New Wave master Jean-Luc Godard once said “The cinema is not an art which films life: the cinema is something between art and life.” The same can be said about the work of the singular American photographer Todd Hido.
Hido’s haunting images of lone houses at night put him in the pantheon of American artists for whom the road is home, or at least the only way home. Beginning with his masterful debut House Hunting in 2001, Hido has elevated the monograph to a cinematic art form whose sequential images reveal compelling narratives among themselves, yet, like whispering children, keep the darkest truths under wraps. We spoke with the Ohio native turned Oakland resident about his craft, his inspirations, and where his work is taking him now.
Looking back at your six monographs, is there one that stands out as being the most meaningful to you. If so, why?
I think there are two that are the most meaningful. Obviously, the first book always has a place in your heart because it’s that book that you’ve been turning around in your head for years and years as a young artist, hoping that you might get to make it one day. The book that I feel is the most significant is Excerpts from Silver Meadows, and the reason is that all my other books prior to that had, I think, a maximum of 35 images. I remember hearing something Bruce Weber once said: “It’s much harder to do a book with 32 pages, as opposed to 100, where nobody will notice the clunkers." If you have it honed down to a very small set of images, then every image has great significance in that book. I always remembered that, and I followed that method for a while.
When it came time to doing Excerpts from Silver Meadows, I was at a place where I had formed enough of a sophistication with sequencing and editing that I was ready to let it out, because I’ve always been a person that arranges pictures. It’s almost like this obsessive habit I have. Even in my studio, there’ll be pictures laid out on the table, and I’m constantly shifting and shuffling them around. I’d come home from a darkroom and put pictures down, and then it would start the shuffle again. When it came time to do Excerpts from Silver Meadows, I feel like I had a lot to say, and I did a book that had 130 images.
For me, it has this super-cinematic quality to it, because there’s such a mixture of things going on in there. I was also able to incorporate in that book my love and selection of found items, sometimes from my own personal family’s albums, like my father’s scrapbook from when he was in high school. And then all sorts of things that I would find that threw a wrench into a sequence of pictures, like a car crash or a picture of a crashed car. You could throw that image next to a bunch of other pictures, and it really puts a wrench into that story in some way.
It sounds like it was liberating in a way to have the book be bigger and more openly autobiographical, and include stuff that you didn’t make, but that made it into the book. You’re sort of repurposing everything.
Absolutely. Something I found exciting is that I would make things that looked like I didn’t make them, which was fun. The first time I got out a can of spray paint and spray painted a heart on a picture and let it drip all over a punk rock poster was liberating as a photographer. Like, “Hey, I can’t believe I made that.” It opened the door to experimenting more.
Did you have any say in the format of Intimate Distance, the Aperture monograph? What was it like for you to see photographs from many or probably all of your books all in one other book that in a certain sense wasn’t your book?
You’re right, Intimate Distance, my 25-year mid-career survey. Is different than any book I’ve ever made. The reason it had to be different was because my approach in the other books was that I basically took the pictures that I was most interested in working with and I would sequence them into something that made sense to me. That was largely driven by pure intuition and there was that narrative thread. When it came time to do my mid-career survey, we all kind of knew that we had to have a different structure, because if I just went and did my narrative, intuitive mix, then we would end up with a book that was like my other books. So we decided on one of the simplest approaches ever, which is to organize the pictures in chronological order.
I’ve always studied photography; I’ll be a student of photography until the day I die. The process is something that’s fascinating to me. My hope was that it could be enlightening for people that are interested in my work to see the actual order I make things in, because I think what happens a lot with students or people starting out in photography is that they think, “Oh, this person just arrived at this great idea. They ran out and executed it.” That scares a lot of people away thinking that they couldn’t do something like that. But I wanted to show how all over the place I am. One day I’ll shoot a portrait, and the next day I’ll shoot a landscape, and then that night I’ll do night photography. I wanted to show that I’m like anybody else that goes out and shoots what’s around them and follows their interest.
It’s interesting that your publisher gave you so much input.
I wouldn’t have worked with them if I hadn’t had input. There are many different kinds of photographers, but sometimes they fall into two camps. Some photographers just shoot and shoot and shoot. Somebody else ends up saying, “Hey, let’s make this into a book” and the photographer gives them the pictures and the publisher makes the book. But for me, as soon as I realized that books were a way for me to sort out my work and organize my thoughts, I went to see my publisher, Chris Pichler of Nazraeli Press, and he realized that I wasn’t the kind of photographer that was going to hand him a box of pictures and say, “What do I do? I don’t know what to do.”
He noticed immediately that I knew exactly what I wanted to do and exactly how I wanted to do it, and he had the faith in me to basically say, “Well, here’s a dummy. Why don’t you go ahead and come back when you have it sequenced and organized?” That worked out perfectly, and that’s been our relationship ever since. I feel lucky to have that relationship with him, and because of that, I’ve grown, too. I’ve learned a great deal about bookmaking, sequencing, and editing. It’s one of the things that are, I think, my forté.
Looking at your photographs, I sense the use of film but could be wrong. Could you talk a bit about your choice of equipment and techniques, and whether they have evolved much in the past 25 years?
They have evolved greatly, and it’s been by need. For the first three quarters of my career, everything was shot on film and made as an analog print in a darkroom. And then those materials started drying up and the darkrooms started closing down. Mostly working in color, having no access to a darkroom, and becoming frustrated with how complicated it was to work analog, I needed something to change. I’m an adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where they had closed the darkroom, and one of my students would come in with some C-prints, and I was like, “Where did you get those C-prints?” He got them online and the quality was amazing.
