Todd Hido: Fragments of Memories
Todd Hido’s visuals have a voyeuristic and reclusive quality to them. But at the heart of it, they tell the story of a man on a search, putting together, piece-by-piece, the remnants from his past, discovers Conchita Fernandes.
Photographs should stir you. They should be catalysts for ideas, thoughts and introspection. They are not meant to give you answers. Because if they did, no one would want to continue to make pictures anymore. What photographs are, are tiny, ambiguous pieces of the answers that we seek. We spend our lives looking to assemble these bits together, but never really arrive at the finish line. You’ll find a bit of all of this in Todd Hido’s pictures.
There’s a sliver of uneasiness that lurks in Todd’s visuals, especially in the photographs that he shot of houses during his nightly excursions. It’s a bit unsettling to see these structures, shrouded in the patterns of the night, photographed from a fair distance. But the thing that’s a little disconcerting are the lit up windows of these homes. They symbolise an unseen presence, and it makes you wonder, what’s really going on in there. “When you’re looking at a house at night with its lights on, you can’t help but imagine the people inside. The inside literally seeps into the outside through that light. Perhaps because I had a traumatic childhood, I’ve always looked at people’s houses and wondered what goes on in there. Is it like what happened at my house? In a strange way, I am making a picture of a place that’s actually about people. Almost as soon as I made my first picture of a house with a lit up window, I recognised that this was not about the house. This was about psychology and relationships,” he says.
The lit up windows were evidences of the lives that existed within. Just by looking at the quality of light streaming through the window, or even disheveled-looking curtains, tell us of the people who reside there. “In a way, all photography does this because photographs only show the surface. These pictures pay attention to what is visible and hint at what is not visible—the subtle psychology of the space. Part of being a photographer is noticing surface details and how they represent something larger; it’s like being a detective or a psychologist,” he says.
“There are so many pictures that when you snap the shutter, that’s the end of their existence. It’s done. It never comes to life. You see it on a contact sheet, and you don’t even look twice. The good pictures all have a certain power and electricity to them. For a picture to have a long life, it has to speak to me, have some meaning for me. And then of course, I hope it contains enough space to hold a range of meanings for others.”
As he continued photographing Houses at Night, Todd was also shooting landscapes, and decided to explore it further. “My night pictures always had a hard edge to them. But it’s very difficult to make a landscape with that kind of edge, so the work changed. For the most part, I was not thinking about making a transition from one type of image to another. I just made pictures and they turned out to be more classically beautiful. With the landscape, I was not afraid of beauty. I allowed myself to approach it, even though this was not popular in the world of photography at the time. I went right up to it and I said, “Hello, beauty.” Over time, I started actively invoking the power of beauty, considering the aesthetic potential of the landscape in a new way.”
These landscapes (A Road Divided) were different, not just in the way they looked, but also in the way they were photographed. The pictures were all handheld shots, made through the windshield of his car. He mentions this as being the first time that he photographed without a tripod. And it worked, because it freed him, in a way, to explore different ways of shooting a subject that so far had been photographed conventionally. The pictures were also different from his attentive compositions of houses, where a lot of thought was put into the inclusion of every detail in the image. But it’s not that the landscapes were shot at random. Here, too, every tilt of the frame and the choice of shooting through certain patches of the fogged up window, were details that were carefully about. In a sense, the pictures took on a different personality. It’s almost as if you’re in the car with Todd.
“As an artist, I have always felt that my task is not to create meaning but to charge the air so that meaning can occur. It is no mystery that we can only photograph effectively what we are truly interested in or are grappling with. Otherwise, the photos are merely about an idea or a concept.”
A lot of his landscapes have long winding roads that draw you into the frame, leading you to the heart of it, even if you can’t see the end. There’s also a veil of dreariness surrounding some of the pictures. It’s almost as if you’re looking at one of Josef Sudek’s photographs of his studio window, covered in rain drops. The fact that the horizon is never quite visible, lends a certain infiniteness to the image. “I am interested in that open horizon. It’s basically the landscape I grew up with in Ohio. That openness and those open roads are the kinds I’d ride my BMX bike on, while going to the next town.” The fogged up glass also lends intimacy to the image. “I’m somehow in the picture, in a way. That is my breath fogging up the window.” It also helps that the images appear to be shot a little erratically; unprovoked, almost casual diagonal lines that add a certain dynamism to the frame.
