‘Light and Dark Chambers’

Todd Hido - Intimate Distance, Aperture, 2016

‘Light and Dark Chambers’ is an essay commissioned for the photographer Todd Hido’s major survey Intimate Distance: 25 Years, published by Aperture, 2016. French co-edition published by Editions Textuel.


Light and Dark Chambers

 By David Campany

We all begin in the middle. We are born, and that is the start of something but becoming an artist happens later, and it happens in relation to what came before. I can tell you that Todd Hido was born in Kent, Ohio, in 1968. I can tell you he came to photography through his love of skateboarding and BMX culture. He’ll tell you that too:

When people skateboard or ride bikes or whatever, they’re doing something cool that only happens for a second or two, so they inevitably want to record it—that’s the nature of it. You’re doing a jump or a trick; you want to record it. What do you record it with? Photography. It’s a totally natural progression. You can capture and share what you’re doing with people. That’s how I got started. I picked up a camera because I wanted to take pictures of my friends.

But it’s a hell of a “jump or a trick” from such snapshots to the kinds of photographs that have made Hido one of the most admired and influential photographers of his generation. When a person picks up a camera and starts to feel photography is for them, it is usually for reasons so complex that simple biography will not do. If you suddenly find that a camera really is your means of expression, it is not so much because it gives you the chance of a brave new start, but because it’s a way of drawing on the unspoken experience of your life lived so far. Making photographs is so often an act of recognition, conscious or otherwise, that what is before you resonates with things that came before. Those things might be direct experiences. They might be movies, picture books, music or novels. We can never know for sure. And when we look at the photographs of others we are doing something similar: responding now through an elusive then. We all begin in the middle.

Early in the last century, when cinema was very young and photography had not yet found its modern calling, the young artist André Breton and his friend, the writer Jacques Vaché, spent their afternoons in the many movie theaters of the French city of Nantes. They would watch with great intent, but not quite give themselves up to the flickering fantasies. Their hyperactive minds were attuned to the first hint of boredom, that bad turn when a film becomes predictable. Popular cinema being what it is, the moment would sometimes arrive within minutes. Then the pair would rise, fumble to the exit, stroll through daylight to the next movie theater, plunge into the dark, and repeat.

It was a kind of stop-start montage, poetic and even radical. In thrall to chance encounters yet keeping control, Breton and Vaché had no concrete aim beyond the accumulation of mental impressions, which would influence their future work. (The ideas of both men soon shaped the emergence of surrealism.) They were remaking their own dream world of pictures, in a culture where it was increasingly difficult to distinguish images that were truly one’s own from those received from somewhere else. Living in the mind, pictures can never really belong to anyone. The unconscious does not recognize authors, origins, or destinations. What matters for imagery is resonance and restlessness.

A century on, such montage can still be poetic, but it barely seems radical. Zapping between channels and clicking through websites are now prosaic activities in an age of distraction. And yet assembling a creative life from fragments, be they one’s own or those of others, is more important now than it has ever been. Some say it is the only creative act left.

Perhaps Breton and Vaché were avoiding conclusions. They preferred to start in the middle and defer The Endforever. As we watch a narrative film, the plot and conclusion dominate our experience, but this is not how we will remember it. What we will recall are unpredictable bits and pieces: short strings of association, lucid scenes, colors, spaces, gestures, textures, vectors. In memory, cinema’s images are freed from narrative obligation and resume their essential ambiguity. Narrative is the booster rocket that gets the image pieces into orbit so they can circle the mind, coming around unbidden.

In 1974, the great photographer Walker Evans gave a lecture to students. Like so many artists of his generation, Evans was a lifelong cinephile, and, when asked if he still watched movies, he mentioned Robert Altman’s then-recent films The Long Goodbye and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. He wondered aloud if they were both shot by the same person (they were—by Vilmos Zsigmond). Evans said he thought them “a marvelous bunch of photography” and something to really learn from.

Influence cannot be confined to one’s own medium. It comes from anywhere. A line from Virginia Woolf or Raymond Carver may strike us with a force comparable to that of a snapshot. A musical phrase may dance like a picture. A word may link one ineffable vision to another. A shot from a film can have more vitality as an isolated image than it does in the service of a story.

