Bright Black World(s)

It feels fitting that we have been thinking about darkness in these first few months of the year for in the northern hemisphere at least these are surely amongst the dreariest and most challenging to get through, now more than ever. This sense of living through dark times, be it the apparently inexorable rise of far right political ideology or the unfolding of environmental disaster is certainly captured in Todd Hido’s ‘Bright Black World’ work.

There is a great video where Hido talks about ‘Bright Black World’ and how he appropriated the title from a page he read in an A.S. Byatt story (he also admits to not reading the whole story, which I think is intriguing in as much as it suggests how artists invest vast tracts of their time within their own work, so that references, connections, inspirations often come from magpied moments grabbed in passing). In the video Hido also acknowledges that whilst he sees himself as essentially an optimist he concedes that he’s “looking into the future but unfortunately the future’s not looking so bright and that’s part of what the work’s about”.

I’m intrigued though as to what else the work is about. Leafing through the book is a luxurious experience, not least because the pages are oversized, allowing the photographs to approach the scale they inhabit within the gallery display. The landscapes which make up the body of the book are filled mostly with darkened, glooming skies or with shadowy spooky undergrowth and trees that hint at apocalyptic events to come or just passed. Often they are landscapes filled with energy, rising off the pages to envelop us with an emotive presence it is hard to resist.

When teenagers (and perhaps most of us as adults too) look at photographs (or any art) their instinctive response is an emotional one. In their eyes all art is about emotion and whilst as a teacher it can be very tiring to hear this as a starting point for conversation day in, year out, it is also entirely understandable. It would be wrong if it were otherwise. And yet in Hido’s ‘Bright Black World’ this emotional response does feel appropriate because these photographs are surely meant to make us feel the tensions and conflicts happening within our environments (and within ourselves). In his photographs weather and landscape become as characters in a performance; actors playing their parts within the carefully choreographed context of the book. And actors emote.

Many of Hido’s landscapes (both here and more obviously in his 2010 collection ‘A Road Divided’) appear to have been photographed from behind the glass of a vehicle and feature roads retreating to their vanishing points, which naturally places Hido’s work firmly within the American tradition of the Road Trip. Think Lee Friedlander’s ‘America By Car’ but without the explicit framing vehicle of the, erm, vehicle window frames and wing mirrors. And in colour. So perhaps not so much like Friedlander’s work at all then, apart from that sense of movement through (a) country and the documenting of the shifting scene(ry). And since we mentioned the vanishing point of the road, can we place ‘Bright Black World’ in the realms of Kowalski and the last great American heroes? Possibly. Or perhaps we think about Robert Frank’s de-facto reference point ‘The Americans’? Except of course ‘Bright Black World’ is the first body of work that Hido has shot in countries outside of the USA so maybe not, except that we might just say there is something in the dark grain of Frank’s work that flavours the shadows of Hido’s and leave it at that. And I never even mentioned ‘On The Road’, did I? Or ‘Two Lane Blacktop’. Or… or… and… and… The list could go on.

In her wonderful memoir ‘Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia’ Tracey Thorn asks “who walks around suburbia at night? It would be spooky and weird.” To which the/an answer of course is Todd Hido. Indeed it was Hido’s photographs of suburban homes at night that first caught my attention a few years back and I admit that as much as I enjoy the newer ‘Bright Black World’ work I keep finding myself drawn back to them (analogous perhaps with loving Tracey Thorn’s ‘Record’ LP but still and always preferring ‘A Distant Shore’). I’d be interested to know what Thorn would make of Hido’s photographs for whilst they very much hold something of the suburban edgeland that she writes about in her book they are also perhaps particularly American. In this they slip more into the realms of the subtopian hauntology of David Lynch but there is also something universal in them that transcends geography and time.

What lends them this transcendency? Something to do with combinations of colour and form. Something else to do with formal composition. Another thing again to do with what you cannot put your finger on but that you know the moment you see, hear, smell, sense it.

One of the favourite phrases/ideas of many of my friends of a particular age is about “keeping the mystery caged”. In this era of self-promotion and where innumerable videos about anything you care to mention are instantly available, it can be difficult to maintain this mystery. It is perhaps unsurprising then to find one of these films documenting Hido photographing his suburban houses at night. It is a fascinating little piece that shows Hido shooting with a 35mm SLR using long exposures and bemoaning aircraft flying at night. Elsewhere in the film Hido is found in a hotel room preparing a shoot with a model. Viewed from outside the context of the artist/photographer’s bubble this feels faintly seedy and strange. Perhaps not “spooky”, but certainly to most people “weird” or at least slightly odd. But then what are/should artists be/seem to others if not somewhat peculiar to the norm? Perhaps it is this innate strangeness that allows Hido and his work to retain something of that mystery in spite of having the curtain pulled partially to unveil the mundane source of the magic. Perhaps the very act of showing parts of the process makes the end results all the more remarkable.

It is always interesting to trace connections of course and Hido has listed Robert Adams as one of his major influences. ‘Well duh’, you might think, given the unavoidable presence of Adams in the (American) photographic (ahem) landscape but gosh, hearing Hido say that encouraged me to look more closely and goodness, look at this shot from the ‘Summer Nights, Walking’ series and…. Yeah, you get the idea.

Robert Adams. From ‘Summer Nights, Walking’

Speaking of Lynch and speaking of connections, when I look closely at Adam’s ’Summer Nights, Walking’ photographs again now I am put in mind of some of those wild black and white sequences from the stunning 2017 season of Twin Peaks. All those references back to a 1950s subtopia infected by nightmares of nuclear desolation and sexual tensions, well they all appear present in Adam’s photographs (as indeed they do to a lesser degree in Hido’s). Of course when I say that they are ‘present’ in the photographs I mean they are physically invisible but deeply psychologically felt. Remember what Thorn asked? “Who walks around suburbia at night?” And if those who do are “spooky and weird” then imagine adding to the question: “Who walks around suburbia at night making photographs?”

If you have not tried such a thing (and let’s face it, chances are that even in these times of ubiquitous cameras and endless spools of snapshots, you haven’t) then I would encourage you to even contemplate it and to not feel distinctly uncomfortable as you do so. It is the strangest sensation and it makes Hido and Adam’s work seem all the more impressive. It is so easy to say “the key to being an artist is in saying you are an artist and believing you are an artist” but the reality is so much more difficult because it is so easy for Other Things to get in the way, not least of which are social expectations and Worrying About What Other People Think (which is essentially the same thing of course). To overcome that, as Hido and Adams (and indeed Tracey Thorn) clearly have, is a monumental achievement and I would argue is at the very core of what makes their photography (and music/writing) so compelling.

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