Island arts: Photographer Peter Tonningsen
Peter Tonningsen’s passion for photography was sparked by travel. “I was delighted with the process of discovery inherent to the medium; the hunting, wandering, or seeking out of pictures, basically trying to find a unique perspective and make a picture better than your last,” Tonningsen said.
A native of Alameda, Tonningsen, 48, left to attend college at the University of Oregon, where he earned a degree in accounting and finance (and met his wife of 24 years). Following short careers as a CPA and business owner, he did some travel and soul searching and decided to go back to school to study photography, at the San Francisco Art Institute and San Jose State University. He returned to Alameda in 1996, in part to raise his boys, Dylan and Seth, here. “The location, the island geography, and the experiences of returning to my hometown all greatly influence my artwork,” he said.
Tonningsen has been teaching as an adjunct photography instructor at The Academy of Art University since 2001 and has also been an artist-in-residence at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley since 2006. He is also the recipient of the Phelan Art Award in Photography, which recognizes significant California born artists.
His new show, “Descent,” opens today at A Different Day Gallery, 1233 Solano Ave., Albany. The opening reception is from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, April 3 and the show runs though May 1. He won the solo exhibit, by the way, as the grand prize winner of the gallery’s 2008 national juried competition. The gallery will donate 10 percent of all sales from the exhibit to the Golden Gate Audubon Society.
ORIGINS: Traveling initially sparked my passion for photography, as I was interested in the photograph as document, souvenir, and even as a trophy of experiences. When I was contemplating a career change from business, I was doing a lot of diving and had thoughts of pursuing marine biology. This led me to buying a few underwater cameras, which eventually led me back to school to learn to take better pictures and from that path I developed a love of fine art photography, eventually losing interest in diving to pursue photography full time.
EVOLUTION: Most of my initial influences were Modernists and I looked at photography primarily as a way of documenting the world in a clear, precise and straightforward manner. As my knowledge of photography developed however, I learned that it is much broader than this traditional approach and I gravitated toward work that looked to express personal experience or perspective. It made a lot of sense to me to focus on what was near and close to home and consequently my career evolved to emphasize this. Teaching photography and photo history also keeps me looking at a lot of photographs, so I am constantly presented with ideas.
OVERARCHING THEMES: This region, its environment, a mixing of history with contemporary ideas and imagery, what defines a photographic document, and personal experience to name a few.
YOUR CURRENT SHOW: For about a year I had been collecting found objects from the Alameda and Oakland shorelines of San Francisco Bay for my project “Flotsam & Jetsam” as a way of examining (its) condition, use and evolution. From this process, I was developing a growing interest in the general notions of collection and categorization. A friend who works at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology noted the parallel between these interests and the vast collections there and invited me to come photograph these specimens. I seized the opportunity as I have always been drawn to the mystique of science and I found the researchers and scholars working here to be very encouraging and interesting people, committed to all sorts of evolutionary study. I wanted to somehow translate all the excitement and wonder I discovered here into something visual.
THE MESSAGE: This artwork honors these dead creatures and the history archived in this collection. The fact that these specimens all had lives and were part of this world, with particular histories, is easily lost in such scientific scrutiny. These specimens and records are all sequestered away in drawers, boxes and journals and such, numbered, categorized and splayed, available primarily for the purpose of evolutionary study, so I sought to bring forth some of the beauty and implied stories inherent in this archive. I like how forlorn some of these pictures feel, as if we can sense the burden or expanse of the bird’s life displayed before us.
THE METHOD: Most of it was captured by direct scan. I have been exploring the use of a flatbed scanner for a couple years now and am excited about how this tool challenges our notions of what a photograph is and can be.
I SEE PICTURES OF ALAMEDA …: I completed a series of mixed-media works combining contemporary images of the Alameda and Oakland tubes with images and blueprints from their initial construction in the 1920s. I have an ongoing series I call STEPS in which I am methodically counting the number of steps I take while wandering the streets of Alameda in search of compelling pictures. Each picture is made with a pinhole camera and is designated by a number representing the total number of steps I have made in the project up to the point of making that particular picture. I made a series on the abandoned building interiors of the formal Naval Air Station and I also have a small series of pictures of the interior of the USS Hornet.
WHAT’S NEXT?: I am looking ahead to PhotoLucida, a promotional conference on photography in Portland that I plan to attend in mid-April. Also, I just released three self-published books (for sale) through Blurb.com. I plan to continue working at MVZ for a while, now looking at herptiles and mammals. I also have made several images over the years that I would characterize as ghostly or apparitional and I look forward to trying to better develop this series of pictures. Finally, I hope to extend my “Flotsam & Jetsam” work into the public art realm with the aid of some grant opportunities.