Inverting Todd Hido; My Personal Journey

In considering both practice and editing for my Work in Progress Portfolio, Informing Contexts, I sought out a way of dealing with a rule and an exception

I have been struck by the need to analyse and therefore explain my decision to not only photograph ‘people-free’ but in particular to make an editing decision to show the trace of humanity.  But with an exception.

The creative process is about intent but also about revelation.  So, having sought out a theme for my work on the MA course which commenced as an overarching title ‘re-seeing’ it initially developed into a piece on public art and its crafted quality (the hand of the maker was manifestly what I was inclined to show) but moved on into the hand of the architect and maker in creating buildings in the mid-twentieth century that had been deemed to be at the end of their useful life.  I know all too well that to develop a building from an idea to a fully fledged investment and commitment to complete is an Herculean effort.  So to see these at the end of life is an undeniably emotional downer.

Yet there is another emotion at play.  This begins to open out a personal, reflective space. 2016 was quite a moments year for me, I made the decision that corporate leadership was not such fertile territory and I needed to define a period that I call, at least to myself, a break.  I was drained and tired.  Spliced into this was dealing with the loneliness of being the eponymous singleton.  The title and status had for years synchronised.  How to deal with these two things?  Well a break meant downing the management tools, but nothingness was not the answer to the loneliness.  So I embarked on the journey to learn, to provoke myself, to move my critical faculties away from architecture and apply then to a new realm.  That newness is about photography, about making, undertaking, theorising and critiquing.  At the end of the second module of my MA course I feel armed in all of these new faculties.  Sure, there is more to explore, more learning to do, but there is tangible discovery and there is definition.  But, as I tap away on Easter Sunday, alone with just my dog who is gently wagging his tail on the sofa in his canine dream world, I am having a realisation;

I like to be around people, just a few, never a crowd.  I love talking, I like to laugh, I listen too.  The socialisation of my MA crew has been key to my own emotional stability, yet yet yet; so many many of my counterparts are dealing with the images of relationships in one form or another, whether intimate or socially at scale.  I am not.  I perambulate around spaces, looking for light, shadow, doorways, windows, texture, marks, scrapes, patterns, dust, detritus, looming and lurking.  It is just me.  Indeed, perhaps I wear black to reduce personal impact and visibility.  Like Jeff Wall’s octopus in a corner. 

I ask myself the question, is it easier not photographing people?  To a degree it is, there is no relationship to develop, nurture and convey with a ‘subject’.  But actually, it is just different; I am developing my eye for the space, place and moment of light, of a feel for how a detail conveys a whole; for human touch and trace.  This is deepening and becoming more regular, this photographer’s eye is not a generalist it is becoming a specialist.

Practice

TT

figure1

I was joined by a mason when making images of the redundant and vacant masonic hall in Birmingham.  He was able to really help me understand the use and meaning of all the spaces and demystify some of the secrecy and processional procedures.  So, I decided to photograph him in the very inner ‘temple’ space.  The space was actually less precious and distinctive than I expected, fitting the banal I was seeing throughout the complex, so I made an exception to my rule, I asked him to move through the space as I exposed on the tripod.  He was happy to be photographed, but I wanted to suggest in the image my view that people in this faceless, windowless building should be similarly asked to preserve some blurred anonymity; he, as the subject was happy with this.  After a few attempts, this is the photograph, figure 1.  I pondered its inclusion into my series Empty.  It did not make it into the penultimate edit.  If I were to make a photobook of the masonic experience it would probably be included, but in the Empty series it seemed distracting and adding little to the hollow content I was wishing to capture.

So, why, after this inner debate and clarity, is there a man in the last image in my final edit of Empty?  See figure 2. Well, here are my reasons.  The man in question is absolutely central to the image and all to the purpose of St Thomas More’s church.  I had spent the whole morning there since just after dawn when the church doors open.  Mass started two hours later and I vacated the building for the duration.  That moment struck.  There was the priest administrating, standing under the ‘chimney’ at the crescendo of the structure which shafted light down onto the alter area, viewed through a glass door, itself the inner door of the lobby to the outer solid doors, themselves beyond the concrete structure.  The layering of space and image that I really seek out, was all there.  This building was the only one in constant and persistent use, despite its threatened status.  It has been the exception to prove my rule.  It also served as a finale image where I look in; a counterpoint to the opening image which is about looking out, here is a sneaky look in.