Still photography has never been too burdened by the weight of narrative. Since its essence lies in the thingness of things observed, it has only ever dealt in description and suggestion. Moreover, its muteness and fixity are so different from the noise of the spoken word. Even when sequenced carefully across pages, an arrangement of silent photographs will always feel a little provisional, the concrete particulars of each image finessed by so many open questions. What if this picture is placed alongside this one? What if a turn of the page is a shift from reverie to piqued curiosity, or political urgency? What if a change of scale causes a minor tremor in your attention? What if a smudged view of an unknown landscape resonates with the smudged mascara of an unknown woman?

Good pictures in a book are the “marvelous bunch of photography” that a good movie is in the memory.

The photographs gathered on these pages were made over the course of the last twenty-two years. During that time, Todd Hido has worked on several substantial groups of pictures, often simultaneously. When each group has come into focus as a project, Hido has published it as a book and exhibited it as a suite of prints. But what we have here is a chronological sequence drawn from the full depth and breadth of his singular oeuvre. It’s not exactly a retrospective; instead, like a novelist reviewing his manuscripts or a filmmaker going back to the editing suite, this book hints at its maker’s development and working processes. We are invited to see how Hido has spiraled through his motifs and preoccupations. True to the book’s title, you will find several kinds of intimacy here. You will also find the ambiguous distances signaled by the titles of some of his previous books: House Hunting, A Road Divided, Roaming, Between the Two, Outskirts. Wandering through and around, searching and returning.

If these photographs and their arrangement seem narrative, it is because they suggest untold tales and possibility. The suggestions are as much yours as they are Hido’s, and as likely to come from cinema and literature as they are from personal experience. Hido is an avid movie lover who says the TV in his house is always on. Impressions sink in and leave their traces, but even he is not sure what they are.

These photographs are made slowly—there are few grabbed shutter instants here—but like so much of the best photography, they seem to have been prompted by flashes of recognition, when the world-as-image corresponded to something half-remembered, unstated but insistent. The images are sumptuous and full of things to look at: landscapes, byways, signs, suburbia, interiors, fabrics, and faces. But they give the equally strong impression that this factual-fictional world is less than full. Each image is plenty, yet not quite enough. For all the river of color, for all the thickness of these atmospheres, Hido has the economy of a minimalist.

Can one empty out a picture? How little does a photograph need? A road-trip can be sketched with little more than a horizon and a telephone pole. The anomie of suburbia is all in the paint palette of a real estate brochure washed in sodium light. A door with a number—216—is an unknown motel room, allocated at random. A young woman in such a room is enough to signal hope, fear, loss, or desire. Fill in the gaps as you wish; perhaps your unconscious has already.

The iconography here is perfectly familiar. Hido is confident enough to inhabit clichés and emerge with something that is his own. His photographs confirm the idea that in much of American culture, motifs matter only because of the inflections they are given. Consider the picket fence: it has been a permanent presence in the nation’s literature, cinema, and photography because it is so open to interpretation. Think of the fence at the start of Mark Twain’s 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden.”

That picket fence is and isn’t the picket fence of Paul Strand’s celebrated photograph of 1916, or the one in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, or those in the 1950s TV series Father Knows Best and Beulah; or the glowing white fence that opens David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, set against that too-blue sky and lurid roses. All these fences divide home from town, private fear from public life, and are loaded in so many other ways too.

Since appearing on the cover of his 2001 book House Hunting, Hido’s own interpretation of the picket fence has become something of an emblem for his work as a whole. It is an image that permits the memory of all the fences that have come before. Its composition has the simplicity of a nineteenth-century illustration; the architecture it describes has existed for generations. The colors, seductive and queasy, have the infinite gradation of very mixed emotions. The fence itself, like all American fences, is in need of attention. Behind the house’s curtains, something or nothing may be going on: one room has the warmth of a bedside lamp, while another has the cooler light of a TV screen. No drama is represented here. Instead, we have the drama of representation itself, and perhaps the drama of photography itself.

A camera is a dark chamber pierced by light. Through a small opening the light passes, falling as an inverted image on a sensitized surface. The light may be too bright or too dim, but adjustments can be made: apertures, shutter speeds, film sensitivities. Such chambers abound in Hido’s work. By daytime, the rooms he photographs are darkly sequestered spaces, resisting the sun. At night, houses become glowing chambers.

