It Was Too Strong: An Interview with Todd Hido
November 19, 2013 | by Emily Farache
She had a black mohawk, edged in green. Sometimes red. I believe there was a brief blue phase. She wore Doc Martens long before they were cool, and she only ever wore baggy, black clothing. I never once saw her smile. When she hung out with the other punks in the unofficial outdoor smoking section of our neighborhood, she inhaled her cigarettes slowly, gently. She wasn’t pretty or even conventionally attractive, but boys always surrounded her. Perhaps it was the heavy eyeliner, speaking of a life populated with interesting and equally enigmatic people and filled with rarefied events that neither I nor her admirers would ever experience, couldn’t even fathom. Part of her mystique, of course, was that she didn’t seem to engage with her entourage, but, eyes down, quietly murmur something once in a while that would galvanize everyone.
She lived just ten houses down from me, but in an older, separate subdivision. On my nightly walks with Maggie, our Rastafarian family dog, I’d hope for a glimpse inside her rundown house. Though lights often flickered through the drawn curtains, that entire winter I never saw a thing. Her home was as inscrutable as was she. Invariably Maggie would pull at the leash to go back home where it was warm and she could go to sleep and where my life, boring and uneventful, waited.
Many years later, I came across this photograph on Todd Hido’s Web site.
For a brief moment, I thought it was her house. Then I saw the dissimilarities; it wasn’t. But the effect on me was profound: my emotional response to the photo, the swoosh of nostalgia, became a portal. Suddenly I was once again in the midst of painful adolescence, projecting a narrative onto a girl I had never met.
It’s no coincidence that Vintage Books recognized the power of Hido’s work and put photos of his homes on the covers of Raymond Carver’s anniversary editions. The pairing is perfect. For inside Carver’s homes, life is hard, often complicated by alcoholism and disintegrating relationships. The same could be happening inside Hido’s homes.
In Hido’s newest work, Excerpts from Silver Meadows, that is exactly the effect he intends. Photos are carefully structured into loose chapters, small narratives that lead the viewer back in time to our youth, one in which traditional notions of adolescence are turned upside down. “This book is a dark book,” Hido admits. “It’s not exactly uplifting. And it gets darker as it goes on.” Hido’s previous works focused on one subject: houses at night, landscapes, portraiture. Excerpts weaves all of these subjects together to create a far more complex narrative. What that story is, exactly, is entirely up to the viewer.
It’s the middle of the night; we are at a very modern, very chic apartment in Chelsea. Hido’s flight into New York was delayed, and my interview with him over wine, takeout, and cigarettes on the glass balcony is like hanging out with an old friend (partially true; I once modeled for him). Hido is friendly, amiable, and possesses a rare charisma that immediately puts one at ease. It’s strange to connect the darkness of the book with the artist. But, as Hido tellingly admits, “I believe you can use photographs to meditate on and work through things in your life.” Thus, it is the main foldout autobiographical section of the book in which much can be deduced, but nothing is certain.
As we looked through his autobiographical section, Hido abstained from giving any specific facts about his childhood, saying instead, “Picasso said, ‘Art is a lie that tells the truth.’ Yes, it is fictitious, but only to a certain point.” The facts of his upbringing remain hazy, and the images are vague enough that they might mean different things, but it feels like a childhood of possible alcoholism, neglect, and violence. Images include a wall punctuated by fist-size holes; a boy’s bike deserted at the edge of a creek; a phone off the hook in a filthy, empty room; a lonely stuffed animal in the corner of a barren room.
There are also two small images of a blond woman (presumably his mother). In the first she appears beautifully innocent, but the focus is blurry—implying that this innocence is an apparition, a faint trace from of past. What happened? A found photo of a book depicts a salacious blonde under the banner: “She was the campus tramp. All a boy had to do was … Say When.”
On the same page is a news clipping of his father, proud and happy, a football hero, the heading Action is What Hido Gives the Fans next to a photograph of the same man: older, balding, disheveled, and slumped over, barely managing to hold up his diploma with one hand and grab his son’s arm in the other. Another image is similarly composed: with one hand, he proudly lifts up his son; with the other, a keg of beer. He stands with his chest pumped out, ignorant of the stains on his clothing and that his son seems to be both pushing the keg away and attempting to release himself from his father. Empties scatter the foreground.
In the second and last photo of the blonde, she’s smiling, but her eyes are cut out of the frame; perhaps it’s a passive-aggressive assault on his mother for refusing to see what was happening around her. Worse, for smiling her way through it all.
The smaller stories that both encircle and inform this personal and seemingly violent narrative tie everything together. They imply a man searching for other stories like his own, wanting to suggest the truth of his childhood, or to sublimate it.
