I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Todd Hido is best known for his photographs of suburban houses at night, his Hopper-esque portraits of women in murky hotel rooms, and, more recently, cold, desolate landscapes framed by fogged windshields.
My first interaction with Todd was in Philadelphia in early 2012 at a small photography conference where he gave the keynote address. He’d flown in from California with a book dummy filled with photos for his yet-to-be-titled new book. Seeing him shuffle photographs in and out of pages intrigued me. It was much like watching a squirrel bury nuts and dig them back up: his process was deliberate, yet it was hard to glean what could be going through his mind when he meticulously sequenced his photos. Todd would place two photos beside one another on a spread, then flip to what he had placed on the preceding and succeeding pages, all to get a sense of what worked together, to determine what pairings evoked the story he looked to tell.
In a subsequent meeting at a dinner party, Todd had with him stacks of little 2 × 2 inch color photographs of models he had photographed. They were snapshots of women who could have been from anyone’s past. They could be pictures of your mother from before you were born, or a shared moment between your sister and her boyfriend you were never supposed to see. These were the latest addition to his book, now carrying the title Excerpts From Silver Meadows (after the Ohio development where he grew up) and the glue that would hold together Hido’s eerie landscapes and desolate interiors.
Mesmerized by the unfurling of Todd’s creative process, by his constant reworking of materials, order, and presentation, I decided to call the artist to see what direction his book had taken since I’d last seen it.
Jacob Pastrovich Before we start, when is Excerpts From Silver Meadows coming out?
Todd Hido It should be out in April of 2013. I’m very excited about it. It’ll definitely be interesting. It’s got these four double gatefold sections so you literally have to sit down at a table, pause life and stop looking at other stuff to see these pictures. You won’t be able to look at the gatefolds without sitting down. They’re in four 16-inch sections.
JP Wow, so it’ll spread over five feet.
TH I can’t wait; it’s going to be fun to open the spreads for the first time.
JP I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your experience with BMX culture.
TH Well, 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. I see the same thing happening with my son and other kids.
The things I learned from BMX stuck with me for so long. One of the most important things was that it is entirely up to you. It’s an individual sport; it’s all in your hands. As competitors, you’re all strong, you all have the same bikes, and it just comes down to you to make it happen. It’s helped me have a lasting career in photography.
I was an Ohio BMX champion four times as a teenager, and I remember watching these kids win a number one ranking and then often the next year they’d suck. They’d let it go to their heads. In reality, we all know you’re one step away from sucking at any moment. If you don’t keep your head in the game you’re going to suck too.
TH Whatever I’ve accomplished, I just keep going. I think this next book is my thirteenth book. There have been six monographs but I’ve done lots of little artist books in between, such as Nymph Daughters and this project called One Day, which was a set of ten artists who made books in one day, and some others. I’ve come up with some experimental approaches that are more fictional or narrative. In this new book I set out to incorporate these little editions—almost like zines—but smaller editions of 500 books into a monograph that would be widely available. They allow you to experiment freely.
JP Did you make a lot of zines, even when you were younger?
TH I don’t want to offend the true zine field. Maybe I should change the word “zine” to small-run, independent books.
JP Like Nymph Daughters?
TH Yeah, like Nymph Daughters. This wonderful man from Japan, Yasunori Hoki, is this awesome guy that runs Super Labo. He works with a bunch of artists and encourages experimentation. So yeah, maybe that’s not a zine, since it’s not on a Xerox machine.
JP Well everyone has their idea of what a zine is and isn’t, and small publishers can push that a bit further.
THAll that matters is that these other books were not widely distributed monographs. There’s no true concern with success or failure. It is what it is; it’s an experimental place.
JP We were just talking about BMX and its connection with photography, and I was reminded that BMX is now an Olympic sport.
THI know, it’s crazy! I remember watching the last Olympics in Beijing with my kids and I could not believe how the sport had progressed. I wasn’t a freestyler; I was a racer like these guys in the Olympics. We were all about speed and style and going around the track as fast as we could.
JP Would you say your ticket out of Ohio was photography?
TH Absolutely, there’s no question about it. BMX was my ticket to photography and photography was my ticket out of Ohio. They were the only things I was good at or cared about. I was one of those kids that never really applied myself until I found something I liked, and then I would excel at it.
After that I went to school in Pittsburgh for a bit, then left for Boston, which was much better for me. Pittsburgh was more of a stepping-stone for a young Ohio boy.
JP A lot of your work draws on your memories of Ohio, a theme you revisit, even starting from your houses at night. What’s the connection to Ohio you’ve drawn in your upcoming book?
