TODD HIDO: “Art of Darkness” (2006)



Todd Hido: Art of Darkness

By Justin Berton, February 1, 2006

From the outside, Todd Hido’s home looks perfectly normal. You might even pass it by without a second thought. Hido lives in a warm-blue Rockridge dwelling with his wife, Nina, and their three-year-old twins, Owen and Audrey. The neighborly artifice has all the broad strokes of a Rockwellian unit: A family sedan parked at the curb; a patch of grass scattered with toys; a pair of tricycles tossed across the front porch.

Despite the facade, Hido is a fine art photographer best known for his assault on such tidy wrappings. In 2001, when Hido was 34 and a recent graduate of Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts, he published his first monograph, entitled House Hunting. In its simplest form, the book was a collection of suburban homes photographed at night and with long exposures. In most of the images the only light source comes from inside the home, and often it’s the pale blue haze from a lone television set — a suggestion that someone is home, but perhaps tuned out from reality. The book’s overall comment was unsettling: It revealed an entire world of houses that appeared somehow haunted despite their perfectly manicured front lawns. House Hunting became an art world sensation. Critics from the San Francisco Chronicle to the New York Times praised the young artist for capturing the emptiness that crept through the suburban landscape. If Rockwell convinced us that home was a comfort zone, Hido (pronounced Hi-dough) flipped the wisdom on its head. Through his lens, suburban dwellings were cold places where secrets were kept, lies were told, and terrible things occurred — especially at night. “Todd’s eerie photographs of American houses have changed the way we define the word ‘home,’” wrote Sheri McKenzie, vice president of enrollment at CCAC.

Seven years later no one in the art world disputes that claim. Hido, who grew up in the ‘burbs of Kent, Ohio, takes the praise in stride. Underneath, he’s a humble Midwesterner, reluctant to speak of himself in such esteemed terms. Yet he also possesses the peculiar mannerisms of a true art geek, one who’s most at home in a darkroom, poring over contact sheets during the wee hours. His friends describe him as single-minded and driven. “All of this,” Hido said one day in his studio, “has actually been a slow and steady process. To an outsider, it may look like it was an overnight thing … But one of my projects has always built off another and led to another.”

Since House Hunting Hido’s career has ascended steadily even as his subject matter has gotten more opaque. His follow-up monograph, Roaming, was a collection of dreary landscape shots taken through his car windshield. Again, it earned him the acclaim of a seminal artist. “Rising star Todd Hido is a genius,” wrote Rangefinder, a respected art photo magazine. “His ability to look at our everyday environment and infuse it with a magical still-life quality, even while he’s moving, is part of his magic.”

Today, an original Hido print fetches as much as $10,000, and some reside in the permanent collections at SFMOMA, the Whitney, and New York’s Guggenheim. He’s one of the few U.S. photographers who can aim his lens toward the seemingly mundane — the backdoor of a house, a winding road, a wet telephone pole — and have it lauded as high art, the starting point for a broad discussion of the human condition.

In January, however, Hido surprised some of his longtime admirers by changing his subject matter. He shipped off the prints for his latest book, tentatively titled Dark Quarters, which includes some of his trademark house studies, but also something new: Human beings.

The artist, who has made his name internationally from photographs that are conspicuously absent of people, has spent the last year clicking nude portraits of women in shabby motel rooms around the Bay Area. The images represent a mid-career gamble for Hido. Nudes are rarely the stuff an art maven will drop $10K for, much less if they contain elements of erotica, which Hido’s do. Or, perhaps, the art world will again hail Hido’s ability to capture the dramatic tensions inherent in the body, just as he did with households.

San Francisco gallery owner Stephen Wirtz, whose early support helped launch Hido’s career, sounded cautious after viewing the nude shots recently. “They’re really new for me so I’m not sure where I’m coming in from,” Wirtz says. “I don’t know that I’ve resolved how I feel about them nor do I know if Todd has.”

