Behind the Lens, An Interview with Virginia Hoffman

In her upcoming exhibition, Hoffman showcases her images of the unusual, the ordinary, ignored and rejected unintentional still lives she has collected from her expeditions on the region’s back roads far away from her studio.

Most likely you already know who she is, and if not well now is your chance to meet Virginia Hoffman. From public sculpture, to advocating, to writing, to exhibitions, if it’s related to the visual arts in Sarasota, there is a really good chance Virginia Hoffman has been involved in some form or fashion.
As resident of Sarasota for over 40 years, Hoffman, has been a first hand witness to the ever-changing visual landscape of this community and Florida. In her upcoming exhibition, Florida in Context, opening March 1st, Hoffman showcases her images of the unusual, the ordinary, ignored and rejected unintentional still lives she has collected from her expeditions on the region’s back roads far away from her 6th Street Studio. Below, Tim Jaeger interviews Hoffman about her subject matter, digital imaging, and her advice.

"Citrus Growers House" featured image for exhibition, a remnant of the citrus industry of the past, possibly a home to the workers who toiled there.
“Citrus Growers House” featured image for exhibition, a remnant of the citrus industry of the past, possibly a home to the workers who toiled there.

sVA: What is it about the subject matter of this exhibition that you find appealing?

VH: Having grown up in Florida with a natural urge to explore I’ve always found the unbeaten paths of this state alluring.

From hiking deep into the jungle of the Fakahatchee Strand, old abandon factories (which I call indigenous polluters) to abandon cracker houses intact with the possessions of the last occupants.

All has its own special narrative but to read that one must ponder what you see by getting up close.

sVA: What do you want your audience to walk away with?

VH: An appreciation for the Old Florida and how it exists in our current time with all its rustic charm and decaying beauty.

sVA: How long did it take to collect these images?

VH: Been capturing these sorts of images since I was a teen-ager but this exhibition consists of a collection of images taken within the last two years and within a days drive from Sarasota.

sVA: When did you realize that you wanted old Florida to be your subject matter?

VH: Last year, I spent a week in the Big Cypress Swamp with my husband. During this trip I captured many environmental landscapes, but after returning from a long trip into the swamp I came upon a failed development in the midst of all that beauty, the irony of failing economy I assumed. Before me sat a man made lake, an old dilapidated construction trailer, with barren land that had been scraped to sandy dirt as far as the eye could see. A rainstorm was coming on so I snapped some quick images of an abandon dragline and crushed galvanize culvert pipes. When I got these images into my computer and started to process them I realized before me were two iconic images representing the destructive character of urban sprawl. I call these sort of images “Boom and Bust Relics” This is when I realized there subtle message of presenting images in a fine art context would be a subtle message in support of historical preservation, smart growth and awareness of a disappearing old Florida heritage. Subtle but profound, there are two pieces in the exhibition called “Dead Elephants” and “Boom and Bust Relic” were shot at this Everglades epiphany.

"Dead Elephants" Relics of the boom & bust development evident all over Florida they start, the stop they leave barren land and relics behind. This image was taken on the edge of the  Fakahatchee Strand .
“Dead Elephants” Relics of the boom & bust development evident all over Florida they start, the stop they leave barren land and relics behind. This image was taken on the edge of the Fakahatchee Strand .

sVA: When you look through the viewfinder, what are you looking for?

VH: I never look for my subjects through the viewfinder. I see what is before me, taking it all in and then I decide what view intrigues me. I always work a shot; examine all of its potential. I never am really sure what I have until I look more closely later on. The best images are generally a surprise, a discovery.

sVA: How do you feel about the incorporation of digital imaging into photography? How has it changed your take on the art of photography?

VH: Digital photography is its own universe with many doors and paths towards creative expression. A person can be very superficial and capture random accidental images, which have a special allure, which I liken to outsider art. Then you can go all the way to the masters who capture amazing images technological unavailable to analog photographers.

I’ve done both and love both, but digital is now my obsession with it’s an endless universe of possibilities.

sVA: Of the many places you’ve photographed, what makes Florida so special to you?

VH: Florida is a secretive subject, it only tells you what you want to hear, but if you look beneath its surface beyond the interstate you can find a diverse terrain unique in north American and a renegade heritage that threads its way to the here and the now.

sVA: What advantages (if any) do you see in working with black and white photography?

VH: As an artist who creates sculpture I look at photography in that way. I am not really capturing my subject par say, I am capturing the light. The way I choose to look at the light in my minds eye is simply sculpting with light. I try to emulate this in my photography and black and white and all the new methods for expresses this classic genera this is my favorite challenge. I believe to fully understand your subject you must view it in monochrome.

sVA: Have you missed any images and kicked yourself for it?

VH: Happens every dusk and dawn when I am not out to shoot the glory.

sVA: What mistakes do you believe are made by newcomers to photography? What advice would you give?

VH: Take your camera off of automatic, turn off your flash, and take the time to learn how to work your camera. Even the simplest camera is capable of great work, explore the plethora of free and readily available information on the Internet and in no time your ability to capture memories in a more profound manner will evolve.

"Willow Bridge"  Abandon railroad trestle bridges left to decay, sits today with the natural patina of time, unmarred by graffiti and beer cans due to its remote location.
“Willow Bridge” Abandon railroad trestle bridges left to decay, sits today with the natural patina of time, unmarred by graffiti and beer cans due to its remote location.

Presented by The Sarasota County History Center, Florida in Context, a photography exhibition by Sarasota-based artist Virginia Hoffman, is March 1-31, at Sarasota County Visitor Information Center and History Center Museum, 701 North Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. An opening reception with the artist is Friday, March 1, 5:30-7:30 p.m. A portion of sales will be donated to the Friends of Sarasota County History Center. For more information, call 941-400-5217.

Sarasota County Visitor Information Center and History Center Museum
701 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, FL 34236

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