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figure 2

The Practice of Others

The interview with the photographer Todd Hido in Ahorn magazine in the archive http://www.ahornmagazine.com/issue_6/interview_hido/interview_hido.html (accessed on 16th April 2017) is revealing and appropriate here. 

He is known for capturing American landscapes and the human imposition. he shoots at dusk, with film, using found light to capture the stillness, the place but also the light emitting from interiors, the sign, the index of occupation, of life; implied not visible.  It is a suburban ordinariness at small scale.  Yet there is one house where no light comes from within, as the interviewer asks “The image “Untitled #2312-a, 1999” from the series Houses at Night is one of the few images without a visible illumination coming from the house. A beam of light cuts the front of the house but no light comes from the inside. In every house you have photographed the human presence is implied. The quality of the light is also the quality of their presence. Thanks to this perception, you are able to establish a relationship between the viewer and the image, as a personal relationship. Could you explain something more about this particular choice? How important is it for your work to show inhabited houses with human beings’ presence instead of empty houses?” See figure 3.

Hido responds, “You are very perceptive.  Yes, that is the only house at night that does not have a light on the window.  I chose that particular one because it was actually a place that a lot of my ideas about home and loss and longing came to fruition. What I found was really remarkable to me as it was a neighborhood that had simply been walked away from my many of its inhabitants.”  He continues very usefully to explain his feeling and practice “Yes, it’s true that most of my photographs of homes at night have a light on in the window. That is a very important part to me as it implies that someone is in there. I have often said; “The lights come on and the inside seeps to the outside.””

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figure 3

What fascinated me on reading Hido further is that he often manages to find his way into homes and here is his observation in response to this question “You frequently have photographed interiors. How did you find the places, do some of them have a special meaning for you?”

Hido responds “Yes, I love to photograph interiors. They often add another layer of narrative to a sequence of photographs.  And I really like what that does—it sort of brings the viewer inside of the home”.  See figure 4.

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figure 4

Summary

My practice is a sort of inverse of Hido.  He finds light as a source of life; I find emptiness as a source of life dissipated.  His edited exception is a lifeless house captured via its setting and architecture; my edited exception is one of life at the core of a purposeful architecture.  Hence the inverse.

Yes Hido’s emotional stance, his feelings for loss and longing are very much the centre of practice.  He finds human trace, so do I.  There is a commonality alongside the inverse.

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Caught or Made? Hunting, Farming and Intertextual Weave

Informing Contexts

Week 3 Reflections, MA Falmouth University

This week we draw out from the depth of image content analysis to a degree. We categorise instead the overall approach to practice; the sought out as opposed to the made.  The Canadian photographer Jeff Wall, who has exhibited his work globally is credited with summarising these two poles as hunting or farming.  The hunting opportunists tours, seeks, preys, to catch the moment whereas the farmer crafter cultivates, directs, positions, nurtures and poses.

The more we consider image making the importance of the viewer grows as  reader, critique and translator of the seen image.  To view Wall’s work demands questions of us as viewers, as he works out in the real world but also ‘on set’.  Yet for a period his work that may have appeared to fall comfortably into the ‘hunter’ category actually was as farmed as his carefully poised imagery.

By way of example, Wall’s The Approach (2014) appears as an underpass urban scene with its gritty grey backdrop to a homeless person living in a series of cardboard boxes, looked upon by a woman clad in a shawl.  So, are we seeing a hunted image?  As we pause to analyse the view we apply the coded skill set to see that there are indexical devices.  The title implies an approach, not a passing, but is it a helping hand, a dollar or just a moment of observation?  The woman herself is enigmatic; she may be homeless too, though she seems to have decent shoes, though little else belies wealth, so on balance we assume she is part of the disenfranchised.  There is a water bowl but no dog; we assume there is a dog out of frame.  There is a foot and what appears to be a peep hole in the box to the other end of the row of cardboard, but no eye to see.  A trolley sitting on the diagonal that drags the eye through the scene implies abandonment, but from what?  Food, possessions?