In Interiors, we see Todd going into a deep recess of uncovering yet another facet of his childhood. It only made sense to begin this journey at home, a place that he was most familiar with, yet felt foreign. “Interiors are also about surfaces. I think the surfaces that we grew up with are imprinted in the our memory in a really deep way,” he says. There’s a picture that he shot of his childhood bed. The moody lighting in the room and the crumpled sheets, along with the pillow propped up lifelessly on the side, give the scene a forlorn look. For Todd, it was like looking back at all those years that he had spent in that room, on his bed, in that house, with his family. “That pillow caught my attention. It was stripped bare, and I was struck by the kind of bare-bones life it revealed. My family knew I was coming to visit from California. Did anybody bother to put a pillowcase on my pillow? No.”
He also looked at the interiors of motel rooms and foreclosed homes. “Walter Benjamin noted that Eugène Atget photographed Paris like it was a crime scene. I think about that when I walk into a room. I look for clues that tell me who may have been there and what may have happened. The walls do talk.” As for how he photographed the room… “Nothing is photographed straight on. I purposely use the perspective of the room, which almost always leads to a corner that converges in the center of the picture. Those are the formal aspects of the image; the real story is in the marks, the light switches, the holes,” he says.
“My personal journey involves being the son of an 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.”
After shooting landscapes and interiors for a while, Todd felt that it was time that he began photographing people, ‘to complicate the stories of home.’ Although he had shot portraits before, he had never really photographed nudes. To solidify his style, he started making pictures of his friends. But soon enough, he ran out of friends to photograph. “When I’m trying to find people to photograph, I’ve noticed that there’s a cast of characters that I already have built from and into my memory. There’s this ineffable quality; it’s like trying to describe why you love a certain person, or why you are attracted to one person over another. I don’t think I choose my models based on attraction. In an odd way, it comes back to surfaces. When I am photographing people, the kind of person that they are in reality isn’t relevant. They are actors or stand-ins for a person or a situation from my history,” he says.
Apart from the nudes, which were planned encounters with his subjects, the rest of Todd’s photographs are largely incidental. Driving around or walking, played a role in helping him discover roadways and stretches, and houses. He has never shot with a project in mind. It’s only after photographing for an extended period that he discovers scenes that he is drawn to. But it is at the editing table, after reviewing everything that he has shot, that the selected photographs come together to resemble a particular thought; a certain theme. “My work is very much about America. It’s about the places that I know, that I grew up in. It’s about the road that I rode down 1000 times. I’m definitely on a search for something familiar. I drive all over the place and look for the architecture of my childhood, something that has a familiar feel.”
Moreover, the thought of a subject being already photographed before has never deterred Todd from approaching it. If you look at the things that he has shot over the years—the road, interiors of homes, and even nudes—they have been thoroughly photographed over the decades by figures like Robert Frank, Walker Evans and Edward Weston. However, Todd is of the opinion that if you’re emotionally invested in a scene or in a specific imagery, then no matter how deeply inspired you are by someone else’s photographs, you will not end up with pictures that’s similar to what’s already been done.
As he goes around uncovering fragments representative of his past, Todd makes sure not to give away too much; to maintain enough ambiguity so that you, the viewer, can find a bit of yourself, your past or present, in his images. “Sometimes, it’s important to explore the world that’s right in front of you, but at other times, you need to travel and get away from your life in order to recognise it. For me, I keep finding and exploring the same place no matter where I go. I draw from within, from my own history, as the basis of my work. All of the memories and experiences from my past come together subconsciously and form a kind of fragmented narrative.”
Todd Hido’s photographs are in the permanent collections of Getty, the Guggenheim Museum, New York, and the Smithsonian, amongst others. He also has over a dozen published books, the most recent one being Intimate Distance: Twenty-five Years of Photographs, A Chronological Album. You can find his work on www.toddhido.com.
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Better Photography.