An appreciation of Todd Hido, by Robin Titchener

The day seemed very appropriate for the discovery of the book. The sky was watery grey, the London streets were wet with the rain that had been falling for most of the day, and the bookstore window slightly grimy from the dirt, water and… whatever else the city could throw at it. The image on the cover was of a rural counterpart to this urban scene. A rain lashed country landscape, a lonely road disappearing into the horizon, The image taken through the window of a car. Rivulets of water clearly running down its surface or just pooling in random areas of the glass. Normally a distraction, but in this instance the perfect finishing touch to one of the most emotive images I have ever seen.

And so my love affair with Todd Hido began.

If the above sounds romantic, or even a little florid then  that is purely intentional. The noir-ish fiction style of classic American literature is perfectly suited to the work of Hido.whose images encompass everything from feelings of loneliness and paranoia, to the more sinister subject of surveillance and even voyeurism.
His work is polarizing, a number of people I have spoken to just don’t like it. Depressing, creepy, lonely have all been offered up as observations and criticisms, and they are all perfectly valid, but the fact that Hido can so beautifully create these pictures, so skilfully light and frame them means that the sheer narrative drive transforms them into something very special.

The book that started it all off for me (the one described above) was Roaming, more of which later, but the two that preceded it are probably even more breath taking.  Published in 2001 by Nazraeli Press, House Hunting is simply put one of the most stunning memorable and original debuts ever. A huge book measuring 14″ by 17″ this set the tone for Hido’s work with the publisher, and the progression of projects (thus far at least) that have followed it. It is a collection of images of empty, repossessed (foreclosed) buildings-mostly- photographed at night. A simple premise but the mood of each piece is skilfully manipulated to present different possibilities to the viewer. Image 2690 (there are no titles given to any of Hido’s images), which is also the cover of the book, suggests a warmer safer prospect than many of the other pictures. Maybe the warm light that emanates from the window. Possibly the fact that the property is boundaried by a fence, which places a physical protective barrier between the house and the viewer, or maybe the fact that other buildings are visible in the periphery, all suggesting safety, support, community.  On the other hand 2424b presents a more spectral image. A snowy landscape open to all, in foggy half light suggests, perhaps, a more dubious intent by the artist. The solitary house, set back from the road, light from the windows indicating life within, but maybe this time, to a not so welcome observer.  Silent scripts for unmade movies

The same year, Nazraeli released what is possibly considered “The Grail” by most serious Hido collectors. Taft Street was number 6 in the long running One Picture Book series. Small hard cover books which featured an signed original print. Each volume is produced in an edition of 500. Taft Street was a unique departure for the series, in as much that the featured house was shot at night in each of the four seasons with each season only having 125 copies each, so the total edition still only numbered five hundred. Available singly or as a (now coveted) edition of all four, this is also probably the most desired of all the OPB series. In 2009 he contributed his second and third set of images. Cracked Tree and Crooked Cracked Tree were numbers 59 and 60 respectively.

Outskirts followed in 2002 Again the massive portrait format (according to Hido, easier to crop out the surroundings and concentrate on one specific area), and this time the emphasis shifted to the streets and roads themselves. Again the locations feel isolated and forbidding. Lanes snaking away from us, roads that disappear around corners into the darkness. Each illuminated by a single street lamp. Locations, that even when bathed in the warm sodium glow do not appear friendly or welcoming. These are places that say “I dare you”.

When placed together these two books form a formidable body of work, which really should figure in any serious photo book collection. Both are out of print (House Hunting went to a second edition) and scarce, but they are out there, and worth tracking down.

His third book with Nazraeli, and the one which figured in my “introduction” was Roaming (2004). Smaller in format, and the first to be presented in the landscape format. These images have a looser more spontaneous feel to them. Mostly shot through the window of his car and with the image sometimes skewed or twisted, these stunning mood pieces take on an almost impressionistic sensibility.
As I have already said , Roaming is a personal favourite of mine, but for some reason seems to slip through the net, the “quiet man” of Hido’s oeuvre. Collected by the enlightened, but passed over by the majority. Surrounded by its larger format siblings, this gem of a book seems to sit at the back of the group, coughing politely and tentatively holding up it’s hand in a bid to attract some attention. When really, it needs to shoulder it’s way to the front and take it’s place with the big boys. Scarcity may have something to do with this. The title again had only one edition, and is now long out of print. Also, being landscapes, maybe it did not, on first impression, have as much to offer as the first two books. However thanks to Hido’s continuously developing unique style, it undoubtedly  will go on to be a considered landmark title within the genre.

