Artist 02: Beyond Disparity, Christopher Boffoli

The Big Appetites (formerly known as Disparity) series by Christopher Boffoli, a photography series which is ever-evolving, published online and in print, around the world in more than 60 countries. At first glance, the images were whimsical and even cute in a way. But as I studied the context, I couldn't help but wondered why most of the tiny human figures were either collecting or examining the food items. I reached out to Christopher. I was beyond ecstatic and honored for him to agree to a short interview. His responses to my questions not only helped me understand his work but I now have a deeper appreciation for his creative influences and points of view.

1. What inspired the Big Appetites series?

For a long time I have been interested in the concept of size disparity and juxtaposition of scales between people and the environment around them. It seemed to be a very popular device in television and movies that I saw as a kid in the late 70’s and early 80’s (like Sid and Marty Krofft’s show Dr. Shrinker, and films like The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Innerspace, etc.) Long before that, from the earliest days of cinema, filmmakers were exploiting the dramatic effects of having tiny characters fleeing from, say, horrifyingly giant insects. Of course, the concept goes back hundreds of years earlier, with the Lilliputians in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in the 18th century. It seems at once a timeless and versatile theme, whether employed for a summer movie or social satire circa 1726. There is something about this concept of size disparity that people find compelling.

Like many young boys, I built meticulously detailed scale models. I also had a large collection of Matchbox cars. When I was about eight, my father built a large model railroad in our basement. Everything about the train layout was incredibly detailed. It featured a complete town with electric lights and flashing railroad crossings. There was an almost god-like feeling of standing at the controls, orchestrating the animated pageant of this tiny world, rearranging everything at any capricious whim.

The notion of using of food as a backdrop seemed a natural choice. First, food can be very beautiful, colorful and has great textures, especially when photographed with macro lenses. But beyond that, food, like toys, is one of the most common things in just about every culture in the world...across languages and social status. Everyone on earth has played with toys and eaten food from the very earliest age. So combining these two elements in a way that plays with scale has obviously been a very powerful platform for telling a story and presenting an idea.

In the time since these images have gone viral around the world, I have become aware of other artists who use scale figures very similar to mine in similar ways. It does not surprise me at all as, again, the elements of the work are very common and widely available. But I was not aware of any of these artists when I did the bulk of the work on this series. Disparity was inspired more by the brilliant work of Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz who used small figures in snow globes in their "Travelers" series. I also saw some Chapman Brothers dioramas at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2003 that inspired this work.

2. How do you envision each photograph?

Do you sketch and plan out the composition before going into the photoshoot? Generally, the work starts with the ideas. I'll think about what foods I want to photograph. And I take account of what figures I might want to use and what the context might be. If the figure is working in some way (mowing grass, using a jack-hammer) I'll think of what set-up might work best. If the figure is just a man or woman standing still, I'll think about what clever quote might give the situation context and humor. Sometimes I will sketch out the elements first. More often, I'll set up the food and then work the figures around what looks good in the frame.

I try to work with foods that are in season as it has to look good and be fresh. I'll check out the local farmer's market to see what is just in from the farms. Then I'll take it back to my studio and will cut and style it. The figures are placed and positioned. I'll often have to make changes once I look through the camera to frame the shot. Sometimes the figures fall over and need to be adjusted. I try to use available light as much as possible but will add light (usually from off camera slaves) as needed. Sometimes I'll do several set-ups over the course of a few hours. Other times I'll just do one or two. Sometimes I change the figures in the middle of a set-up if things aren't working out as I had planned.

There is a lot of cheating in commercial food photography. For instance, white glue is substituted for milk because it looks whiter than real milk. But everything in my work is real and is edible. The camera is attached to a laptop while I am working so I can see the images on a larger screen than the small one on the back of the camera. Lighting adjustments are easier that way too. I will shoot dozens of frames most times, adjusting the lighting and position of the figures as I go until I get something I'm relatively happy with. But there is no such thing as an ideal image. It is only ideal in your head. The execution of the art is always less perfect in some way than the idea.