There are exterior shots of houses, taken mostly in the Midwest (often in and around his hometown of Kent, Ohio, for which the book is named) and usually from his car; devoid of life, they feel haunted. Lights might shine brilliantly through windows, doors gape open, and cars sit in driveways; there are no inhabitants in sight. The homes feel abandoned, forsaken. Interior images depict what seem to be dark and subversive acts; the where and when of these activities are entirely subjective. Portraits and landscapes often have their own page.
Who are these people? What have they done? What are they about to do? Why is this image of an object even here? These phantoms of our collective past suggest significantly dark events about real people doing, having done, or about to do questionable actions both disarm and reinterpret our ideas of childhood and innocence. An idea that is far more disturbing than that of literal ghosts or ghouls haunting a home.
There are also some stunningly beautiful photos in the book; landscapes that have a painterly, almost William Turner feel to them. As Hido says, “I’m not afraid to use beauty to draw people in.”
A beautiful, self-possessed woman lures the viewer into her world: shot from behind, her graceful neck, pearl necklace, and an alluring, off-the-shoulder dress connote a poised and confident woman. But it’s the subtle details of the portrait that punctuate the series of images that follow: as she holds her right hand up near her ear, she’s also turned her head away to the left, as if to say, stop. Turn the page and there she is: in a car, drunk; pretending to take off her clothes; making sexy poses for the camera; bent over a bed, naked but for shoes and panties.
In a different chapter, the very first photo is of a decrepit home. Apparently abandoned, save for the fact that snow has been removed from the roof, but not the gutters, leading the viewer to surmise that the owner did the bare minimum to prevent yet more damage to the house. It’s not a home anyone particularly cares about. Then there’s a very small, close-up image of a baby in a bed. Is it asleep? Dead? No other person is in the photo. Perhaps whoever lives there is as neglectful of the baby as s/he is of the house. The third and last image in the chapter is of a trailer home. Taken from a distance through a wet window, sections of the image are murky, like a memory, while others are crystal clear. The viewer is forced to wonder why two different homes border the image of the baby. Was the trailer home where the occupant ran to after a horrifying incident with the baby? Is the recollection indistinct because the events leading to this new, even more decrepit-looking home are too painful to remember? The answer is purposefully ambiguous, as Hido readily admits, “I’ve always implied the lives of other people … Dorothea Lange said to Robert Adams that ‘A photographer’s job is to photograph what exists and prevails.’ There’s an impulse to have a document. But I’ve never been able to call myself a documentarian because I play with fiction … It might not have happened to that person in this house, but it does happen. So it does exist and prevail.”
Each chapter’s narrative ambiguity is integral to the montage, as are the individual photos Hido choses and the order in which he displays them. “In the background I’m always stringing images together to imply a narrative,” explains Hido. Of a photo of a young girl half naked on a seedy bed, frightened and scared, but looking directly at the camera, he says he kept the photo in his “closet” for years. “I didn’t like what it said. It was too strong. I wasn’t ready for this before. [Sometimes] you have to grow into something you’ve made.” Because who’s to say what is really happening? Is this girl about to be raped? Was she just assaulted? Or could the story be something very different, the reality of which, given just that one photo on the page, the viewer will never know.
The last three photos of the book (a street sign, a woman looking scared to death, a phone) imply that “Something has happened—you don’t know what. She saw something, but you don’t know what.” The final image, a close-up from the autobiographical section: the phone off the hook. What has happened that was so sudden that a phone, on the ground in a dirty and apparently abandoned room, would be left off the hook?
Much in the way I idolized a girl who seemed so sure of herself, Hido’s Excerpts allows for a similar emotional, visual, and visceral context of my youth. Looking at her house and wondering: Who they were, what they did, did they love each other? Fight? Play? Eat together? How did their daily lives play out within those four walls? What did that mean? Hido delves into the past in a way I can’t; it’s all memory, but none of it is documented and none of it seems real anymore. But it did happen.
A viewer of Excerpts has much the same experience with Hido’s photos as I had as a youth with this girl’s house. Except that the voyeuristic and participatory component is there for the world to see—it’s not a private memory. More questions are raised than are answered, and it is up to the viewer to answer them with a combination of fact (the photo itself) and of personal experience. Hido understands this ambiguity. Everyday it tugs at us, shapes us. An e-mail or text misunderstood, an unheard request; we interpret and judge with facts and information, but also with our memory and experience of past events, which are not always reliable, and with the omnipresent and sometimes overriding interference of our imagination.
Emily Farache is a writer living in New York.