‘I photograph like a documentarian, but I print like a painter', says Todd Hido (1968, USA), renowned for his night pictures of suburban houses and his poetic, luminous landscapes. He was recently in Amsterdam to give a workshop and GUP took the opportunity to ask him some questions.
What is the story behind the houses?
Larry Sultan was one of my teachers and his work had a great impact on me when I started my career. In a body of work called ‘Pictures From Home’, he photographed his parents in a way that really was an exploration of home and family, a look back at growing up. He pointed out that my work was also about home, and relationships, even if I wasn’t photographing people literally. During one of his narrative photography classes, we had to string together a bunch of pictures into a story, and I needed a photograph to open the series, a place where the people in my narrative lived, like an establishing shot. That’s how I first went out and photographed a house at night.
Why at night?
When the lights come on, the inside seeps to the outside. You know something’s happening in there. I like that. There’s also something mysterious and unnerving about the night.
So, do you want to give your pictures the feeling that there’s something eerie going on in these houses?
To me, the meaning of art resides in the viewer. I’ve had people look at some photographs and say “oh, it’s a nice family together, it might be Christmas”. When I exhibited at SFMOMA, a young school kid wrote in the comment book “it looks like they’re having a nice time at home”. Different people see different things. I like the idea of suggesting, but not telling. I just put things out in the world and let people interpret them as they wish.
Especially because, looking through your body of work, you’re not showing what’s going on inside, not even the occupants - not even their shadows or silhouettes. Is that deliberate?
Yes, totally. Sometimes when you isolate things down and don’t have people in the picture, it’s more evocative, and the viewer has to come to their own conclusions.
Not saying what it is leaves the work open for anybody to interpret. Titles would limit their meaning. I also like that, without a title, it’s impossible to even nail down the place I photographed.
What about the numbers by your pictures? What do they represent?
Those are just my roll numbers! I started numbering my pictures in 1991 - I’m up to 11,000 now. It’s just a chronological system based on how many rolls of film I have shot.
Talking about places - how do you find them?
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 a thousand times - or a road that looks like the road I rode down thousand times. I’m definitely on a search for something familiar. I drive around all over the place and look for the architecture of my childhood, something that has a familiar feel.
Sometimes I deliberately go out to shoot for the day, or many days in a row if I am travelling, and it is all planned and blocked out on my calendar. But sometimes, especially if it’s raining – I love to shoot in the rain -, I’ll go out with my kids and we’ll simply take the long way to go find ice cream.
Ah, the rain - all the effects of blurs or these incredible flares, these are natural?
Yes, everything is natural! I don’t use filters - only natural ones, like rainy windows. Emmett Gowin once said to me, “photography is about position”. He’s very right. If you’re not in the right place, the light can be fantastic, but the photo won’t work. I’m often literally hunched over in the car, with my huge Pentax 6x7, photographing through the window, sliding over from raindrop to raindrop. At the end of the day, when I’m done, my back seriously hurts.
Do you also shoot digital?
Everything that people have seen published is 100% analog (medium format), shot on film and printed in the darkroom. For some night shots lately I’ve been using digital, because there are some things you just can’t do with film.
I was told you started using Adobe Lightroom not too long ago...
Usually I’ll make a small print and then use that as a master, which the lab will use to match for larger prints. I have a really great lab. But, on a good night, with an assistant working along with me, we can do 15 or 16 negative changes - if we’re kicking ass. I don’t do anything crazy; mostly dodging/burning, lighting, colors, corners - simple functions that I realized I could do in Lightroom.
So one day, I decided to test it with some negative scans. And I realized that in the five hours spent in a darkroom printing 15 photos, I could suddenly do 200 of them. And I was like, "Oh my God! Where have I been! Why didn’t I do this before?" But it’s a completely different process and I have been carefully, slowly, bit by bit, making the digital darkroom work for me.
How much do you play with your negatives in the darkroom?
Harry Callahan was another teacher of me and a big influence on my work, especially my printing. He would take a picture and manipulate it in so many ways after the fact. Being exposed to him and speaking to him as a young student was really beneficial. So, yes, I work my negatives a ton. Taking the picture is the starting point - I photograph like a documentarian, but I print like a painter. I think that’s an important distinction of my work.
This was only part I of the extensive interview. Read the second part of the interview, in which Hido elaborates on his upcoming publication Excerpts from Silver Meadows.
To see more from Todd Hido, view our online portfolio of the artist's series Homes at Night.