Obscura Journal Contributor Brileigh Hardcastle recently interviewed photographer Todd Hido for the drop of his Obscura Curated Commission: The Black Mechanism. They discuss the role of inclement weather in this new body of work, how it might relate to an underlying existential anxiety while searching for the unknown in this “ambient darkness.”
BH: Todd, I like the variety of subject matter across all of your work, from portraits to suburban homes, and now landscapes. As an artist, do you feel that you work against the idea of being “pigeon holed”? How has this allowed you to grow as a photographer?
TH: I tend to have a natural resistance to being boxed into anything. It has served me well as an artist because I often tend to work on many projects at one time, which allows for thoughtful iteration between the genres I work in. It basically gives me the time and distance to back away from something and see it from a different spot, instead of keeping my head down working on one thing until it is completely done, which, for me, at least, is somewhat unnatural when it comes to making art.
BH: Your book Silver Meadows requires physical attention in order to really look at the work and interact with the way that the pages are laid out. Given your long history in book publishing, what are your thoughts on NFTs as a new medium for photography? It feels like there’s a tension between the two.
TH: What’s the famous phrase, “comparisons are odious”? However my images reach people, through whatever format or medium, I don’t see much sense in telling people how to enjoy, view, or display art. I actually very much embrace the differences between the physicality of holding a photobook in one’s hand — versus viewing my work on a wall in a gallery; and of course the other realm that we are talking about is a digital image on a screen, which doesn’t feel foreign at all to me because many of my works, especially the newest ones, are natively digital. One of the exciting things about having a new format to view or create work within is that change naturally creates growth. And I’m very curious about what kind of things will come next.
BH: The sequencing in The Black Mechanism reminds me of Robert Frank’s renowned photobook, The Americans where one element from one photograph appears in the next, slowly evolving as you move through the series. Do you feel like your approach to sequencing images has changed over the years? What is that process like for you?
TH: I’ve never been compared to Robert Frank before, and that is quite a compliment that you notice what I’m doing when I’m weaving together a series of images. Narrative, even very subtle or implied narrative, is an absolutely integral part of how I think about my work. For me, the taking of the individual images is only the beginning. I love that process of putting together a body of work. I feel like more and more I am trying to mine that tension you speak of. It’s a bit like making a paper movie and I have enjoyed infusing narrative into my images through their context and placement.
BH: I’ve read many of your interviews, and often someone will tell you that a photograph you took reminds them of “X”. There’s an ongoing relationship with memory and place in your images, leaving the viewer to insert themselves into the frame. One could say that it makes the work more about others than yourself. Is there an image in this series that feels most evocative to you and your personal experiences?
TH: That is the beauty of a photograph and the astute visual literacy that we are increasingly engaging with as a society. One thing I’ve always said is that the meaning of a photograph resides in the viewer. While I definitely have my own implied narrative in mind, linked to my own memories and experiences, one of the most gratifying things about my work over time has been the realization that everyone brings their own background to any image. What I consider “ominous” or “depressing”, someone else could equally perceive as “hopeful” and “optimistic.” And far from being annoyed that people don’t interpret my work the same way I do, I’m thrilled that the images I make can become these psychological reflections, and can provide different meaning and emotional color based on what people are searching for in their own lives.
With this latest series I feel more than ever that instead of searching for my own memories in other places I am actually responding to the world that we live in, in its current, heightened state. Perhaps this comes with a certain maturity. I have already figured out as much as I probably ever will about my own childhood, and my relationships are on solid ground. And because of that it affords me the ability to engage with subjects that aren't just about me or my past.
BH: This project is the result of many journeys through extreme weather, resulting in reduced visibility. Is there a conceptual tie between driving without a clear sense of direction and this “ambient darkness” that you describe in the statement for this work? Alternatively, could it be suggested that what you are searching for exists in the unknown?
TH: What I am searching for most certainly exists in the unknown. Because if I knew what it was exactly that I was trying to get at, I would be finished with the work. And I don’t feel like that at all, I feel as though I am just hitting my stride.
And definitely the surrounding atmosphere that I seek out is both literal and metaphorical. Snow and mist and fog and rain and dust and haze: all of these things obscure vision to some degree, in a way that allows for a more impressionistic feeling than a perfectly in focus shot. Both approaches have their place.