TH It’s everything. Much of my work suggested a lot of things, maybe only lightly. That’s the thing I love about photography: the meaning of the image resides in the viewer. Of course the context is extremely important in crafting this, but the interesting thing is that somebody might look at this house at night with the lights on and say, “Wow, what a warm and cozy place, it reminds me of home.” Somebody else might look at the same picture and say, “Oh my god, that reminds me of home! Run!” They can have completely different reactions; it’s the beauty of ambiguous images. If I knew everyone’s reaction up front then it wouldn’t be as interesting.
TH I learned a great deal from Larry Sultan—he was my main mentor and advisor in grad school at the California College of Art and ultimately a good friend out here in California. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago. One of the things he noticed about my process was that I often tinkered around with my pictures and that I resisted “nailing it down,” regarding the meaning that my picture combinations created. He noticed that I liked to hang around in what he called the “vicinity of narrative,” which I believe is true.
When I was making this book, I wanted to bring out different themes that went beyond my own personal experience. At the same time, I was looking at this incredible Robert Adams website that Yale has up. There’s this quote from a Dorothea Lange lecture that Adams mentions. She basically said a photographer should photograph “what exists and prevails.” That’s their task. She must have struck a chord with him because he effectively went out and did that in Colorado in the ’70s. He photographed what was existing and prevailing in the western United States at the time.
I was looking at her quote and I thought, That’s kind of what I do. I make photographs that are not necessarily documentary, but are about what exists and prevails.
There are things in my book that I’ve basically overheard from CNN. There is a TV in my kitchen that is just sort of on all the time when I’m home. I sometimes feel as an artist you’re unplugged because you’re in your head so much. When I went to graduate school I decided to get cable TV for the first time in my life because I needed to pay attention to what was happening in our world; that was 18 years ago and I’ve had it ever since. I’m sure there are things I’ve seen and heard on the news that find their way into my work.
JP I had the chance to see you working on your book back in, I think it was February …
TH Yeah it was such a baby at that point. That book was not even close to where it is now.
JP Now that I’ve seen the completed page spreads, the major thing I noticed was the inclusion of these snapshot-esque photos that play off of all the others. I think you’re drawing on something within vernacular photography. Right now, whether it’s Instagram or looking at photos on Facebook all day, these are the new vernacular images. People also are obsessed with old photographs that they can pick up at a flea market and look at; are you playing off that a bit?
TH Yeah, in a weird way I miss all of that stuff. I think we’re on the last batch of generations of photos that were printed and put into albums. The estates sales between now and the next 20 years, those are the last archives of photos that are going to be found in the way that we know “found” photography to be. It blows my mind when I go to an estate sale and see these piles of photographs. It’s like, “Who doesn’t want these?” I guess maybe everyone in their family is dead or maybe they hated that person, you never know.
It’s going away. I’m in love with found photographs and snapshots; the object is really important to me. I feel like I’m perfectly situated in this “digital revolution” or whatever you want to call it. I was 100% analog and now I move in the world of digital too. My generation is a great place to be, firmly planted in both analog and digital worlds.
I know and love that old stuff—some of those pictures that are in my new book are negatives I found at a flea market in a box. I would take the negatives out and print them. If you score a negative it’s like shooting a roll of your own film, since you have to make a contact sheet to really know what you have. I remember a friend of mine had gotten one at a flea market when we were picking through stuff together in grad school. I wanted it so badly that I bought the negative from her for $75. Back in grad school $75 bucks talked: she instantly sold it to me!
I took a class with Larry Sultan called The Narrative Workshop and we had assignments to take ten photographs somebody else made and put together a story. What I was thinking about was that I wanted to revisit a loose and different way of working, because listening to CNN, I was thinking about all this shit that prevails in the world, and I wanted to incorporate some of it into my work. I wanted to move beyond my own stories—in order for my work to advance I needed to stop talking about just me and start talking about other people too. That was a significant change. I had the desire to tell stories that weren’t just mine; they were beyond the scope of my experience or those of the people I had photographed.
Using pictures from other people’s pasts helped me tell the story better. There are about ten pictures that are from somewhere else and then a bunch that are from my family snapshots. It’s definitely kind of odd to mix other people’s memories into the same context as some of my own personal snapshots. It is almost like rewriting your own past.
I just re-watched Blade Runner the other day with my son who is interested in filmmaking, and I was totally taken with the idea that they constructed personal memories for the most evolved replicants. I had such sympathy for the one character Rachael who came to the realization that the memories that she had were actually false and constructed.
JP I think it’s no coincidence you mention Larry Sultan’s influence on your work; when I was looking at the page spreads of your new book, one of the first things that came to mind was that body of work he did with Mike Mandel, Evidence, which is all photographs from archives. Your new book pushes that idea further because it’s not only your archive and photographs from your most recognizable work, but also, as you said, your family photographs and these other things that come along. You’re pushing that notion of creating a complex narrative, which you can see throughout everything you do.
TH That’s interesting. I guess I never really thought of it. It is kind of like a compound narrative. There is a blending of fact and fiction, and often some completely made up stuff that helps me tell a more true and accurate story.
