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Todd Hido: Open House
April 12–July 7, 2002

Todd Hido

Untitled, #2423-A, 1999
chromogenic print, editon 4/5, 38 x 30 inches

Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco, CA

Bay Area photographer Todd Hido suggests the presence of absence in his color-saturated photographs of houses and apartments. He photographs the exteriors of urban and suburban lower- and middle-class houses and unlovable apartments, and the interiors of these dwellings which have been abruptly evacuated. The photographs are taken at night, layering complex meaning around the images. Nocturnal imagery resonates within film, literature, and music, complicating an easy or shallow reading of Hido's photographs. The photographs of the exteriors of these houses, most with lights glowing from within, suggest an unseen presence. By imaging these homes shrouded in fog or packed in with snow, Hido suggests a nuanced ghostly presence rather than, say, an easy critique of economic downturn or social disorder. Instead, he tenders a gentle reminder of the frailty of the physical and ideological structures in which we shelter ourselves. The unpeopled interior photographs of repossessed homes - suggesting the eviction, evacuation, or abandonment of the renters or owners - imply even further the fragility of the human condition. In Hido's photographs, a rumpled bed, frozen snowprint, and abandoned vehicle all impart the pathos of the absent body and the visible traces it leaves.

Untitled #1447A, an intimate photograph of a disheveled bed and bare pillow, suggests the fraught psychological, emotional, and sexual space of interiority. By showing us such a highly charged scene, and one so unnervingly closely cropped, Hido suggests the vulnerability of personal, interior spaces. Hido understands the power in absence. The suggestion of bodies that may have just vacated the bed in this quiet and even disturbing image implies a loss. Paradoxically, the photograph's stasis suggests the physical movement that the bed embraced. The rumpled sheets and indented pillow impart the recent warmth of human bodies. The caseless pillow may be a reminder of the fleeting idea of permanence in an often unsafe and unstable society. The only movement in the photograph is the white cord that wavers off of the nightstand and disappears into the shadows of the quiet room, manipulating the photograph's balance. Its disappearance into shadow mimics the loneliness of the scene, embodies its dispossessed and abandoned fragmentation. This is a photograph of dusky ache.

Untitled #2844 typifies Hido's understated photographic restraint. The dingy cement-block house is packed in with snow. Restless footprints crisscross the snow, perhaps leading to and away from the small house, or avoiding it altogether. These footprints create an almost frenzied activity by comparison with Hido's other, more staid images. In contrast to the shabbiness of the cinderblock house, the tidy home in Untitled #2421 presents a pristine scene behind a neatly plowed street. There is an overt aura of middle-class success - note the landscaped yard with mature trees - which, by comparison, sharpens the fraught tension of the cinderblock house devoid of trees and landscaping, with nothing but power lines punctuating the stark night. But we know that in an unsteady economy financial loss and failure can happen anywhere - a business that seemed invincible crumbles to nothingness as fortunes, modest and immense are irretrievably lost - and Hido's homes, no matter what their facade, are equalized by loss.

What other narratives are suggested by these poetic but somber nocturnal images? Hido understands that by photographing the houses at night, he propels them into a particularly poignant and charged space. Night urges the viewer to a different understanding of the subject. The uncanny glow of the streetlights that barely illuminate the street may suggest the possibility of something unwholesome. The fact that Hido often photographs abandoned houses implies further anxiety and instability. In Untitled #2419 an old truck is backlit on a dark street next to a ramshackle fence. It indicates a human presence, but a ghostly and ephemeral one, as if the truck has been urgently and recently discarded in this foreboding neighborhood. The light coming from behind the truck suggests the headlights of an oncoming vehicle, perhaps a hopeful sign in an otherwise uncertain night. Everything in the photograph suggests civic decay, poverty, and unwantedness in another abandoned place; to walk down the uneven sidewalk may be dangerous.

Hido's photographs embody seemingly opposite ideas and places such as inside and out, presence and absence, private and public, darkness and light. The darkness surrounding a house heightens the effect of the light radiating from within the house. The distance from which Hido photographs the house charges the scene with either loneliness or confrontation. The unpeopled landscape around the house is underlined by the interior light, and the private interiority of the home spills out into the night.

Nocturnal photography has a relatively long and discursive history. As early as 1847 a St. Louis photographer recorded lightning on a daguerreotype plate. However, as a photographic practice it didn't take root until about the 1890s. By the late 19th and early 20th century, photographers such as Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz found particular interest in the nighttime city as subject, expanding the domain of nocturnal photography to embrace conceptual ideologies. (1) More than a century later, Todd Hido's nocturnal investigations of the places in which people live and from which they leave through various social, psychological, and economic circumstances, participate in and expand upon the ongoing photographic dialogue of the physical and psychological effects of night.

Dana Self

1. For an informative explication of the development of nocturnal photography, see Keith F. Davis's essay in his catalogue for the exhibition of the same name, Night Light: A Survey of 20th Century Night Photography. (Kansas City, MO: Hallmark Cards, Inc., 1989.)