the negatives. I consumed both petroleum and water in making the prints. The prints are for sale; they are a commodity, because I need to pay my rent…they are part of the cycle of consumerism.”

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.