Hido still heads out on a house hunt a few nights each month. Around ten o’clock one Tuesday night in November, the photographer drove toward his favorite neighborhood in Pacifica. It was cold and rainy — perfect weather. Hido had just tucked his twins into bed and packed his wife’s car with a medium-format camera, tripod, and a bag of Kodak color film. He usually hauls sandbags to steady the tripod, but he’d left those behind in his own car. On some nights Hido cruises four or five hours and never gets out of the car. Since he got successful, he admits, those nights have become more frequent. “A lot of the times I’m editing in the field as I go,” the photographer said as he steered through the maze of potential homes. “I’ll see a house and think, ‘But how is it going to add to my body of work?’ And that’s dangerous. A lot of times I just won’t take it.”

To combat the malaise, Hido has to remind himself of what it was like to be young and hungry for opportunity. “I got all those pictures from not knowing what was going to happen, and just shooting,” he says. “So recently, I’ve been talking myself back into just going for it, instead of thinking, ‘Oh, I know how that’s going to turn out.’”

Hido parked alongside a two-story corner house. A light from a back window on the top floor had caught his eye. The neighborhood was a great relic, stuck in an architectural time machine that reminded Hido of Levittown, New York, the nation’s first suburb. “One time I remember coming up here in the summer, right when I got out of grad school, and this neighborhood was socked in with fog,” Hido recalled. “I couldn’t even see across the street. I remember coming out of the flatlands and hitting this fog and it was just the most surreal and creepy neighborhood I’d ever seen. It had all the right combinations. I remember seeing that for the first time and just being blown away by it all … that sort of changed everything.”

It was Hido’s closest thing to an Eureka Moment. In a fit of artistic inspiration, he worked for five hours straight, he said, then returned to the darkroom with something obscure but accessible — something he was excited about. The homes he’d shot were much like the ones he’d grown up in, and the natural lighting gave the work a mysterious aesthetic. He liked the distanced quality of the images: The artist was there, and yet he wasn’t — a silent voyeur.

 

 

Outside the Pacifica house, Hido got out of the car and loaded his film in the darkness, barely looking down — he’s set up his gear in the dark thousands of times, and sometimes in driving rain or snowstorms. He mounted the camera to the tripod and pitched its legs in what seemed like one expert motion. Since Hido has extremely poor eyesight, and wears both contacts and eyeglasses to compensate, he estimated that his camera’s lens was twenty meters from the house and focused it accordingly. The single window on the top floor cast a yellowish glow.

Hido looked through his viewfinder for barely a second before pulling out a miniature leveler to make sure his camera was true to the ground. He set the exposure at four minutes and used a handheld digital timer to remind him when time was up.

With everything set, Hido took a step back, lit a Parliament, and took a long look at the house.

The yellow light on the top floor went out.

Hido blew cigarette smoke from his mouth. “That happens,” he said, waiting a moment for the next step in the process.

A light on the bottom floor suddenly went on.

“Sometimes you can watch the people move through their house,” he said. “It’s interesting.”

Hido never introduces himself to the occupants or notifies them if he sells a shot of their home. Instead of titling his prints by location, he assigns each a number. So many people respond to his work by saying. “That looks like the house I grew up in,” that he doesn’t want to ruin their experience. “I like them to let their imagination take over and fill in the blanks,” he said.

As the digital timer ticked away, it was hard not to wonder about the people who lived in this blue two-story. Was someone home alone? Did a family live inside? What dark secret was the artist somehow capturing? “This is just the first step of the process,” Hido said. “After I develop it and start to work with the print, then the narrative will start to develop, too.”

Just then, the light on the bottom floor went out.

Now the house was entirely dark, threatening to waste the photograph. Hido turned his shoulder to the streetlight behind him and looked for a light source. He wasn’t about to give up.

A reddish glow shone down from the streetlight, across the street, up the lawn, up the fence, and up the side of the home. “It’s funny,” he said as he pointed to opposite ends of the street and found another light cutting through the fog, “there’s a green light there, and red light there, and it ends up mixing on the side of the house.”