Between the Two (2006), also from Nazraeli should have been a potential magnum opus, but for me it was something of a misfire. It was, however his second title to be given a second print run, so maybe I am in the minority. This title brought together the exterior shots, with the run down interiors of motel rooms, and for the first time brought a physical human presence into the frame. Images of women, some in close up, some in semi naked long shot, sprawled on beds, or gazing with polished indifference into the lens of the camera.

I am a huge fan of Hido’s editing, but I did not take to this book. It lacked the continuity of the earlier titles, all of which obviously concentrated on one theme. Here all of his earlier projects feature, with portraits, nudes, colour, and again for the first time, black and white, all jostling for attention.  I love the nudes, the models are fabulous, again possibly because it was the first time that they had featured. Also as they form quite a large portion of the book there is a noticeable flow to the images. Drop the exteriors and the monochrome, and (in my humble opinion) you have another damned near perfect book.

In 2010 Japanese publisher Super Labo released a small almost zine like book in an edition of 500 called Nymph Daughters. With a title and cover taken from an old pulp novel of Hido’s, which he customised, scanned and reproduced for his take on the title. This was the book that Between the Two should have been, and also hinted at another project yet to come.

Nazraeli also continued their collaboration in 2010 with another massive publication. A Road Divided. Possibly to bring his landscapes into the format not afforded to Roaming. This beautifully produced volume felt a little like treading water. Everything thus far had been a progression, a development, but as stunning as it is, I have to ask myself whether it was really necessary.

In 2013 came what is probably his most personal and ambitious project to date. Excerpts From Silver Meadows takes the premise of the earlier Nymph Daughters and kicks it into overdrive. Collages, gate folds, original and found images are all skilfully mixed by an artist who has truly become a master of the photo book . The semi autobiographical  account of growing up in small town America (Silver Meadows is an area near where he grew up) takes all of Hido’s earlier ideas and also incorporates archival and “fabricated” images to create a narrative that would not have been out of place in one of his beloved pulp novels from yester year. Fictions intertwine, soap operas practically gestate on the pages. With regard to associated products, two stunning additional items were produced. The Transformer Station, the gallery that originally organized the parent exhibition produced a set of poster prints in an edition of 500. Measuring 16″x12″ and comprising eight images from the show, based on the design of cinema lobby cards. Nazraeli also followed up the book with B Sides an exquisite little set of 50 cards featuring images that did not make it into the main project. The concept was designed as a companion piece, which due to nature of the design, allowed the viewer to sequence the images to create their own narrative. It was presented in a Perspex box in an edition of just 500.

Which brings us right up to date with Khrystyna’s World, also published in an edition of 500 by Refex editions. I love this book, and it brings me right back to the American noir culture referenced right at the beginning of this overview. From the plain front cover with the embossed fifties style graphics, and the tipped in image on the back. To the work itself, the choice of cars (yes, I know, one blip near the end), and the period styling and make up used on the models. This title has,to me at least, a clear single narrative, unlike the kaleidoscopic Silver Meadows. Pure mid century melodrama. Having recently read a couple of Patricia Highsmith novels, specifically The Cry of the Owl. The story of a peeping tom, his prey, and their curious relationship which ensues. I could practically hear her weaving a new tale though the images before me. It unashamedly drips with nostalgia. Hawks, Wilder, Huston and of course Hitchcock, would I am sure, approve.

What lies ahead for Hido ?  Well I have read interviews where he mentions the ocean, seascapes and possibly more portrait and figure studies. All I know is that when he chooses to take on new subjects and move into areas that he has yet to touch upon, he does so with style and an always refreshing  and innovative eye.

Just like the guy watching that house…..I will be waiting.

A selection of Todd Hido photobooks can be purchased here.

Robin Titchener is a keen, bordering on fanatical photobook collector of thirty years. He still wouldn’t know a Rolleiflex if it fell on him…but certainly knows how to appreciate what they, and the people who use them, are capable of.  He lives in London, he still has no cats, and recently declined the kind offer of a goldfish.

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