“One thing that is important to know about my work is that not all of it is about me or things that I have encountered…many of the narratives come from things I have seen in others.”
Photographer Todd Hido has made a career out of creating imagery that sticks with you, in part because it seems so familiar. His unique landscapes—frequently devoid of active human figures, yet suffused with energy—resonate because they feel as though they have been directly pulled from the recesses of your own memory.
With work in the permanent collections at the Whitney Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, SFMoMA, the Smithsonian, and Pier 24, Hido is no stranger to the world of art photography that often features ideas of “home”. As such, we are thrilled that he has agreed to take part in our new HOME ‘21 International Photography Prize (closing April 21st) as a jury member.
In 2018, Coralie Kraft reached out to Todd for a conversation about his work and artistic process, how he stays inspired, re-creating memories, and more. We’re delighted to re-publish that interview here.
LensCulture: It seems that a lot of your work concerns the “internal” world (both yours and your viewer’s). How much do you let the external world—politics, the cultural climate—impact your photography?
Todd Hido: The internal/personal is often quite political, and external forces have always influenced my work. However, I learned from my mentor, Larry Sultan, that it is through the personal connection that one could relate to another in a truly impactful way.
For one of my last books, Excerpts from Silver Meadows, I was deeply influenced by a television that is constantly running in my kitchen, playing CNN. As I worked on my edit of photographs, there were a lot of really crazy things going on politically. These things absolutely filtered into my work.
Dorothea Lange said, “It is a photographer’s task to portray what exists and prevails.” I came to that message through the work of Robert Adams, who has clearly been doing this beautifully and accurately for almost all of his career.
One thing that is important to know about my work is that not all of it is about me or things that I have encountered. Many of the narratives, particularly in Excerpts, come from things I have seen in others.
My latest body of work, entitled Bright Black World, is very much a reaction to the current times that we live in. I was already working on a body of work that touched upon climate change in my own way, which is an issue growing far quicker than we could have imagined. That being said, I think my work became even darker in this truly horrific and inescapable political atmosphere in America today. There is no way you can turn a blind eye or be willfully ignorant to the tide of current events.
LC: Your photographs strongly remind me of Edward Hopper’s paintings; smooth vistas, and yet charged. Can you talk about some of the visual material you find inspiring? How do you see that material influencing and impacting your work?
TH: I am a fan of Edward Hopper, and I was delighted to have my work hung next to his at a show at the Whitney Museum. Other visual inspiration for me often comes from my library of over 6,000 photography books that I am constantly adding to and referencing.
I am also inspired by things that are in my daily visual path. I love to leave books open on my dining room table and walk past them 100 times. You would be surprised how much that sinks in and becomes reflected in your work.
LC: Your series Homes at Night is one of my favorites. We never see human silhouettes or the homes’ inhabitants. Why is it important to you that the houses appear on their own?
TH: Because of the very simple fact that if it is an empty shell, the viewer can place their own memories within it or create a narrative that would otherwise be blocked by the reality of what is actually inside.
LC: When viewers “place their own memories within,” do they ever react in a way that surprises you?
TH: While I know that my work does elicit a response in people, it is often something that is personal and not really shared with me. This, of course, is totally fine.
LC: As a viewer, one sees how your images could potentially bring up uncomfortable thoughts about home and family. Is this intentional? Also, is there a narrative that grounds the series Homes at Night?
TH: In my mind, the meaning or the narratives derived out of a work of art reside in the viewer. There are always multiple interpretations, but one of the most curious things that I hear about my houses at night is when people tell me that they connect with my work because it reminds them of something from their own past.
So, in a way, memory might be the thing that actually grounds the work.
LC: In a previous interview in LensCulture, you said, “Photographs that are merely about an idea or a concept—that stuff eventually falls flat for me. There must be something more, some emotional hook for it to really work.” How do you balance concept and emotion in your work? Do you find that sways to one side over the other?
TH: To be honest with you, I don’t think about it at all. I just know when I am moved or intrigued.
One or both of those things must be present, and this is essential in order for me to consider an image as something that I would put forward in the world.
LC: Do you ever get burnt out creatively? If so, how do you energize yourself? Do you take time off, search for inspiration outside of the photo world, change up your methods…? I read that you made some of your newer work in Death Valley and Iceland—a clear departure from the suburbs.
TH: I don’t really ever get burnt out. I live and breathe photography with the same intensity that I always have. When I am not feeling particularly inspired, I will often turn to my photo library; however, there have definitely been times where I will go out to shoot and I will not see anything.
That usually has something to do with me being in the wrong place—that, or it is a horribly sunny day. All blue skies. In that case, there is nothing worse.
LC: You’ve worked as a photographer for a long time. When you meet young aspiring artists, do you ever think to yourself, “This person will make it”? If so, why? Do they share personality traits, practices, habits?
TH: I always love when I meet somebody who is truly talented. What makes somebody that way is their drive—they work hard and do not expect things to simply come to them, which is definitely a problem with the millennial generation.
One of my students that has done very well is Greg Halpern. When he first came to class, I immediately noticed that he was very into photography and that he worked very hard. The medium was constantly on his mind.
People with that kind of intensity—and a sense of modesty—are the ones who often make it.
—Todd Hido, interviewed by Coralie Kraft
Our HOME ’21 International Photography Prize is open for entries! Submit your work to have it seen by jurors like Todd Hido as well as magazine photo editors and book publishers. Deadline: April 21, 2021.