The result was an unnamed color that clearly excited the artist. He seemed pleased to have captured it. “These are the happy accidents of photography,” he said.

Part of Hido’s success is based on his work’s appearance of simplicity. He’s able to dredge dark moods from nothing more than existing lighting and the will to stand across the street late at night. The lack of pretension in his images makes them seem like easy work to amateurs, but subtle and refined to fellow craftsmen.

Such artistic nuance never figured into Hido’s upbringing. “In college,” he said, “I took my parents on their first trip to a museum. Art just wasn’t in our culture.”

Hido lived “in one of these houses,” he said. He had little interest in school until he took a photo class, and calls his childhood somewhat troubled. “From an early age I wanted to know what other people lived like,” Hido said. “I guess I’ve always sort of felt like I was that kid, the one on the outside looking in.”

His true passion was BMX bike racing. By sixteen, he’d become a three-time state BMX champ, an accomplishment he’s still proud of. His family spent many weekends packed inside a van traveling across Ohio to his next race. Some of Hido’s first photos were ones he took of racing buddies. Around the same time, he discovered Rolling Stone and Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. “I thought “now that’s photography,” he said, a little amused.

A stint at a commercial photography school in Pittsburgh had the opposite influence. Although it seeded the darkroom and lighting skills that would later make him a technical virtuoso, the thought of shooting Heinz Ketchup bottles for a living pushed Hido toward the art world.

He moved on to Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts where, in the company of professionals, Hido earned a reputation as a fiercely dedicated and competitive student. “That’s the part that gives him his edge,” says Paul Palacios, a fellow SMFA student and longtime friend. “He came in as the new kid in town and quickly established himself as someone who is very good and devoted — a really serious photography student who was already on his way.”

A profound influence on Hido’s future aesthetic came about by way of chance. In one of his first classes, a teacher failed to show up and was replaced by Roy DeCarava, the famous Harlem photographer. It was a blessing. Hido recalls emerging from the darkroom and showing his prints to the demanding DeCarava, who would take one look and say, “Go back and make it darker.”

“A student’s tendency,” Hido explains, “is to go too light. Darker brings the image out, makes things more dramatic. ”

Hido’s early black-and-whites, according to his former instructor, photographer Larry Sultan, already were rife with “images of longing and homesickness.” The themes were appropriate for the times. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Sultan says, a new wave of art photographers was addressing the politics-of-identity quandary overtaking pop culture. Rather than shoot “the others” — the poor, the rich, the estranged — photographers turned the lens on themselves.

“Pictures from Home,” Sultan’s 1992 collection of portraits of his own parents in their West Coast neighborhood, left an impression on a young Hido. As Sultan recalls, notions of home and family were among the grand themes then being explored. As with grunge music, the apparent goal was to strip away the veneer of a happy-go-lucky life to reveal its coarse truths.

“Todd came to graduate school at a time when there were still boundaries between the documentary, and the staged, and the personal,” Sultan says. “At the time there was an attempt to dismantle all of that, and challenge it all.”

On this Pacifica evening, Hido seemed more tempted to dismantle his equipment. He’d already fought the instinct to leave his camera in the car, and out here in the cold he had to fight the boredom of waiting for his picture to expose. “From a long exposure the camera ultimately sees more than you do when you’re just standing here,” Hido offered between drags of his cigarette “All kinds of details and pleasant surprises come out in the picture. That’ll all comes out in the darkroom.”

Hido pointed to a light flickering inside a house in the distance. It was the blue fuzz of a TV set, his favorite kind of light. “Your eyes, right now, are tuned into this one thing. But when you get the photo back, you find things emerge that are there, that you just can’t see well when you’re actually looking at it. … That’s kind of the magic of photography I really like.”

“Hey,” a husky voice came from over the fence. “What are you guys photographing?”

