Darius Himes: Todd, I’m really intrigued by the introduction of portraits into your work — at least your published work — after steadfastly presenting us with images of houses and the forlorn edges of suburbia (and beyond that, brief forays out into the countryside) over the past three books. And the portraits you’re presenting are unclothed women in their 20s and 30s. The context you’ve created for presenting these women seems extremely important. Visually, we are back in the familiar, quiet, and somewhat eerie urban landscape of House Hunting and Outskirts. We’re now not only meeting the inhabitants, so to speak, of this suburban and quasi-industrial landscape, but they are all women, and they are all nude. Can you guide me, as the viewer, through what could easily be a thorny subject?
Todd Hido: I have actually done portraits like these sporadically since graduate school but I really started focusing in on it a few years ago. I am the kind of photographer that shoots a lot and if you look at my contact sheets I am, as they say, “all over the place.” In any given week I might shoot portraits, nudes, night shots, interiors, or landscapes.
I see my overall archive of work as these stacks of pictures sorted by genre that I am always adding to and sorting from. When I am setting out to do a book or show, I start by selecting what I want to work with and then add to that core. With Between the Two (Nazraeli Press) I pulled the portraits and nudes I had already made and started to fill out that group. I have a few images of men that I like a lot, but they just didn’t seem to fit with the group. They diluted the focus.
DH: What is the focus?
TH: In lectures I have been asked, “Why do you photograph only women?” To which I respond that in a Creative Writing class in college, our very first lesson was that you should write about what you know. So, I photograph what I know.
To me it is no mystery that we can only photograph effectively what we are truly interested in or — maybe more importantly — are grappling with. This is often an unconscious process. Otherwise the photographs 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 for me. I tend to photograph things I’ve had problems with or I have struggled with, stuff that used to keep me up at night. It’s the same process with my photographs of houses — they are about recognizing some mysterious element of my childhood.
I’ve read that sources of terror in childhood often become sources of attraction in adulthood. I’ve found that true. It’s disturbing to me how many of the models remind me of past women that have been in my life — not in terms of how they look but in terms of who they seem to be underneath their surfaces. There is a familiarity to them, something that resonates, something kind of troubled about them that is very recognizable to me. It is endlessly fascinating and utterly simple as to why we gravitate to what we do. Of course this is not stuff that I’ve worked out completely, which is precisely why it’s engrossing to me. That is why I do it. That is the focus.
There is a tension, vulnerability and openness that happens that I find really telling. Their nudity amps the emotion, bringing out expressions and gestures that are quite direct, and which I think add a great deal to the work.
DH: Are these all friends that you’ve photographed? They appear to not be acquaintances, just by the way they present themselves, which is quite revealing of the portrait in many ways. It makes me wonder about your selection process for finding the models?
TH: Some are friends, friends of friends, and others are models I find on the internet through “beginner” modeling sites. Many of them I do not know at all. When they come to the shoot it is often the first time we have ever spoke or met as much of this is set up via email. I always shoot alone and find that the discomfort between two strangers works for me. It adds a tension that I like.
There are always a few rolls of just working through all the standard poses they have seen in magazines that they are mimicking. It is often the moments in between rolls — when I’m changing the film — that is when I almost always see my shot. That is when the model has relaxed and is just being herself — not who she thinks America’s Top Model wants her to be — a “type” she is molding herself into. It is so much more interesting and beautiful to be real.
DH: As I said, the context for these portraits is very important to how the overall project will be received. Can you tell me about your editing process. I’m curious as to how you approached the sequencing. What were your conscious thoughts as you edited this work and put it all together? Did it come together on your own or did you do it along with Chris Pichler of Nazraeli Press?
TH: Chris Pichler is amazing to work with. He has published each of my other titles. And with each book, I have been able to “do my thing.” He knows that artists are really tuned in to their work and when it’s fitting he just let’s them go for it. With each of my books, he has allowed me to make the image selection and do the sequencing, as well as supervise the design. I think this works for us as I am really interested in this part of the process and he knows that, for me, even the smallest thing can make or break the subtlety of the work. His confidence in my process and this collaboration has really been an amazing gift to me. It keeps me moving, knowing that there is an outlet for the work when I’m ready to publish.
The editing process is part of making the work. I gather up the images I am interested in and then start to lay them out using just a standard book dummy, weaving the images together over a long period of time. With Between the Two, it took about three years of constantly shuffling unpublished work in with new images that I was making on a weekly basis. There was real joy in leaving the darkroom and stopping by the copy shop to make Xeroxes in order to slide them into the dummy, seeing if they fit in someplace. Sometimes the images would work, and sometimes they don’t. But almost every image I’ve made in the last few years was tried out. Some were perfect and added just what I needed and others I’ve saved for the next project, whatever that may be!
Specifically, the portraits serve as the base, comprising two-thirds of the book. The urban environments are what imbue the portraits with mood, atmosphere, and a setting. I call them “establishing shots.” The combination of people and places form “paper movies” — arrangements of images that create unfastened narratives. There is an uninterrupted flow of images from beginning to end that keeps the meaning open. In sequencing, I deliberately tried to diffuse any overarching pattern that was emerging.
DH: By combining these portraits, all made in the interior of rooms, with the exterior “establishing shots,” as you call them, you imply that the women live inside these homes and buildings, or at the least that you arranged to meet them there. Are we deceived on both levels? Are the rooms that you photographed in completely unrelated to the exterior views, except, of course, in the sequencing?
TH: Yes, that part is purely fabricated.
DH: What does the title of the book mean?
TH: Between the Two has multiple meanings for me but one of them is that it refers to that space in our mind that tries to make sense of everything. We want to make a connection between things and we fill in that gap automatically — almost instantly. When you turn the pages of the book, I like that you don’t know what is going to come next. Rather than provide the audience with a complete story, in which all of the elements are set, I prefer that my photographs act as tools that can trigger memories and emotions.
A.M. Homes has said of photographs that they are “fragments of a fragmented narrative.” I like that very much.
DH: Would it be fair to say that Between the Two is, on many levels, a work of fiction with a slight hint of autobiographical inquiry at play? Would you change that description? How would you characterize the overall feel of the book in a sentence?
TH: Yes, that is a fair description. I’d say that it is loosely “based on a true story” but if you give an artist the freedom to lie a bit they can tell you something closer to the truth.
–Darius Himes is editor of the photo-eye Booklist, and a writer and photographer. He lectures on photography at The College of Santa Fe and regularly talks to students and photographers around the country about photobooks.