This is territory that has been covered by other great contemporary photographers such as Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. But what sets Hido apart is his ability to create the illusion of an entire magical and moody world complete with emotive lighting, strange portraits of mysterious women, and the long empty roads that seem to beckon us down them. In this manner Hido weaves a gossamer thread-like narrative full of miscast ghosts, abandoned houses and shattered dreams.
Though his images hang in places like the Whitney Museum of American Art and even Spike Jonze’s house , you can’t help feel that the real subjects in these images remain unchanged, still lost on some desolate American highway out there.
What makes your work so attractive is its haunting and almost disturbing qualities. It’s unsettling. Tell us about your personal journey of finding such a dark albeit powerful voice?
Thank you for diving deep immediately, I always appreciate getting right down to the nitty gritty, and it usually takes a lot longer to get there. My personal journey involves being the son of alcoholic father who never quit drinking, and I had to turn all of those incredibly confusing and abrasive things that were said to me after being woken up in the middle of the night into something that was positive. I don’t even understand how I gained enough clarity to do such a thing, but all of that bad energy – I’ve basically harnessed it and I think that it’s propelled me into life and into my art of course, which is the thing that saved me from becoming a fourth generation addict.
Your works also bring up a lot of themes and references to road trips, desolation, US politics, perhaps even the decline of American life. Is the American dream dead?
Did it ever actually exist in any other place other than as a media creation? I was born in 1968 and grew up in Kent, Ohio, and in my own personal world, I know this is going to come off as kind of dark, but I was never informed of any dream, we were just scooting by and making it. On the other hand I may be living it because I’ve turned my entire life around and created something for myself out of practically nothing, and I guess that’s a version of the American dream, isn’t it?
Your work has been called “voyeuristic” and I tend to agree with that. With some of your images, the more I look at them the more I feel like an intruder. It’s like I am catching a moment I should not have seen. Would you say that your photography is concerned with exposing the hidden secrets?
Perhaps the irony here is none of these things are hidden, and none of them are even buried but deep below the surface. I think a lot of the things that I find and see just have a dusting over them – when I work with people that I’m photographing, we never talk about anything emotional or what I’m trying to do with my work. There’s just this odd understood trust that lets them share the vulnerability we all have.
You mentioned that you grew up in the suburbs of Ohio. How much has this influenced your work? I read somewhere that you “never see your subjects as who they are but as stand-ins for someone who might be in your past”. Do you actually try to recreate specific scenes from your youth?
Just like practically every creative person ever, where I grew up has had a huge influence on the way that I work. Regarding the subjects of my work, I do in fact see them as stand ins for someone from my past, however I’m not actually trying to recreate specific things from my youth. I’m just trying to bring it to a point where there’s some familiarity involved, and when I get to that level I feel like that’s where it begins to work for me.
You often quote Lewis Baltz’s phrase “Photography is a profound corner that sits in between literature and film” to explain the cinematic feeling of your work. Where would you say the line between reality and fiction stands? You purposely don’t give your images a title to give people the chance to come up with their own interpretation.
Yes, that is all true. And that Baltz quote has always resonated with me ever since the moment I heard it in graduate school. As far as the line between reality and fictions stands, I’ll give you another quote. I believe it was Picasso that said, “art is a lie that tells you the truth.” With that, you can see that there’s a blurring that occurs between reality and fiction, and I think that as an artist you have the luxury of making that line a malleable one. As far as giving images a title, absolutely not, I’ve never done that ever because I really believe that titling something actually limits its interpretation. Since I’m not bound by the rules of journalism, I play that card willfully.
"My personal journey involves being the son of alcoholic father who never quit drinking, and I had to turn all of those incredibly confusing and abrasive things that were said to me after being woken up in the middle of the night into something that was positive."
Todd Hido on finding his voice
How do you feel about Spike Jonze being inspired by one your photographs for his movie Her. He said, “It feels like a memory…the mood of a day without the specifics”.
It’s both fantastic and humbling that one little picture I made can become a catalyst for somebody as amazing as Spike to turn into something that’s deeply moving. I feel like Her is one of the most poignant movies of its time, especially regarding all the trouble we’re in with all this technology – that we don’t even fully understand how it affects us and how it will continue to alter our realities.
One thing I wanted to say about Spike is that his generosity of willingly sharing his inspiration from my picture publically is a rare and deeply confident act that one artist can take. It’s such a wonderful confirmation that the arts can speak to each other.
For your portraits, you either work with friends or models you’ve found online. What is the difference between shooting someone you’ve never met and shooting someone you know?