To move through the pages of this book is to move from one chamber to another, feeling how light itself can be observed, calibrated, and made thinkable. The fall of light can be affectionate or indifferent or even cruel, just like the human life it illuminates. In one photograph, a stained mattress is propped against the window of an exhausted room. Bright sunlight pushes around its edges and seeps into the space. You can see how light is a force. It can be harnessed, or even be created with fire or electricity, but it is a force, with all the beauty of flowing water. Whatever is happening in that room finds its echo in the camera that is there to make an image of it. The room preceded the camera’s presence, but without the camera you would never have seen it. Hido entered, exposed the negative that had the potential to become this picture, left, and walked out into the light. Everything else that makes the picture what it is—Hido’s intentions or yours—is conjecture.

For some of his landscape images Hido has used the chamber of his car. Cruising rural roads, he scrolls through endless vistas in the hope of catching some epiphany of light and form. Many a “road trip” photographer has talked about how their windshield feels like cinema’s wide screen—it is a framing device. Hido’s windshield is more than that: you can see it in his images, diffusing and refracting the view. The glass also catches Hido’s own breath, which condenses into cataracts before him. He stays in the car with his camera, looking out, shooting out, a chamber within a chamber.

In 1975 Roland Barthes published a perfect little essay, “En sortant du cinéma” (On leaving the cinema). Its subject is the pleasurable yet strange sensation that comes over us when a film is over. Our body must awaken, “a little numb, a little awkward, chilly,” as he puts it, “sloppy, soft, peaceful: limp as a sleeping cat.” Our mind must also move from one state, one reality, to another. We need time to adjust. It is a precious feeling, but so transitive that we are rarely encouraged to take it seriously. Barthes does. The sensation of leaving that dark chamber can be quite dramatic. (Maybe this is what Breton and Vaché loved, or feared, prompting them to choose their own moments to leave.) Watching a film in a cinema, you are supposed to forget where you are. To enter the illusion, the apparatus must melt away. At the end of the film you mentally reenter your surroundings and once again become aware of the movie theater, only to leave it.

This never really happens with still photography. There is no comparable suspension of disbelief. Yes, a photograph or book of photographs may be immersive, but not in the cinematic sense. The pleasures are very different. Looking at photographs, we never quite “lose ourselves.” And in a book, it is in the mental movement from one image to another that meaning is made, without forgetting where you are. Hido’s pictures are as immersive as any in contemporary photography, but the pleasures of his sequencing keep churning. One is pulled into the imaginative depths of a picture, only to be lured toward another and another. And unlike a narrative movie, a book allows one to feel what one is feeling—to grasp the pleasure and the churn consciously, as sensations in themselves.

Before a movie is made, the director or location scout goes looking for places to shoot. Usually they will take a still camera. If you have ever seen the pictures made on such reconnaissance trips, you will have sensed their strange status. They are documents, records of places, yet they are also invitations to propose, or suppose, what has not yet happened but could. A good location photograph will leave space for imaginative projection. I think Hido’s landscapes and townscapes have this quality. A similar feeling is present in actor portraits made by casting directors, and in the preliminary photos taken of fashion models on go-sees for style magazines. Look at Hido’s photographs of solitary women that populate this book. In each case there was an encounter, of which the photograph is the palpable result but what, or who, was there? A player, star or extra, with an unwritten script.

So many of Hido’s images hinge on this duality: the retrospective and the prospective. The fact and the wish. The presence and the possibility. His statement that he “photographs like a documentarian but prints like a painter” confirms this, and indicates how the effect is rooted in the very substance of his pictures. It is a constant balancing act, avoiding the sentimentality of “what was” and the cheap melodrama of performed fiction.

But what of the found photos that punctuate the sequence of Hido’s own images in this book? They appear to have been rescued from family albums long abandoned, and they also express something of this duality. They come from somewhere undoubtedly specific but unknown to us, and their future is uncertain. For now they have found a resting place amid these porous landscapes and portraits, and the mix is heady. But who knows? It is in the nature of photographs to wander and recombine.

Hido himself has wandered. He has shuffled his deck of photos, spread it out, and made his choices. There is great value in looking back, and risk too. Photographers know this better than most. Can Hido really know who he was when he made an image twenty-two years ago, or even last year? Which is the best moment to be making that call? Now is as good as any. What really matters is the honesty and the intensity of the backward glance, while accepting that one can never know one’s own motivations absolutely. In a printed book the choices are definite, the sequence is locked, and the binding is tight. Even so, for all the fixing of appearances, for all the stopping of time and reshaping of history, everything flows onward around a photograph; sooner or later, it gets swept along. As Hido himself once put it: “Whatever I have accomplished, I just keep going.”





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