“Oh,” Hido said kindly, “just photographing.”

“Why?”

“I’m an art photographer,” Hido explained. “I just do photos of suburban neighborhoods. Long-exposure stuff.”

“Well,” the guy said, “be careful. The cars come roaring through here.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

 

 

The guy walked back into his home, the very home Hido had been photographing as the lights went out. It was as if the guy had ordered a blackout so he could sneak up on the photographer. If there were any question of who actually lived in a Hido home, the man’s gruffness put it to rest.

Suddenly, he reappeared. “Say,” he said from behind his fence, “Grandma wants to know if you’re photographing her property.”

“Oh no,” Hido replied, fudging the truth. “We’re just photographing the sidewalk and stuff. Just this view down here.”

“Well, is there a business card I can show her? Grandma wants to know who’s out here doing what.”

While Hido searched his pockets the guy peered over the fence and took a good look at Hido’s gear and then down the street.

“Wow,” he said, admiring the view. “That is a cool photo.”

“Thank you,” Hido replied.

A few minutes later, finally satisfied, the guy marched back into his house.

“Grandma!” he yelled before he closed the door. “It’s okay.”

Silence returned to the street and a light on the bottom floor went back on.

“It’s so weird,” Hido said. “The final products look so different, I don’t know if anybody would really recognize their own place. Taking the picture is really just the starting point.

“In the very beginning,” he added, “I would kind of think about what was actually going on inside. These days I’m just more focused on getting the picture and actually getting it to work before they turn the light out.”

One afternoon in his office Hido opened a mock-up of his new book, Dark Quarters. This was exciting stuff for him, and he turned each page with care. “The sequencing is the hardest part,” he said as he studied the work. “I spend ninety percent of my time getting it just right. One new photograph can change everything.”

Hido will build an entire book around a single photograph. If he likes a particular print, he’ll frame it and put it on his desk for a month. On this particular day, more than a dozen framed prints cluttered his otherwise tidy office. If an image passes the test — each day offering the artist a new story line or at least compelling him somehow — then it’s book-worthy. If not, he scraps it.

The next step is to find the chosen print’s soul mate from among the others he’s deemed book-worthy. Once he has a pair he likes, he moves to the next page. For Hido, a constant tinkerer, one photograph really can change everything — he’s scrapped pages of book-worthy prints and hours of sequencing over one great image. His process is so tedious that it takes years of shooting to land a perfect set, much less a book. Hido keeps track of each roll of film — 5,022 as of this writing — “and of those, I actually like about five hundred images,” he said. With twelve shots per roll, that gives him a “like” rate of just 0.8 percent. “Todd is an incredibly focused and methodical person,” Sultan says. “He’s just got a remarkable way of following through and knowing what he wants.”

Hido’s former instructor recalls how as a student Hido would sometimes fit his own prints into photo books by the masters. “He was already plotting a strategy of how his own books would look,” Sultan recalls. “It was very prescient.”

When Hido completed House Hunting, he was still managing an apartment building in San Francisco to save on rent. His photographs had appeared in group shows staged by friends at nonprofit galleries in the Mission District. From one of those he landed an invite to another group show called “Bay Area Now” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where his work caught the eye of a San Francisco gallery owner named Stephen Wirtz.

Wirtz was struck by the “natural tension” that seemed to emerge from the images. He also felt Hido captured a refreshing view of suburbanites. “He was dealing with a sector of society that hadn’t been dealt with much,” the dealer recalls. “Traditionally, in fine art photography they deal with the rich or the poor — these people were neither.”

In the art world, suburbia typically is viewed with some degree of disdain. Hido sometimes gets lumped in with other suburban photographers, notably Bill Owens, who published the first major monograph on the topic, Suburbia, in 1972. Republished in 1999, Owens’ groundbreaking documentary now holds up as a subtle judgment against the lifestyle — a detached snicker at those who’ve chosen a life of mowing lawns and hosting Tupperware parties. Hido’s work, by contrast, seems to empathize with his subjects even though they’re nowhere to be found.