You would think that working with a stranger would be more complicated, however I often feel like there’s a tension that occurs when you’re first meeting a new model, and a lot of times I deliberately let that become a part of that thing that charges the air that makes the picture have some feeling in it.
On the other hand, there’s a model that I’ve worked with over and over again named Khrystyna. We have a tremendous rhythm and understanding that grew out of time and trust. She’s a commercial model, and you’ve probably seen her in some beauty ad somewhere, but the thing that’s interesting is she said that when I photograph her, she feels she can just be her real self even if she’s playing a character. It’s that underlying emotion that she needs to express that can occur when making art.
Why do you work exclusively at night? You must be an insomniac.
I am in fact quite a night owl though I work both in the daytime and the nighttime. I can focus better at night, and I also like darkness and mystery. Those are the things you see at night when you go out to shoot.
A lot of my portraits and landscapes are actually made during the daytime, but because of the atmosphere and printing style I see how you could have the impression a lot of them were at night or dusk because they all have a darkness. If it’s not there when I’m actually shooting it, I’ll end up making it that way when I print it.
How do you take advantage of the available light? The long exposure makes your saturated images almost glow off the print.
I just follow the light, literally. And I often will just point my camera to where the light is and where that glow occurs, whether it’s coming from a tiny little tungsten light bulb in someone’s house or the sun that’s veiled behind a layer of fog.
So let’s talk a little bit about the stuff you do outside your own photography. You’ve shot Victoria Beckham’s 2014 Fall Collection, what are your thoughts on being involved in areas outside fine art, like fashion?
I always welcome those kinds of collaborations. I find them to be incredibly useful in terms of getting me out of my own head and listening to other people’s concerns. Since I don’t do that every day, it’s actually fun. Some of the crew that I’ve met doing jobs like those are the same people that call me up and ask me “Todd, can we make some art?”
"I just follow the light, literally. And I often will just point my camera to where the light is and where that glow occurs."
Todd Hido on creative process
From your experience driving across the U.S., what do you feel are the pressing social changes that are immediately needed?
Mental health is probably at the top of the list, although that’s not something you can readily see. And then ultimately, I see that there’s a very serious need for redistribution of wealth and access to opportunity.
Your work seems to comment a lot on loneliness and isolation. Do you feel we are becoming more or less connected as a society?
Unfortunately I feel like we’re less connected as a society. I have a son and daughter that are 13 years old. They’re twins. One day they were headed somewhere, and I wasn’t going to see them for a few days. As they walked away I stood and was going to wave at them, and they were both looking at their goddamn telephones. I was very bummed out about that. I waved and they didn’t see because they were already lost in their phones.
I think that we’re at a turning point with people understanding the negative impact of all this supposed connectedness that’s been created by technology.
Recently phone makers have caught on to the ill effects of people being on their phones all the time and added those yellow filters to make the light more “relaxing” to our brains, and that’ll be standard issue on everything. The very fact that there’s a need for that signals how widespread the problem is of our addictive nature towards technology.
By focusing on little glimpses of stories and allowing us to recreate our own universe, you manage to talk about issues bigger than us. Is that what art is for?
Art must be for that. If my artwork is communicating something to other people, that’s something I feel really good about. And if it speaks to people on a personal level and makes them reflect back on their own life, that’s even better.
You seem to enjoy literature. I know you worked on the covers for the re-launch of some of Raymond Carver’s books. You’ve also said that pulp fiction novels are a great source of inspiration for you.
I first became of aware of Raymond Carver’s work from my mentor Larry Sultan. He was the first person that pointed out all the incredibly important quotidian moments in Carver’s work, and the simplicity of what he wrote always spoke to me. I was totally honored when his publisher asked me to collaborate on the reissue of seven of his books. We worked very closely with Tess Gallagher who had lots of input on the pictures that went on the covers. I was very pleased with the way they turned out.
Regarding the pulp fiction, my inspiration from them stops at the covers. I’ve actually never even read one of them but it’s the highly narrative illustrations were something that I saw as almost cinematic because there was much much more than a simple story going on, and they were absolutely amazing triggers to lead you to somewhere else.
Thanks so much for your time.
Todd Hido: Intimate Distances will be out in October 2016.
I’ve recently discovered how to prepare it in a simple and delicious way, and I’ve been making it frequently.
Sea of Japan
I previously mentioned a winter trip I made to Hokkaido and we simply drove along the edge of the ocean for four days, and it was truly delightful
My local building material salvage yard, which happens to be called Urban Ore – but there’s something like it in most areas. I love digging through the piles of old hardware and windows and doors and finding precisely that thing for my 1916 home to make it feel like it’s something that’s been there for 100 years.