3. Are there underlying messages in these photographs?

Well, on the surface the images are intended to be whimsical, surprising and funny. Personally, I'm almost more interested in how people react to them than I am in projecting a message. But the deeper message from the work as a whole is a comment on the complex relationship we Americans have with food. Compared with the rest of the world, most Americans have access to more food choice than we know how to deal with. In 2011 we're exposed to more multiculturalism than ever before. We have television networks dedicated to nothing but food and bookstores filled with a constant supply of new cookbooks. But despite this embarrassment of riches, too many of us paradoxically rely on over-processed foods that lack nutrition. And we're disconnected with the toll that the industrialization of our food supply takes on the environment. Someone might look at an image of a tiny figures, collecting chocolate crumbs beside pieces of chocolate five times their height, and say "I wish I were those men so I could tunnel through that piece of chocolate." But in reality we'd get sick of chocolate awfully fast. Still, in a sense we have the option to over-fill ourselves with our favorite foods at the same time most of the people in the rest of the world scramble for a minimum amount of calories.

4. Which cameras and equipment do you use for this series?

This series has been shot with Canon digital cameras (most currently, with a pair of Canon EOS 5D Mark II bodies and a 100mm 2.8 macro lens). But there is nothing remarkable about the camera equipment that makes it any more suited to this project than any other rig might be.

5. Besides Big Appetites, you also shoot around the world, which country has been the most inspiring to you and why?

That's a tough question because every place is remarkable in some way. Each place can have a quality of light, influenced by things like smoke, dust and moisture, that gives it a unique look and feel. Generally, I appreciate places that offer the farthest experience from being Westernized. Even parts of China these days are getting too full of Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC's. It is always great to find a place that has managed to preserve its own identity and its own aesthetic. If you asked me this question last year at this time I may have answered Morocco or Jordan. But I have to say my travels through Burma last autumn (just before their elections) was among the most marvelous. The country and its people made a powerful impression.

6. What are some future projects that we can anticipate from you?

I'm continuing work on this series, though even with that said it is such a small part of my total creative output. I think I'm generally reticent to discuss what comes next. There is a great line in the book "Out of Africa" where Karen Von Blixen wrote something like, "The world was made round on purpose so that we can never see very far over the horizon." I have always really loved that idea. And I think that philosophy suits me just fine.

7. What is photography to you?

Well to start simply, to me photography is just one of a number of creative outlets. Just one medium. From a very early age it was words that were my most dominant means of expression. But that might just be due to the fact that while five year old boys can be trusted with big fat red pencils , they are generally not issued cameras. Sometimes my camera is an incredible tool, capturing and preserving moments in time that my eyes cannot. At other times it has been something to hide behind. Or a burden as I trek across the world with heavy, expensive equipment that I need to charge and clean and off-load of images. Successful photography is sheer luck as much as it is skill. Despite all of the time and experience I have I am still not completely sure why some images work and others don't. Photography can be a source of pride as I create images that can inspire and move others. It can be a source of frustration as I long for the images that I saw with my eyes but missed with my camera. I can also be (as careful as I try for it not to be) a means of exploitation. I often walk the streets of the developing world holding a camera rig that would exceed the lifetime income of some of my subjects and I create images (a commodity) that I go home and sell. Photography can sometimes get in the way of true experiences. I sometimes have to remind myself to stop shooting and remember to enjoy the moment.... to look at something with both eyes instead of holding a device in front of my face and seeing it with one. Photography is, by chance and accident, the way I have gained the greatest notoriety, something that should never be a priority for a true artist. The painter Chuck Close said that photography is a medium in which it is easiest to become proficient but the hardest by which to distinguish your own personal style. So for that reason and many more, photography continues to be something that is a struggle, a comfort, a truth-telling power and a burden all rolled into one.

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