Todd Hido — the San Francisco–based photographer best known for his melancholy shots of suburban houses — first got into photography through BMX racing as a teenager. He was the state champion in Ohio and started taking pictures of his friends jumping ramps. “It was kind of like how when kids today do skateboard tricks: If they don’t record it, it’s like it didn’t happen,” he told the Cut. “That’s what hooked me.”
A few years later, Hido moved to Pittsburgh for college, and it was there, he says, that he first started to develop the dark, dreary, Raymond Carver–esque aesthetic that’s become a defining characteristic in his work. “There was this darkness to Pittsburgh that I found fascinating,” Hido says now. “I feel like that’s where I made the first pictures that had the mood that’s in my work today.”
Though his most recognizable images feature ambiguous suburban imagery reminiscent of his small-town Ohio childhood (several of his photographs have served as cover art for various Carver books, including the 2009 edition of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love), his purview extends beyond landscapes and interiors. He’s been shooting portraits and nudes since graduate school, though they’ve often been overshadowed by his other work. This month, a new book from Aperture, Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude, provides a comprehensive look at the photographer’s varied career, presented alongside his own insight and reflections.
The Cut spoke with Hido about why nervousness makes for interesting images, why he likes to photograph people in hotel rooms, and why we haven’t seen more of his nudes.
I was more familiar with your photographs of houses and landscapes. How long have you been photographing people?
Well, I’ve actually always photographed people, except that the work that you’ve seen — the work that’s been out in the world — has been primarily focused on those other things, like the night shots and landscapes. I think what happened is when I first got out of graduate school and started presenting my photographs to galleries, they were very much feeling like, “We need to focus on one thing and one body of work at a time, because the public can’t handle all these different genres that you’re working in. For a young artist, this might confuse the viewer.” And so for many years I just kind of split it up, but I had always done portraits and nudes in the background — I just have not shown them as much.
You mention in the book that when you were first shooting portraits, you were mostly practicing on friends, but now you tend to use more models. What’s the difference between shooting people you have relationships with versus people who are strangers?
There’s a huge difference. It was in graduate school in the mid-‘90s where I first started to find the look that I was going for — kind of an empty space, with minimal background distractions, and having the person I was photographing sitting in the right light. I was very much aware of Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus, and also Peter Hujar. My first portraits were of my buddies — three different guy friends — and that allowed me the time and space to sort out what I was doing. With your friends, there’s absolutely a connection, and something that’s curiously intimate about that. I like that part of it.
But then I ran out of friends to photograph, so I started photographing strangers. The very first time I did that, I realized that there was actually a bit of discomfort and a bit of awkwardness that was actually suitable for making an interesting picture. I’m a shy, geeky guy — well, I’m actually not that geeky, but I used to be — and I get nervous, you know. It’s interesting to be nervous, because you’re thrown off guard. That tension between strangers makes for interesting photographs.
In the book you write that just because you’re in a room with someone who’s naked doesn’t mean it’s an intimate situation. How do you convey that emotional distance in your photographs?
Well, one thing is with literal distance. I’ll often use a lens that’s much wider than the situation warrants, because a lot of time I’m in a small room — but using that lens in that small room makes more distance. Twenty years ago I discovered that hotel rooms are an excellent place to take photographs of people, because, one, there’s less to clean up — you didn’t have to move things away to achieve a less cluttered background — and two, it was a neutral space where two parties could come together and make pictures. Plus, I like to shoot in places I haven’t been to before.
How do you decide where to photograph?
It really depends. Generally, I’m looking for a background that’s uncomplicated. I know that’s very formal, but the reality is, it’s plain and clear enough that I’m not going to have lamps or posters sticking out of someone’s head. And then there’s a mood to certain rooms that is interesting, or there might be some carpet that is wonderfully old or ridiculous. Surfaces tell stories, so you need to find the ones that are right for the pictures. I also love going to people’s apartments, if that works for them.
Are there certain types of poses that interest you more than others?
Yeah, definitely. It’s a curious world we live in, and people are highly sophisticated about how they are perceived and what the “image” they put forward is. Often when someone comes to do a shoot, they start to go into certain modes. They’ve all seen America’s Next Top Model, or seen something like that, and in a weird way I think that when people first seek getting their picture taken, somewhere in the back of their mind it’s because they think that maybe they could be a star. Sometimes, I let people go through all the motions — I let them pose all they want, do all the things that they have practiced and maybe seen on television or in magazines. But the most interesting part of it is when I stop shooting, they rest, and then I always look over and I’m like, “that’s the picture — that’s the real one.” And so I ask them to hold that, because they relax and get out of the mode of worrying about how they’re being represented, stop thinking about their internal projection of identity, and what they want to project, and the result is something that’s more real. That’s how many of my portraits are made.
How do you decide who to photograph?
Well, I’ve been doing this for 20 years, so people know of me, and lots of models know of me, so what ends up happening these days is people will email me and say, “I like your work, I’m going to be coming to San Francisco, is there any chance we could make pictures while I’m out there?” That changes the whole nature of the situation. For one thing, no one gets paid. They’re there because they want to be there, so it becomes more about making something for both of us. I’m making something with them. I very much like that part of it.
Almost all of the photographs in the book are of women. How does awareness of objectification and the male gaze factor into your work?
Yes, mostly they are of women — basically because that’s what keeps me up at night. I know I don’t make art about things I have all figured out. It’s actually quite the opposite. I went to photo school in Boston back in 1989, ’90, ’91, and so there was a lot of talk about the male gaze. I once had Deborah Bright as a teacher at RISD, who’s an admirable feminist theoretical writer about photography, and I remember thinking a lot about the problematic nature of objectification. I made a choice many years ago to not use theory to talk myself out of making images as I’d seen happen to fellow students. In terms of how that pans out in an entire career of work, I feel like at this point, I’m primarily photographing people who want me to take their picture, and they’re coming specifically to me to have me do it. There’s the understanding that it’s their independent choice. I know they are getting as much out of it as I am and that seems to work for both of us.