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Wall interviewed by Sean O’Hagan in 2015 cites his approach as ‘cinematographic’ evoking the film director’s style.  This implies an idealised reconstruction of a moment caught in memory which is remade then shot.  This moves him from witness to scene maker. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/03/jeff-wall-photography-marian-goodman-gallery-show

The celebrated Invisible Man (2000) was overly based on Wall’s reading of the prologue to the book of the same name by Ralph Ellison (1952).  Yet according to  MoMa citation, Wall also drew from other parts of Invisible Man and his own imagination. https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/jeff-wall-after-invisible-man-by-ralph-ellison-the-prologue-1999-2000-printed-2001 

Wall was formerly a painter and one can surmise that the creation of a painting as an elaborate construct that absorbs time, led to his meticulously controlled and time consuming constructed scenes, so often inspired by old masters on twentieth century set pieces. It is thought that Wall influenced artists that followed him, across medium into music and beyond.  The compendium of visual and cultural references we hold uniquely in our brains is termed intertextuality.  Our conscious and subconscious reference, blend, download and offer not only our creative force but our ability to read imagery and settle it into our own limitless niches. Julia Kristeva would  describe this meaning is filtered by, or led by, our tacit recognition of codes imparted by other texts. If there is any doubt about  the textual embracing the image, we can reference a 1960’s term intermedia. Used by artist Dick Higgins and others to describe various inter-disciplinary artistic activities that occurred between genres.  A column in the LA Free Press started in 1967 was globally linked to multi-media action, this melding technology and movements, encouraging and documenting an interweave of precedents, output and promoting a point for future synthesis and development of ideas.

The imagery created by Sam Taylor-Johnson (formerly Wood) is a more recent example of the constructed, finally tuned approach that also makes references to preceding media, in this case the writings of Bram Stoker (1847-1912) and subsequent films of Dracula (a genre all of their own).  In this image entitled Bram Stoker’s chair, we begin to be provided with a clue to the images deceit. An initial view implies a balletic balance and movement as the Taylor-Johnson hallmark, like Wall, a highly controlled scene, but on more contemplation we see that the chair has not shadow, as indeed neither did the vampire, but the human shadow is singularly powerful. Interrogating commentaries reveals that Taylor-Johnson was suspended by wires for a long period before achieving the suspended self portrait that perfected the angles.

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Both Wall and Taylor-Johnson’s imagery can create in the viewer the mixed combination of the  uneasy, inquisitive and uncanny.  The visual/textual precedents that inform our viewing of these images may incur a feeling of veiled familiarity or indeed deja vu.  The image world pervades our everyday, so we draw on the the veiled and unveiled compendium of memory and impression; it is simply unfeasible to avoid.  Deja vu was a theme at an exhibition at the Whitworth Art gallery in 2009 focused on the viewer’s experience.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/feb/15/art-exhibition

as a more extreme and clearly disorientating symptom of the Surrealists.

But, returning to more settled territory, there is a more overt visual literacy known as meta pictures, the self referencing pictures about pictures. Often not subtle and indeed may be executed with some visual humour, here are three examples.

A ‘Mondrian and Rothko meal’ served up by Hannah Rothstein, then presented as images. http://time.com/3595500/thankgiving-meal-famous-artists/

secondly the Instagram cake, photographed and posted on Instagram as a ‘double meta’ image. Number 19 on this link http://guff.com/some-of-the-most-meta-pictures-on-the-internet

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Finally, Wall likens his work to poetry, in that like a poem, ‘which is made up from the lines that resemble sentences, but exceeds the normal way we read sentences, the poetic quality of an image transgresses the indexical truthfulness of a representation’.http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/jeff-wall/room-guide/jeff-wall-room-5

This second quote is the most insightful way of expressing his image making in terms of its referencing, how we should view it and its reassembly of the normal.

“The experience of a photograph is associative and simultaneous, and in this respect it resembles our experience of poetry. In poetic writing, meaning is not achieved by means of a consistent structure of controlled movements along lines made up of sentences. Rather the poem is made of lines that may resemble sentences typographically but which abrogate the requirement to be read the way sentences are read. So there is a break with any necessary relation to the chronicle.” http://www.rhizomes.net/issue23/debolle/index.html

Reading these drew me to a ‘meta-poem’ by Thomas; a poem on poems that evoke what photography can be too.

‘Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.’

Dylan Thomas