He started working for me after graduation. The main thing he did was to introduce me to the photo software Lightroom. As soon as he showed me Lightroom, it all clicked, because it’s such an intuitive and amazing program that I was able to change the because I could use a little lamp and have that light up a model’s face and make a picture that looked like it was taken on a tripod. One of the things I often go for in my work is I want to make pictures that are believable. I don’t want to make images that look super staged or highly improbable. I want them to feel like they just came from the continuum of daily life or nightly life.
Tell me a bit more about why you chose to focus your work on people at one point.
I always photographed my friends and made portraits, but it wasn’t something I would consider to be a primary strand of my work. It was way I work. I came to understand that I could take a picture with a digital camera in the dark, handhold it, and it didn’t look terrible. I’ve been using digital cameras ever since as my primary tool.
Did you find that using a digital camera in some way changed your process and/or your actual images?
Yes and no. The no part is that one of my conditions for utilizing digital images was that I would be able to make pictures that looked like they were my other pictures that were made with film. Because of my desire to be able to match my other work, because I had 20-some years of work going already, it was important to me that it wasn’t like a line in the sand, where you could say “There’s the new digital Todd I know and like” or “For all of you analog lovers, you’re out of luck.” I needed to be able to make pictures that looked like you couldn’t identify exactly how they were made. Again, Lightroom gave me the functionality to be able to do that. I sometimes quiz people, like, “I challenge you to find the digital pictures in here,” and they can’t.
Then the yes part is what’s changed in my work because of using digital. It’s opened up a much more cinematic quality to the work because of that ability to handhold the camera in lighting situations that I used to have to be on a tripod for. It opened up the world of light even more to me because something that occurred when it occurred. Then there was a point in time – it was my fourth book, I believe, called Between the Two – when I all of a sudden started becoming interested in photographing nudes. Because I’d done two night photography books and then my next book was something where I challenged myself to focus on landscapes during the daytime, because I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed into being the night photography guy. After that I shifted my attention toward the genre of portrait nudes.
Do you feel there’s a distinct difference between photographing landscapes and setting up a shot as a kind of tableau, or is the process more alike than different?
It’s totally different. Since I’m not a street photographer, all the pictures of people that I’ve done have been something that I’ve set up. The environment that I shoot in is as important as the person. The environment creates a mood, so I want to have the right backgrounds. A lot of times I would use a motel room because it was a room that was a clear, blank room.
You mentioned about how in Roaming you wanted to not photograph houses or photograph at night, so you weren’t continuing an earlier body of work. Has that ever happened again or was that kind of a one-time thing?
A lot of the work that I’ve done prior to now has been largely autobiographical. But now I’ve been doing something completely different. It’s mostly landscape-based, and I’ve been photographing in places like Iceland and the Sea of Japan. I’m about to go to Death Valley to photograph. Those are all places that couldn’t be farther from the suburbs, and they’re all environments that are not the kind of things that I’ve been shooting in before. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious change, but after wrapping up a mid-career survey, it was a perfect shifting point to move to something different.
That’s exciting. Is that going to be a book or perhaps more than one book?
I know it will be one book in September of 2018. I’m shooting the parts still, and I haven’t even begun to edit, because that’s what I do: I shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot until I feel like I have that critical mass. Then I start to put together the pictures, and then go out and round out the holes.
Much of your work evokes the sense of an apparition or a vision, not exactly visionary but something that stops the viewer in his or her tracks with something otherworldly and at times even apocalyptic. Do any of these themes resonate with you or is this pure projection on my part?
I always say that the meaning of the image resides in the viewer. But I definitely loaded the deck, and that is something that I would say is true about my work, that there’s something like an apparition. Is my new work apocalyptic? Oh, I would say it kind of fits that mode. Plus, the times we’re living in. It’s like I’m absorbing this into my process, the darkness. For my next book, the working title is Bright Black World. It comes from a description that a writer named A.S. Byatt had. She made a book of Nordic mythology. It talked about the Fimbulwinter, which is their version of the Myth of the Endless Winter. When it got dark, started snowing, and it never stopped. That’s her description of that darkness, and it’s where I got that title.
Was there one decisive moment when you realized you wanted to be a photographer?
It wasn’t necessarily a moment, but it was more of a progression in my life, because I used to race BMX bikes and was the state champion of Ohio four times. So I picked up a camera and would photograph my friends doing stuff, like any kid with a skateboard today who would want to photograph their friends doing tricks. Your natural impulse is to record it so you can share it – if you don’t record it, nobody will know it happened. In high school I also had a great teacher, Mike McGlure, who said to me, “You are different from the other students in this class. You have a special talent.”
He encouraged me and would enter my pictures in contests. I remember I got some State Governor’s Award for Photography, and it was from him entering me into the contest. I was bad at everything in school, but once I started being interested in photography, I wanted to go to school, because that’s where the darkroom was and I found something that made me excited about being there. Ever since, all I’ve ever done is photography. I’ve never done anything else. It was 1986 when I graduated, and so that’s how long I’ve been focused on photography on, I would say, a daily basis.
This image and the following photos are by Todd Hido and have been made available for use in this interview. Photo by Todd Hido. Courtesy of Todd Hido. Photo by Todd Hido. Courtesy of Todd Hido. Photo by Todd Hido. Courtesy of Todd Hido. Photo by Todd Hido. Courtesy of Todd Hido.
Lee Magill is a writer and editor based in New York City who has contributed to Travel + Leisure and Time Out. She previously served as the editor of Time Out New York Kids.