11 questions with artist Peter Tonningsen

The 11 Question Interview Series continues with Peter Tonningsen sharing his thoughts on art, work, and photography. Learn more about  the artist and visit pivotartgallery to see his featured portfolio.


1. Could you please give a brief bio about how you became interested in the arts?

Tonningsen - Flotsam & Jetsam

Travel and scuba diving sparked my passion for photography as I looked to it as a way to record places that I found unfamiliar or remarkable.  Disenchanted with a business career, I took a major trip abroad in the 80s where I made many photographs and did a lot of diving.  When I returned to the States I bought an underwater camera, thinking I would pursue studies in Marine Biology, but soon I became so enchanted with the medium that I gave up diving and went back to school to study photography, first at San Francisco City College, then SFAI where I earned a BFA in photography, then to San Jose State for my MFA.  It was graduate school that really cemented my commitment to and passion for fine art photography and art in general. That experience made me believe that art can be an enriching raison d’être


2. Do you have artistic/creative role models? Are you a role model to other artists?

I have many creative role models.  Most come from the field of photography and they change constantly as I view new work and meet new photographers.  Some teachers impacted my early development, especially Hank Wessel, Linda Connor, Jack Fulton, Robin Lasser, and Brian Taylor; however, teaching has been arguably my greatest source of mentorship and inspiration.  I truly enjoy talking about and sharing photographs and that ongoing dialog greatly shapes and reshapes my creative approach.  Students continually influence how I see and think and I am renewed by their abundant enthusiasm. Teaching is an interplay that requires that I stay informed about contemporary concepts, so I am constantly looking at new work and mining visual ideas.  The photo community in general also has a huge influence on me.  Photography is fortunate to have an active community that shares ideas, influences and images like no other medium.  Organized portfolio events, such as PhotoLucida or Fotofest are important venues for fostering this community, as are my local community and colleagues, and there are a significant number of interesting blogs and online resources that I regularly peruse for inspiration.  I hope that my work and guidance helps others rethink the medium too.

3. What is most satisfying to you about the creative process in general?

Discovery, invention, and the sense of participation in an intellectual, purposeful and meaningful pursuit.

4. How has your work developed over the years?

I look more and more to personal experience and how I can disrupt what I am comfortable with or have done before.  I care less about how others perceive my work and more about how it satisfies me.  I stay closer to home, using what is near and dear as subject matter, increasingly appreciating the virtue of the vernacular and provincial.

5. What do you learn through your work?

How to see more acutely and embrace what comes to me through the creative process (as opposed to trying to force or fabricate it.). A good dose of humility too.

6. How do you feel about contemporary art in the east bay as it relates to the broader art world?

Tonningsen - Mom's House

I’m not sure how to answer this question, whether you are asking about the types and content of art in the East Bay or if you are talking about the market.  As a viewer, I try not to make such distinctions, preferring to just look and respond to what I see, although I’ll admit that at times it can feel parochial and partisan.   As a maker, especially one positioned as a regional artist, East Bay art feels under supported and under appreciated.  It is a struggle to be recognized or attain opportunities amongst tremendous competition and this is exasperated by the fact that I am a poor schmoozer and promoter.   Expanding to broader markets beyond the Bay Area mystifies me even more.


7. You work primarily in photography and digital imaging. What is it about these creative mediums specifically that you are drawn to?

What appeals to me most about photography is that it is fundamentally about description and how you can arrange that visual specification within the frame.  Gary Winogrand coined the aphorism “When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.” I’m captivated by this subjectivity and the challenge of composing within those boundaries.  As far as digital imaging, I am drawn to its flexibility, immediacy, editing and layering potential, and the range of processes it entails.

8. Though in a larger sense, most art can be seen this way, do you see your work as autobiographical?

Absolutely.  The more specific I can make my work to my experiences, the more satisfying it is for me and the more potentially interesting (and ironically, universal) it is for an audience.  Personal perspective is what engages me in art, so I presume that is what engages others too. Something that is simply popular or stylish or from a conventional perspective is often just decorative and pedantic and thus at risk of being more easily dismissed

9. You investigate ideas in series rather than in single images. Do you have a specific reason for working this way?

I believe series allow for deeper introspection and innovation, which is the point of art in my view.  In photography, it’s not so hard to make one interesting picture, it can even happen by accident, but to do repeat it with purpose and eloquence is an entirely different matter.

10. What is the most important thing you want viewers to come away from your work with?

To be moved or emoted visually: to delight in how I have framed or presented a subject and share that sense the beauty and discovery that stimulated me.

Tonningsen - Quadratic Equations

11. What can you add that would help us understand you and/or your work better?

I suppose it might interest some that I feel lost a great deal of the time, which I suspect is common to many artists as part of the fun and reward of making art is discovering what direction to take.



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