Wirtz sees Hido as the perfect silent observer, so nonjudgmental he forces the viewer to project his own narrative onto the photographs. “He allows your imagination to run wild,” Wirtz says. “No one is in his photos, but they are not barren photographs. It’s certainly not Ansel Adams.”

 

 

In a typical Hido image like #2690, a photo of a home behind a wooden fence, the fence becomes a wall, and the home a fortress — no one gets in or out alive. There’s nothing outwardly damning about the residence. Then again, there’s nothing inviting either, despite the fact there’s a light on, a traditional indication that it’s okay to walk up and knock on the door.

When Wirtz hosted Hido’s first one-man show it was so well received that an SFMOMA representative purchased all nineteen images for the museum. By that time, Hido had put out a companion piece to House Hunting titled Outskirts, whose deserted motel rooms and foreclosed homes meditated on the theme of abandonment. The buzz attracted Andy Grundberg, then photography critic for The New York Times, who later wrote about the young artist’s work for ArtForum International, perhaps the world’s closest-read art periodical.

“Hido doesn’t dwell on the sociological,” Grundberg wrote. “His interest, indicated by the care with which he modulates light and color, lies in the haunting quality of these spaces. In a sense, the photographs duplicate the banks’ seizure of the houses by repossessing them in the name of art.”

Not long after this article appeared, Larry Gagosian, a well-known New York gallery owner, purchased three prints. Even the matriarch of the philanthropic Haas family got in on the act. “There’s a whole stamp of approval that happens when you do well,” Hido said late one evening. “There’s a whole validation that happens. And then all of the sudden” — he shook his head in disbelief — “Evelyn Haas buys a picture.”

Gagosian’s purchases launched Hido beyond San Francisco’s art scene. By the arrival of Roaming, his collection of landscape shots, the artist’s prints hung inside fifteen US galleries, and his two first books were sold out. “I have to say I’m really lucky,” Hido said. “It ultimately comes from hard work, but the kind of pictures that I take, people are interested in buying them. And still, I have to think, why does anyone want to buy a picture of this funny-lookin’ house for their living room?”

That’s a valid question, and Hido now faces perhaps a more formidable one: Why would any serious collector pay thousands of dollars for a picture of a nude woman sprawled across a dirty motel mattress? After all, nudes are among the most common of photography subjects.

When Hido came to the first nude portrait in his new book, he paused and studied it again, as if for the first time. “These are so fascinating to me,” he said quietly. “I feel like an amateur again. Or at least an intermediate.”

For Hido, the stumbling feelings of a newbie are welcome. After honing his craft on the house shot, he’s been in search of a subject that makes him wake up eager to aim his lens again. Any artist worth his salt fights categorization, but perhaps none are so pigeonholed by the art market as America’s fine art photographers. Ansel Adams did national parks, Diane Arbus did freaks, Edward Weston did still lifes — and never shall they stray from that subject matter lest they jeopardize their livelihood, and their places in art history. Todd Hido therefore shall shoot houses.

“What I hear now is, ‘You do portraits?’” Hido said. “‘You shoot people?’ People like to put you in a box. On some level, to other people this might be a big deal. To me it’s an extension of what I do. The art world would love for you to do the same thing over and over and over again. ”

In some of Hido’s best work, art critics have noted that the photographer all but fades away entirely — and, as Sultan had hoped, the lines of documentary and staged and personal all blur together, leaving the viewer in a sea of emotions and undirected thought-lines. The viewer gets lost in the image much as a reader becomes engrossed in a great novel, left only to consider his or her own feelings about the subject.

But with portrait work, the photographer is always a presence. The models pose under his direction, and the viewer is aware of what’s been staged — the lines become clear, and the imagination may never get its chance to run wild.