There’s also a relationship between this book and Pictures From Home, the book Larry made about his family in the 1990s. I like the way he would use found photographs.
It’s funny how these things work in the world. I remember when I just started showing my work when I was fresh out of grad school. I think that it was important for me at that point to establish what was different between Larry and me. My gallerist worked to emphasize the fact that we were different. I guess it’s been nineteen years since I first took his class, the Narrative Workshop in 1994, and I’m curious about how to bring myself back in line with that part of myself a bit.
In the art world, you are who you present yourself as; sometimes that means everyone’s holding back. It’s curious how these things have come around in a big circle. You never escape who you are.
I recently added a new layer as well: found old personal ads from the back of magazines. I printed them out and modified them with things like spray paint, almost like a third person would have done. It’s not obvious in the book whether they are made or found, but I think people will assume they’re found. I made them fictitious, almost like this alter ego made them. Larry was big on adopting an alter ego and making art from that source. That was one of our very first assignments in grad school on day number one.
JP I think I read one time that in graduate school you did a study or worked hand in hand with a therapist to understand more about your work?
THYes, exactly. Well, the story on that is CCA had an independent study program where they would pay anyone you’d like to talk about your work. That was typically someone like the curator of SFMOMA, a teacher from another school, or an editor from a magazine—someone who can lend their insight to your work. Back then there was no approved list of independent study advisors. You could choose anyone and you met with them for one or two semesters, three times each.
At the same time I was in school, I had a friend that was very much dedicated to therapy. I never understood exactly how she fit it in but she went to therapy three, four, five times a week. She found this art therapist she really liked. Being my close friend, she would tell me about her therapy sessions. She was like, “You have to go see this guy he’s totally amazing.” I couldn’t really afford it, I just didn’t have that kind of money, but I put A and B together and got the nod from Larry, and he said, “Yes! Use that art therapist as your independent study advisor!”
So I went to this guy for a couple semesters. I didn’t want to do the procedural stuff where you cut up magazines and make things out of them and they’d “read” what you put together. I told him, “Let’s just say the pictures I take are what I would cut out from magazines and let’s just analyze my photos and combinations of photos I put together.” It was fascinating for me to hear someone else talk about my work. I was in my mid-twenties, so hearing this man’s interpretation of my pictures was incredible because I never had had any kind of therapy. I grew up kind of poor, so going to therapy was considered a luxury. Basically I was blown away by this guy. It confirmed for me that I was making work that was important to me and I was talking about the kind of things I needed to talk about. It made me realize what I was doing was important. It gave me the confidence to be like, “Okay, I now have no doubt about what I’m supposed to do. I’m just going to do it. This is where I’m supposed to be.” I never looked back after that.
It was an amazing gift to give a young artist like me the confidence that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, because a lot of people wonder on an existential level, “Is this what I’m supposed to do? Why am I doing this?” That guy cleared that up for me in a matter of three months. It was like, this is it, this is my work, this is my purpose.
JP So it was like the best critique you could have received and it wasn’t even in a photography class?
TH That’s exactly how I looked at it. I learned so much and I’ve been working with the things that we talked about for years, as our issues never really change, right? This book brings to the fore all the things that have been behind and informing my work. There’s more in there than ever.
JP Of all the photographers that I come across or interact with, I’ve never seen someone carry around so many photographs with them. When I first met you, you had your book dummy with you. If you had five minutes of lag time you got it out and shuffled things around. It seems like you’re always thinking about your work. What else do you allow to seep in? I know you said you have the news on all the time to make sure you understand things and then that subconsciously seeps in. But what else?
TH The only other thing that’s an influence is just hanging out with my kids. It’s interesting because often they need an explanation of current events or things they overhear. I’m not the kind of parent that shelters them entirely from the truth of the world. Doing so creates remarkable damage to a child. We often have conversations that are of the utmost importance. The lesson my kids learned from this terrible Jerry Sandusky case was that there’s stuff happening out there that’s extremely bad. Guiding my two ten-year-old children through the world that we live in today, and explaining how it is screwed up is an integral part of why I even stop and look at some of these events that have happened recently. Of course, you can’t just let them be scared about life, you also need to point out how fabulous and beautiful the world is and why we put up with all this shit in the first place.
In some weird way these conversations I’ve had with my kids about current events seep into my work, probably because I have had to filter [these events] down to an understandable level for them.
JP Not sugar coating the world and telling the truth—however it may come out—is important.
TH I know. It’s the perfect circle because we started talking about what exists and prevails, and there you have it: guiding my children through the world, that’s the motivation right there. It’s funny how these things sum themselves up.
Jacob Pastrovich is a writer and photographer. He lives in Brooklyn and is the Assistant Director at the New York Photo Festival.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee