Harry Gruyaert may not be a landscape photographer but as we have noted he is a great photographer of landscape. Perhaps the best proof of this is his ‘Edges’ collection in which Gruyaert selects and sequences photographs made at those points where land meets water meets sky. Land, Sea and Air as Appliance once sang, which is an appropriate reference after all since we have been musing somewhat on James Brooks’ work in recent weeks too. ‘Edges’ is a great book. It is one of those ‘chicken and egg’ collections. In other words it is one of those photography books where you see the relationship between time, intention and realisation play out in the unfolding narrative, where the ’story’ is one of endless, timeless variations on the themes of movement, stasis, flux and firmament. Gruyaert’s photographs map out our relationships with the sea as source of leisure and of commerce. They document the ways in which those relationships affect both the landscapes and the people in those edge lands. Here the cranes, docks and tough raggedy youth of industrial Galician coastal towns; there the glazed-in loneliness of wealthy retirees in a Le Touquet spa hotel. Always grainy, always underexposed. Just so.
Leafing through Edges I am reminded again of Rothko’s paintings. All the same. All different. The devils are in the details; in the subtle shifts of focus, light, shade, composition. Don’t mess with the formula. Don’t push the idea further than it needs to go. Explore the endless possibilities provided by minimal scope. At the edges. What else.
Well what else indeed, except that when I talk about edges I am of course tempted to listen to songs about edges. Making playlists is perhaps the curse of the hapless (almost exclusively) male trapped inside a world of books and films (or photographs) flailing around for a means of reaching a world that he knows exists yet cannot quite seem to reach (or even see). Should this be the case then my own list of songs at the edges (often, though not entirely exclusively, of the edges of landscapes) is shared here as a glimpse into that liminal borderland between my mediated (musical) understanding of that space and yours. And yes, you can expect more landscape themed mixes in the coming months.
River’s Edge – A Certain Ratio From The Edge Of Maps – Cody At the Edge of the Sea – The Wedding Present Cliff edge – The Bats Edge Of Town – The Bye Bye Blackbirds At the Edge of the World – Billy MacKenzie Water’s Edge – Tsunami Edge of August – The Windmills Darkness on the Edge of Town – Bruce Springsteen At The Edge Of The Wood – Dead Meadow On the Edge Of – Low Edge of the World – Let’s Active Edges And Corners – Standard Fare Edge Of Everything – Colour Me Wednesday Safe Around the Edges – His Clancyness Living On The Edge Of The World – Bruce Springsteen River’s Edge – Still Corners Sea Comes At Its Edges – Starry Eyed and Laughing Edge Of The Sea – Prelude The Edge of Forever – The Dream Academy
Last time out in this irregular ongoing series of landscape explorations we were talking about tangential connections and made mention of James Brooks and his Land Observations recordings. On one of these (2014’s ‘The Grand Tour’) there is a piece titled ‘Flatlands and the Flemish Roads’. I am unsure if Brooks intends this as anything more than a glancing reference to cycling, but its is entirely possible given that Appliance once recorded a piece called ‘Derailleur, King of the Mountain’. Certainly anyone remotely interested in the sport of cycling will immediately think of the likes of Omloop Het Volk (or Het Nieuwsblad if you insist), Scheldeprijs and the Ronde Van Vlaanderen when they see a reference to the roads of Flanders. That this immediate synaptic connection is to bicycle races rather than the WW1 fields of slaughter says much about cycling fans.
Harry Pearson says much about cycling fans, and Flemish cycling fans more specifically, in his new book ‘The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman’. Subtitled ‘A bone-shaking tour through cycling’s Flemish heartlands’ it pretty much does what it says on the cover and is certainly entertaining in a semi-skimmed pocket-history travelogue kind of way. Hardcore cycling fans may find little new in the book but they are probably not the target audience anyway, so it’s perhaps a moot point. Certainly there were few names and anecdotes about Belgian cycling I had not stumbled on previously. What are new to me are some of Pearson’s musings on the history of Flanders, and if a little effort is also expended in an attempt to expand our knowledge of both this and of “famous Belgians” beyond Herge and Simenon it is an effort that is, to paraphrase the great honorary Flahute Sean Kelly, one that is carefully calculated.
It is certainly a shame that Pearson makes no reference, even in passing, to the great Belgian photographer Harry Gruyaert. Surprising too, for Gruyaert is famously fond of cycling and one of his quotes graces the back cover of the excellent ‘Magnum Cycling’ collection published a few years ago by Thames and Hudson and edited by Guy Edwards. There is a chapter of Gruyaert’s photographs in the book documenting the 1982 Tour de France and they are typically great shots. The best of the actual cyclists is surely one of the peloton peddling up a slope. Everyone is en danseuse apart from the man in the yellow jersey, Bernard Hinault, who sits resolutely in the saddle, leg muscles almost comically etched and bulging. Hinault too is the only one making eye contact with the camera, his piercing glare so sharp it’s a wonder the lens hasn’t cracked in terror.
That said, my favourite of Gruyaert’s cycling photographs is the last one in the book – a lovely shot of an elderly gentleman photographed against a wooden fence, from which dangle a couple of disembodied feet and lower legs. It’s probable that these feet (one in a Puma sneaker, the other in what appears to be something like a Hush Puppies desert boot) belong to young lads perched atop the fence watching the end of the first stage of the 1975 Tour and it’s an unusual Gruyaert shot because the gentleman (sharply attired in suit, tie and overcoat) is (like Hinault) making direct eye contact with us. Even more unexpected is that the photograph is in black and white, a startling shock given that Gruyaert is such a master of colour.
We looked at some of Gruyaert’s photographs during the year-long 50/50 project in 2016 so I will not dwell much longer on his photographs in the ‘Made In Belgium’ collection apart from to say that whilst they may not be landscape photographs per-se they are certainly images deeply suffused with a sense of place. Pearson makes the observation in his book that Belgium, and Flanders specifically, has transformed in wealth in the past few decades. With that in mind it seems clear that Gruyaert’s photographs are of a different Belgium, an older Belgium. They do remind me of Raymond Depardon’s Glasgow images and perhaps there is no surprise in that, for both collections are certainly now as much documents of historical, social and cultural threads that perhaps have unravelled, their frayed edges already misplaced amongst the murky mementoes of our pasts.
Today my favourites of Gruyaert’s photographs are the several shots which contain battlefield re-enactors. Here a cavalier atop his horse, the red of his jacket and scabbard an underexposed wound against a drab green hillside; there a row of riflemen with shouldered arms beneath the glowering grey of a sky that smothers the horizon. Elsewhere again there is the shock of ranks of marching figures in what, since this photograph was made in Waterloo, must be Napoleonic uniforms, backs to us crisscrossed with white straps and, in the gap between ranks, a motor car parked on pebbles, its yellow-green paintwork supremely evocative of the nineteen seventies/eighties. A small patch of sky shows in the background, this time the colour and texture of a Magritte painting. These are not soldiers, it seems to say. This is not a motor car. But this is, assuredly, Belgium.
On another day again my favourite photographs will be the ones made by the seaside, specifically in Ostend. The emptiness of the beach shelter and it’s electric red neon signs a back to front scrawl of light against the steel grey of the sea; the pale yellow columns and (again!) the reds of chairs in (yet again!) the void of a spa hotel; the nearly but not quite empty stretch of beach punctuated by the sharp imposing verticals of lampposts and a figure plumb centre looking out at the (yes, yet again!!!) concrete grey sea and a massive sky that blackens and breaks to cast a light that is almost apocalyptic. Anyone who has grown up by the seaside in the northern hemisphere can surely feel the bite of the wind in this photograph; can feel the whip of the sand as it skitters across the paving stones and into streaming eyes.
Gruyaert’s landscape photographs then are not landscape photographs, and this is their strength (analogous to Winograd saying that the key to being a great street photographer is not to call yourself a street photographer). They are instead photographs which show Gruyaert to be remarkably adept at seeing the essential qualities in the spaces around him and in capturing those essences within what would be, if he were a painter, a few deft brush stokes and decisive marks of colour. He makes landscapes out of details and details out of landscapes. He feels the light the rest of us barely see.
A student stops me in the corridor and asks if I remember some vaguely familiar name. As I nod in a distracted manner I’m informed that aforementioned name is this child’s mother. On parent’s evening a father who also seems oddly familiar appears in front of me and as I somewhat unkindly think of how the years have not treated him so well I wonder what on earth he’s thinking about me, still stuck here twenty years after he left. As teachers we accept that such moments are the inevitable reminders that we are Getting Old, but what kinds of triggers perform this function for everyone else? Policemen looking like they are twelve is undoubtedly one of them, closely followed by the now regular occurrence of 30 and 40 year reissues of records we bought when we were a mere slip of a thing. Ouch. So, thirty years since ‘Boomy Tella’ by The Claim was first released? Surely some mistake officer. And are you quite certain you are old enough to be carrying that side arm?
Christian reminds us that the past is a foreign country we wouldn’t much want to be reminded of, let alone visit, and yet like him this record by The Claim is one blip of history I’m quite happy to welcome back into my life. Not so much for memories of this, that or the other (though there are a few of those) but for the realisation that, when all those explicitly personal meanings and connections are removed from the frame (or as much as that is possible), it really does sound like a terrific record; a record that I like to think, had it been made in 2019 by a bunch of stringy kids from the suburbs, would be making me itch and dance inside like a fevered wraith.
I have resisted looking back in old fanzines to see what kinds of words and phrases I used to describe The Claim and ‘Boomy Tella’ at the time of its release. I have resisted the temptation to see what reference points I threw in. That said, I am certain I would have made more than passing reference to The Kinks and yes, the need to do so again is strong for the sounds of The Claim are certainly very much in line with the noise made by those Muswell Hillbillies, particularly on those ‘Kontroversy’ recordings where they simultaneously snarled, sneered and strangely soothed. And to go off an a tangent, remember how Sleater Kinney neatly nodded to the cover of the ‘Kink Kontroversy’ for their ‘Dig Me Out’ set? Well I’m going to be cheeky and suggest that there is something of The Claim in The Kinney; something in the way noises they create(d) are sweet sensations of controlled aggression tempered by a deeply held concern for humanity. Well what’s so funny about peace, love and understanding after all? Yeah, yeah yeah. Which is to say too that there’s something of Brinsley Shwartz and that energised pub-rock pre-punk tension in ‘Boomy Tella’ too and if I did not spot that on first release then it says more about my less-than-complete musical/cultural knowledge than anything else. If I’d told me that then of course I’d have laughed in my face and said something fatuous about Missing The Point Entirely. I’d have been wrong and I’d have been right. And vice-versa.
Christian is certainly right when he says that ‘Boomy Tella’ is up there with the best when it comes to the perfect way to open a record. I am sure I’d have said the same in those shrouded mists of history, probably throwing in some connection to ‘Waterloo Sunset’. It’s not just that perfectly pitched opening line about being wayward and cynical (I’ve lost track of the number of times I have thrown that reference into words I’ve written about any number of topics down these past thirty years) but it’s also in the way the song seems to snap you instantly to attention, secure in it’s self-assurance yet never aggrandising. No, never that.
Didn’t we talk in the past about lineage from The Kinks through Vic Godard to The Claim? As I say, many things from the/my past are intentionally obscured like Rauschenberg’s erased De Kooning drawing but that concept is one that refuses to drop. The Godard point is particularly pertinent, for there is certainly something of Godard’s eloquent use of the English language in the context of Pop within lines like “When the leaves of hope are looking sombre, don’t brush them aside, they’re needing gathering up and nurtured for a rainy day”. Chasing this chimera of content, indeed. There’s certainly too a Subway Sect current to much of the noise of ‘Boomy Tella’, which strangely now sounds more angular and sharply grazed than I remember. I even listened again to my original Esurient record to make sure it wasn’t something in re-mastering or pressing (things which I would never in a million years understand) but no, there it is: evidence that it’s my mis-remembered perceptions of the past clouding up the moment. Which is fine. As is the nudge of reminder to dig out and delight in those Godard discs from the past thirty years. It is tempting in idle moments to wonder what records The Claim might have gone on to make in those same thirty years had ‘Boomy Tella’ not slipped almost immediately into semi-obscurity (a perfect storm of failures in distribution service colliding with changes in cultural fashions within music) and certainly one strongly suspects they would have made records as equally terrific as, say, ‘The End Of The Surrey People’ or ‘Sansend’.
Thankfully all is not lost, and whilst recent experiments in quantum physics might suggest that the past has not in fact passed, the re-emergence of ‘Boomy Tella’ alongside the first new recordings by The Claim in nearly three decades appear to bear this out. Certainly the early indications are that ‘The New Industrial Ballads’ set (out on the re-ignited A Turntable Friend label in May) will be one that inevitably nods backwards to the glorious jambalaya of references held within ‘Boomy Tella’ whilst acknowledging present and potential futures. Edges may have been gently rounded, but The Claim still sound sharp and angry yet yes, with that same deeply rooted concern and love for humanity intact (if inevitably somewhat bruised). In what feels like a time of limited positives in the world, that’s got to be worth something.
I was 18 when Boomy Tella first came out. It felt important then, it is still important now. There are a limited number of great pop albums and this is one of them. None of the songs extend beyond 4 minutes, many are under three. There are no guitar solos, there is no ‘stretching out’, no noodling, no filler. These things are important. Say what you want and then stop. Think ‘I just can’t stop it’, ‘I am a wallet’, ‘Two sevens clash’, ‘Meat is murder’, ‘Born this way’ and ‘Ping pong’.
Great albums always have a great opening song and ‘Not so simple Sharon says’ is just that. It sets the tone and you want to hear what comes next. Great songs always have a great opening line and ‘Being wayward and cynical never left a lasting impression on her lonely heart’ is up there with some of the best: “Hand in glove, the sun shines out of our behinds”; “When this old world starts getting me down and people are just too much for me to face…”; “You spurn my natural emotions, you make me feel I’m dirt and I’m hurt.”
Nothing is deliberately obscure or difficult but there is an air of mystery and surprise. I still don’t know if ‘Love letter’ is sung from a spurned male or female point of view, the trombone and laughter in ‘Beneath the reach’ suddenly appear but just seem to fit and the party which starts in the background of ‘Las Regas El Resoto’ is like an abrupt left turn down a tiny side street. But it works. The words are clear and articulate but leave gaps for you to fill in. These are no themes, and nothing is in your face. ‘Mrs Shepherd’ seems to be about a pompous and high-handed moralist whose daughter turns out to be a lesbian, ‘Down by the chimney’ perhaps about someone’s loss of innocence. The music is angular and yet melodic. ‘Not so simple Sharon says’ has a hook so catchy it is one of those tunes you would recognise within a second or two if it ever happened to be on the radio. It’s familiar but you can’t pin it down. As John Peel said of someone more famous – it’s not immediately possible to tell what they have been listening to. Labelling this as ‘mod’ or using the term ‘mod band’ feels reductive and dismissive. For me, this is an album that deserves more than that.
1988 was a long time ago and the past is a country I don’t much want to visit. But this is a great record and it is nice to have it back.
Buy the reissued ‘Boomy Tella’ on vinyl, CD or download via Bandcamp
Weird Ways – Strand of Oaks (from ‘Eraserland‘ LP) The Final Years – Bob Mould (from ‘Sunshine Rock’ LP. Bandcamp) Seventeen – Sharon Van Etten (from ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ LP. Bandcamp) You’re Not Always On My Mind – Quivers (digital single. Bandcamp) Futurism – Deerhunter (from ‘Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?’ LP) Ain’t That Always The Way – Paul Quinn (from ‘Big Gold Dreams’ CD boxset) Molly Somebody – The Long Ryders (from ‘Psychedelic Country Soul’ LP) Spanish Brigade – Steve Mason (from ‘About The Light’ LP) Inferno (Brisbane In Summer) – Robert Forster (from ‘Inferno’ LP) Do it Twice – Monnone Alone (7″ single. Bandcamp) Strange Lovers – David Lance Callahan (7″ single. Bandcamp) Stuck Here – Holiday Ghosts (from ‘West Bay Playroom’ LP. Bandcamp) 1959 – The Wendy Darlings (from ‘The Wendy Darlings Against Evil’ LP. Bandcamp) Lost Ship – Juliana Hatfield (from ‘Weird’ LP) Hopechapel Hill – Gravenhurst (from ‘Flashlight Seasons’ LP) I Believe In You – Talk Talk (from ‘Spirit Of Eden’ LP. R.I.P. Mark Hollis) The World’s in Town – Rustin Man (from ‘Drift Code‘ LP) I Miss You (Acoustic Version) – Billie The Vision & The Dancers (from ‘Billie No Mates’ LP) Last Warmth of the Day – TOY (from ‘Happy In The Hollow‘ LP)
Once upon a time I was fortunate enough to curate the Tangents website (1996-2006) where one of the unwritten rules that no-one particularly much adhered to was the notion of jumping off at tangents in our reading, listening, viewing, writing, lives, whatever. It is entirely possible that an element of ADHD is involved in this kind of tangential approach to cultural consumption but that is perhaps something for someone else to consider.
On the note of tangential connections however, I’ve been finding some between our (no longer particularly) recent considerations of Dorset (via Rogue Male), Somerset (The Levels of Peter Benson and Amanda Harman; the rose bushes of Sarah Jones shown at Hestercombe) and Devon (aka Home) in Colin Sackett’s intriguing ‘River Axe Crossings‘ book which documents crossings of the river Axe from mouth (in Devon) to source (in Somerset) all along its various meanders (through Dorset). It’s not a new book (in fact I am already eleven years late to this particular party) but it is one that his certainly worth picking up from Sackett’s terrific Uniform Books site, from where you can also find numerous examples of Sackett’s work alongside others that explore similar themes and threads connecting into landscape and geography with a small ‘g’. The ‘Uniform Annual’ of 2017 is a great starting point.
Now it would be easy to think of the photographs in ‘River Axe Crossings’ as being somewhat underwhelming, being as they are tonally flat and printed on what feels like a silk finish paper that neither reduces the images to an earthy ‘authenticity’ as would a recycled or matt stock, nor elevates the photography to an ‘art’ status via a more glossy finish. This kind of detail is important, particularly when you bear in mind that Sackett, as a book designer by trade, would certainly have given very careful consideration to the choice of paper stock used in the book. The neutral tonality and printing of the images then lends the photographs something of the feel of shots taken on a GCSE Geography (capital ‘g’ this time) field trip, which is an idea you may choose to interpret in any number of ways, perhaps hingeing most pertinently upon our individual opinions of Geography education at high school level.
Regardless of our perceptions of Geography education though, thinking the photographs in the context of Sackett’s book as underwhelming would be a mistake, for the photographs are simultaneously not really not the point of work and the point entirely. In one sense the photographs are a tool for documenting the process of the work: A means of visually representing the/a moment within the work, where the work is perhaps more about the experience, the journey, the concept being carried through. The work is not particularly about the art of photography yet it is inevitably a critique of the art of photography, for it challenges our notions of what landscape photography should look like. Indeed the work challenges our notions of what our connections to landscapes are at all. In this Sackett’s work is very much in the same sphere as Richard Long’s and in one of those idle thoughts of tangential connection I wonder whether Sackett might have been in the same audience at Exeter’s Phoenix arts centre all those years ago when Bill Drummond delighted us all by slicing up his Richard Long photograph/art work with a scalpel. Does Sackett have one or two of those tiny rectangles bought for a pound stashed somewhere in a box as I do? And thinking all this makes me want to revisit Drummond’s wonderful ‘How To Be An Artist’ book; makes me wonder as another aside too if Sackett might one day write ‘How to be a geographer’.
I’m only lightly touching my tongue to the inside of my cheek when I write that last sentence because Sackett’s work shows quite clearly that he is (as Jim Mays suggests in his terrific little pamphlet that accompanied a display of Sackett’s books on Haldon back in 2009) “not interested in the comforts of pastoralism or the indulgences of the picturesque” but is rather concerned with notions of geographical truth. This removal of emotional attachment to landscape is something I’m intrigued by, partly because it’s something I feel (or perhaps don’t feel) myself and partly because those notions of some kind of scientific geographical ‘truth’ do not interest me in the slightest.
Bringing in our notions of tangents again, this relationship between landscape eliciting an intellectual response as opposed to an emotional one puts me in mind also of the visual and musical work of James Brooks and his Land Observations. Brooks has always been primarily interested in notions of process in his work and the threads of landscape (and of moving through landscape) filter through his earlier musical work with the group Appliance (‘Land, Sea and Air’, ‘‘Mountains, pt 1’, ‘Map Of The Territory’, ‘This Is The Place’, ‘We Are Not Stationary’) but it is with his Land Observations work that the connections to the landscape, and in particular the human interventions with that landscape really mature. The ‘Roman Roads’ body of work (collected in EP and album forms in 2011 and 2013) quite explicitly reference the lines imposed on nature by humans navigating the space through which they must move, whilst 2014’s beautiful ‘The Grand Tour’ develops this into broader notions of movement across, through and between landscapes (urban and rural). In all of this music Brooks has continued to explore the realms of repetition and cyclical patterns earthed in the work of Appliance, pulling these threads further into minimal, liminal spaces between the abstract and the real. Brooks’ visual work over the same period and beyond has followed parallel lines, and if in more recent years that work has been almost exclusively concerned with drawing inspiration from (and reference to) the constructed landscape it is always primarily concerned with removing emotional attachment to the spaces and their visual representation whilst simultaneously (and I would say with a cool humour) recognising instinctive emotional responses through colour and compositional arrangement of shape and form.
These notions resonate strongly in Sackett’s work too, particularly in the way in which he constructs work (much of it collected in the excellent ‘Englshpublshing’ book) by using the graphical quality of text and typography to challenge our perceptions of what language means, what (printed) words are for. Sackett softly but deftly makes us ask questions about the purpose of printed diagrams too, specifically in his terrific 2006 work/book ‘The True Line’ in which he collects a number of landscape diagrams made by Geoffrey Hutchings (there are connections here too between Hutchings’ diagrammatic use of marks out to those used by Brooks in his drawings – check the artwork for the ‘Roman Roads IV: XI’ album). Sackett’s book/work repurposes Hutchings’ diagrams by removing them from original contexts and presenting elements of them within new graphical relationships. With reference carefully made to the original contexts in a list of “published sources” accompanied by a “biographical commentary” of Hutchings’ work the work/book suggests itself in on breath as an academic record of Hutchings’ diagrams whilst in another proclaiming itself as no such thing.
Sackett’s work then seems to insist that we question what we are looking at, that we recognise the possibility of multiple reinterpretations of the same texts. And like Brooks’ work it is cool whilst not being cold, intellectually stimulating whilst never being academically impenetrable. Delicate balancing acts.
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.
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.