This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes, Issue 7, Autumn 2015.
Sophie Wright: What were your artistic beginnings and how did they shape where you are now? Why photography?
Todd Hido: I started taking pictures as a teenager when I was racing BMX bikes, like any kids today with their iPhones, in order to document what I was doing. So I picked up a camera. Why photography? Why anything else?
SW: Though there is certainly a cinematic quality to your photographs, they are deeply personal, intimate and mysterious; a dishevelled counterpoint to the manicured vision of American suburbia. What is the relationship between the cultural references in your work and how you subvert them? In the past you’ve spoken about how “something is always wrong” in these scenes.
TH: Well the fact of the matter is there’s never anything truly right in these kinds of scenes; the mythology of the American suburb and its perfection is simply fictional and created, as we all know, largely by advertising and people promoting their own interests. All worlds are filled with chaos, and there are moments when things are in harmony. But like a river, life cuts through anything in its way and seeks its own path, and is unstoppable.
SW: Looking back at a long career, it seems your photographs have been devoted to a fairly small and traditional range of subjects: landscape, portraits, interiors and the open road, coming together to form fragmented narratives. Why were you initially drawn to these themes? How have these interests endured and developed over the years?
TH: These are fairly simple themes, focusing on people and the places they come from, and my photography utilises mood and expression as a way to help narrate these stories. My interests have endured and I’ve worked tirelessly on iterations of these simple themes to continually make pictures that speak to people, or so I’m told, on a very personal level.
SW: I like Luc Sante’s description of the ‘stranger’ in your work, the intruder exploring the tundra of the suburbs. What qualities draw you to the empty spaces in your work? Can you tell me a bit about how you choose where to hunt?
TH: The places where I choose to take my pictures are quite simple – I generally make a majority of my work in places that remind me of something from my past. For example, I’ve made a lot of work in Eastern Washington. The area is very untouched by development, and when I drive through some of these small towns, I’m reminded of precisely the landscape and environment where I grew up in Ohio twenty-five years ago, through which I would ride my BMX bike heading from one town to the next.
SW: Why do you photograph at night?
TH: I like to photograph at night for a couple of primary reasons. One, that’s when things are calm in my world, I can focus and get things done. Two, I’m actually a minimalist in many ways, and when you photograph at night, half the world literally drops away into darkness, and all these things that would irritate me in the pictures are simply invisible. Finally, I do it because the night is full of mystery and ambiguity, and those are things I find exciting to use in my images.
SW: All of your photographs are threaded together by a similar moodiness and sense of latent drama, but aren’t bound together by a straightforward narrative. Do you shoot spontaneously or is your approach defined by a pre-existing idea and end point? When does the story come together?
TH: This is a very good question, and in fact it’s a question that will be clearly answered by looking at my forthcoming mid-career survey published by Aperture called Intimate Distance. It is sequenced chronologically and shows precisely why my work isn’t bound together in a straightforward manner. It shows that I make photographs wherever I am and my interests are not fixated on one particular project. Sometimes in the same day I will photograph portraits, landscapes, and night shots if I’m on a shooting trip, and this chronological approach shows how peripatetic I am.
Ultimately my work comes into form through carefully and slowly sequencing my images into projects that begin to make sense. I will often find that when I have a grouping of new images which seems large enough to create something out of, I will start to pull
all these varied images into a narrative that feels right. I often enjoy doing this in a book dummy format with actual pictures pasted down into an actual book where you turn the pages, because I feel like the act of turning the page is a crucial thing in making a good book. You can only get so far on a computer. I just did a six-page book for Deadbeat Club, and I had informed the publisher that in order for me to fill any pages, I needed to have the physical form sent to me because ultimately, it’s an object you end up with in your hands. Understanding the object as you make your selections is vital.
SW: There is a real sense of performance in your nudes, particularly in the series Khrystyna’s World, whose intrigue relies both on anonymity and the strong character of the model. Can you tell me about these collaborations? How long have you been working with Khrystyna?
TH: Khrystyna has been a long-time collaborator of mine. We met when she came to my studio for one of her first shoots at the very beginning of her modelling career, and our collaboration has extended over seven years.
And you’re correct, the performance is a very large part of what it is that’s at work. Giving her a wig and a completely different look gives her an opportunity to become a character other than who she is everyday. On my end, I’m able to use one of the best models I’ve ever worked with to extend the range of the characters who act as stand ins for my own personal history.
SW: The sequencing of your images seems to be an incredibly important element in the power of your work. Why is the photobook a good format for your work? Do your narratives evolve and function in a different way when exhibited on the wall?
TH: There is no better format for making paper movies, which is what I often like to refer to my books as. I also happen to believe that the photobook is one of the strongest outlets to express oneself photographically.
And yes, my narratives must evolve and function in a different way when putting images on a wall, because of the simple fact that on a wall you can see everything at once. With a book, the joy of it is turning the pages to see something new and letting the images you’d previously seen slip away.
One thing I will say is that I take very seriously these two different spaces, let’s call them that, for presenting my work. I try to put together carefully the right pairings and flow, in the cinematic way you mentioned, to create the proper confluence of mood that moves me.
SW: You’re known and admired by your students for a rigorous work ethic. What is the best bit of advice you’ve ever been given?
TH: My friend and mentor, the late Larry Sultan, said one thing that forms part of what I
do every single day: you need to be a shepherd of your own work. What that means is that you need to be involved in each and every step of making your images, obviously, but also managing what happens with them and being very thoughtful about the contexts that they’re shown in.