BH: Photography is often a solitary practice and The Black Mechanism is a great example of this. You consistently choose to drive out in dark, stormy, or foggy weather. How does the act of traveling in this weather affect you mentally? Do you see a reciprocal relationship between you and the environment? How does this influence the resulting images?
TH: For much of my career photography was indeed a mostly solitary act. But when I met my wife Marina 8 years ago, she wanted to accompany me as I took photos, and suggested helping out by taking up the driving duties. Because this was a change for me I was initially resistant. But I opened my mind to the possibilities — I could spend all of my time looking out the window instead of dangerously looking right and left while driving! I could rest my eyes during the sunny stretches of a drive. I could stand in a dodgy alley at 3am with less fear. I could spend my energy keeping my mind artistically aware instead of situationally aware. I know my images seem like I’m the only person around while I’m making them, but in fact that is just my framing and in 90% of these pictures, she is there keeping me safe. She has also become frighteningly adept at driving through storms without using windshield wipers.
BH: Let’s take a look at The Black Mechanism #42. This image feels different from the rest of the works because the only source of light is from the car headlights. Can you talk about why you chose to do this?
TH: That’s an interesting one. I chose to use the car headlights to light it in a way that is not common for me because it is actually the exact same spot I visited many years ago and was the cover of a book I made called Roaming. I often find that it is quite productive to revisit places I’ve been to in the past, and I like that it pushes me to make an image in a different way than I had before. In this case, I knew that it was one of my wife’s favorite photos from before we met, so I wanted to take her to see the real spot, almost 20 years later. I didn’t initially have any intention of making a new photograph there, but we got there, and the way the headlights fell on that familiar little stand of trees, so similar to the original image, yet completely different...
BH: Your work takes place in the suburbs and countryside which were designed for cars to get around. Growing up in the suburbs, I always had this dream that one day I would get a car, and take my camera and just get out and drive. Do you feel a certain pull towards using a car and the freedom that it allows? Is the car symbolic to you in any way?
TH: The act of driving is inextricably woven into my photography. If you grew up in the suburbs, then you know exactly what a car represents to an American teenager: the ultimate freedom to wander and explore. And I still drive the same way, pulled in a direction only by visual instinct, and not with any set destination in mind. Also, I’ve found the windshield serves as a framing device, and gives me the opportunity to layer my focus, which is why I think my work is often interpreted as memories. Some parts are sharp and some parts are blurry.
BH: In the essay of your 2018 book, Bright Black World, art historian Alexander Nemerov writes “the end sends advance warning.” Looking at The Black Mechanism #32, the sun has set, and all that remains visible is the shadows of power lines and an industrial site with thick smokey clouds further down the road. When I think about this image in relation to the rest of the works of winding roads and harsh weather, I am reminded of not only climate change but also many of the events from the last few years: the pandemic, war, and uncertainty about the future weaving together. Do you think that this body of work speaks to anxiety about the future?
TH: Absolutely it does. That existential anxiety is something I can’t quite shake and you picked up on that provocative sentence with which Nemerov started his essay. For me, as a mostly visual person, all I need are a few well-chosen words that echo in my mind as I am out there searching for the unknown. Also, the phrase “bright black world" is itself a quote from A.S. Byatt’s excellent book “Ragnarok”, a beautifully poetic retelling of the Norse mythology of the apocalypse. The phrase and Nemerov’s essay both felt incredibly relevant in 2018 when the book was published, but now, only 5 years later, those references feel almost too depressingly spot on for our current situation.
BH: You have worked with photography for about 25 years now. There is a cinematic but also poetic and literary influence in your work yet you seem to be stubbornly committed to this medium – can you speak to why you remain dedicated to producing photographs?
TH: When I was a young graduate student I discovered the work of Lewis Baltz. One of my favorite things he said was, “Photography is a profound corner that sits in between literature and film.” When I read that it really spoke to me, and I understood the value and the agency that a well made image has. It has always been curious to me that friends of mine who make films and writers often find sources of inspiration from photographs. Obviously making a movie is not a solo act and takes quite some time. Although much of what I’ve put out into the world have been still photographs and photobooks, I definitely do explore other mediums. I’m quite interested in collage, watercolor, and I have been spending my time with filmmakers recently. So who knows what will come of all that?
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