One of Hido’s new portraits depicts a dripping wet, naked woman standing against a bare motel room wall. Her pubic hair is shaved and her pale white skin pocked with goose bumps. Black mascara drips down her face. She wears a vulnerable expression, afraid, perhaps the victim of a horrible aggression.

For an artist whose past work has been all about subtlety, this image feels like a punch to the face. For Hido fans, it’s like when Dylan went electric. The new images draw out more than just the viewer’s projections: Photos of wet, naked women in dirty motel rooms hardly challenge the narrative curiosity, especially when it’s a portrait and the viewer is aware of the photographer’s direction. “We’d just got done shooting, and she jumped in the shower,” Hido recalled. “I was reloading some of my film, and when she stepped out she was still wet and I just said, ‘Would you mind standing against the wall?’

“I like it,” Hido added as he looks at it closer. “It says, ‘Something just happened here, but you don’t know what.’”

As it is, directing models presents a new challenge. Hido says he purposely allowed for long, silent pauses with his models to catch them unguarded. Startled is the best way to describe some of their expressions in Dark Quarters.

“There’s a tension that comes from not directing a person,” Hido explained. “That tension makes for good pictures.”

“This is an extension of Todd’s work,” notes Sultan, who has viewed the new photos and offered his critiques. “He’s been doing portraits since he was in college and now he’s returned to it. Even though the art world may see it differently, this is really the same themes.”

When art dealer Wirtz sold out of Hido’s “House Hunting” prints, he was curious to see the market’s response to the photographer’s follow-up work with landscapes. “Was he a Johnny One Note?” Wirtz asks. “It was a good question at the time. Now, I think, with the landscapes and the portraitures, he’s filling in this whole world of his. He’s showing us more of the narrative.”

Yet Wirtz, who also has seen the new photographs, is still unsure what to make of them or how they’ll go over with clients when he hosts a show later this year. “I’m certainly not negative to them,” he says. “I’m just not sure where the strength lies in the work.”

On a quiet Sunday night around nine o’clock, Hido walked the three dark blocks from his home to work on some prints in the California College of the Arts photo lab — the artist now teaches at his old school, which has dropped the “crafts” from its name. He’d put his children to bed and now was his time to work. He’d hired a former student, Whitney Hubbs, to handle the evening’s grubby darkroom duties.

Hido figures he’s spent several years of his life developing photos in this campus lab while most of the town slept. On this night, Hido and his assistant worked on shots from the exurbs of Fresno and San Rafael, as well as a portrait of his son, Owen.

The exurban shots were typical Hido fare: the back door of a run-down motel, a lone telephone pole on an empty road on a foggy day, a landscape shot of menacing clouds. Even the photo of Owen, taken on the beach at sunset, seemed to offer too much cheer for Hido’s taste. The portrait, he said, was meant as a Christmas gift for Owen’s grandparents. “You want to make this darker,” Hido told Hubbs after she’d returned from another darkroom trip. “I want it to be more … moody. It’s too normal.”

A few minutes later she returned with the latest test shot.

He fingered the sunset on the horizon as the culprit. “It’s still too cheery. Let’s get rid of some of this yellow, some of this warmth. Darker.”

Hubbs agreed, munched on some carrot sticks, and disappeared behind the black curtain. Hido returned to studying his contact sheets through a loupe. “I’m going to take what’s there and make it look more dramatic,” he said. “I think that’s why I take so many of my photos at night — it’s a more dramatic time, it sets a scene. If you go back and look at my photos you won’t find blue skies and green grass or what most people would say is a nice day.”

For all of his talk of dramatic scenarios, Hido seemed his happiest hunkered down in the lab with his contact sheets. In here, he could make the world appear more to his liking and draw out the narrative he wants to convey.

He sifted through more of the sheets, stapled a few together, logged a number on the back, and continued with his meticulous tally of the shots he’s snapped in his career. “There are certain people who like to print late at night and certain people who can’t,” Hido said. “This is where us lonely photographers come together to make art.”

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Todd Hido: Art of Darkness

 

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