*note: this interview was recently published in the Spring 2009 issue of ISO magazine
The road embodies ideas of travel, exploration, and discovery— elements that make up the soul of a curious photographer. From Stephen Shore to Ryan McGinley, road trips have long been a tradition in the photographic process. Roads bring photographers out into the American landscape where they become free to explore the quirks and detritus littered throughout. Though many have used it as a path to their subject, Todd Hido sees the road as a subject all its own. A Road Divided is a series of images shot through the windshield of a car. Some details are sharp while others melt into abstract fluid forms. This visible separation distances the viewer from the specificities of the landscape, exemplifying the universality of the subject.
As a teenager driving across the flat and endless landscape that is Florida, I relished in those moments of solitude when the road felt infinite. I would peer to the left at the travelers moving in the opposite direction. I was always heading toward others’ destinations, and they were always heading toward my starting place. For me, being on the road was a search for meaning, traveling through space and looking for answers, a promising destination. What we don’t see is that the endless search for peace, home, and a common experience is realized in the very search itself.
MG: I’d like to start with something a little basic. How did the series begin?
TH: I remember clearly I was scouting around for places that I was going to go back to and photograph at night. I was looking around, stopped at a stop sign, and all of a sudden this water kind of rushed in front of my window off my roof. I remember thinking, “Wow, that is really amazing. I should take a picture.” So I got my camera, which was sitting on the front seat, and took a photograph.
The picture sat on my contact sheet for quite some time because I was focused on my night shots at that point – shooting mostly what became my House Hunting series. But then every so often, I would go through my contact sheets, and I remember finding this image and thinking, “This is something very interesting,” and printing it. That’s how a lot of my series begin. Something just sort of happens, and it leads to many others.
MG: The series is titled A Road Divided. Why?
TH: I feel that the first thoughts of this work were about when things come apart—about what divides people—but in the end there are always two ways you can take. It is up to you how you look at it.
MG: The images are, sometimes noticeably and sometimes not, shot through the windshield of a car. Many times, the windshield is smattered with water droplets and sheets of ice. The effect reminds me of old techniques like rubbing Vaseline on the camera lens to create a tilt-shift blur. Do you find yourself using the windshield as a canvas – constructing these layers onto the painterly image? Or is it all a natural effect, completely dependent on the weather and conditions?
TH: It’s a little bit of both. Initially, it starts with just the weather and conditions, and I’m just driving around, and it’s raining, and stuff happens on the window, and I just try and shoot that. I think, over the years, I’ve been able to get control over my technique, and in that particular sense, it would seem like a canvas. I’m definitely able to figure out where I want things and how I want them. I’m shooting with a handheld Pentax 6×7, and all of the pictures are made when I’m stopped. I let the rain accumulate on the windshield and continue shooting as it adds up. Then I’ll clear it and start over again. That’s pretty much the process. Like any photography there’s a humungous amount of luck involved in it. I think, as a photographer, because chance is such a key element of photography, it’s your job to make chance work for you. I’ll shoot many different pictures, and I know which images to pick. That’s really what it comes down to—you shoot and then you edit down, and you curate it into something you really like.
MG: The series, like many of your images, has an explorative and introspective mood. When you venture out on these journeys is there anything you’re looking for either in the image or in yourself? In that same sense, what attracts you to these desolate roads?
TH: I think that absolutely, there’s an introspective feeling to my pictures. I feel like that comes from when I get to just go out and look around, check things out. I really enjoy that process because there’s a real freedom to picture making, and when I’m looking for subjects, whether it’s a house, a landscape, or even a portrait, I’m always looking for something that feels familiar to me. Something from my past or something that I know a little bit in some way or when I see something that I recognize as a place from my history. There’s a certain quality of memory and familiarity to the places that I take pictures of and in the feeling that my photographs evoke.
MG: The weather is a prominent subject throughout the series. Does this bear any special significance? Is it simply to control the emotional weight of the image?
TH: There’s something about the mood that a cloudy day (and nighttime and in my earlier work) that evokes something that I’m really interested in. I would say yes, definitely the weather has significance. I rarely ever go out and photograph on a sunny day. I’ll do portraits on that kind of a day because that just means brighter light on the inside, but I won’t go out and shoot in the blue sky. That kind of thing is just not what I’m interested in. There’s a mood to a blue sky as well, but it’s not the mood I’m currently looking for. The weather does definitely infer an emotional weight in an image, and there’s something about a rainy day that you just can’t beat in some way.
MG: The murky results from shooting through the windshield give an antiquated coating to the images. They feel like the nostalgic memories of a seasoned traveler. What are your thoughts on this? Do you feel like the images speak to the past?
TH: I guess there’s a sense of longing and loss to my work, and there’s something people just kind of recognize from their own history in it. One of the things about my pictures that I think works and sometimes sets it apart from other people’s work that we see these days is that there’s a real emotion to my work. I think my work is psychologically driven instead of being driven conceptually. I certainly don’t sit down in my studio and think of an idea and then go out and photograph it. I’m the kind of photographer that prefers to respond to what I’m seeing and that’s how I work. That is how I have always worked.
MG: What do you hope, if anything, people take from experiencing the emotional responses that your images evoke? I know you said your series are not driven conceptually, but do you have any specific goals for this series?
TH: My goal is to express myself and to connect with others. This is a statement I wrote in graduate school—I think it still fits:
As an artist I have always felt that my task is not to create meaning, but to charge the air so that meaning can occur.
MG: In one of the more recent images, you include a human presence. This contrasts with the feeling of isolation of the rest of the images. What was your intention with this portrait? Was it also reliant on chance? Do you feel that it adds to the rhythm of the series?
TH: No, this person was not there by chance. I had her stand there. That is usually how I direct my portraits. I say “just stand here” or “try leaning here,” and I just let gestures and expressions naturally occur. I think much of my work has always had a “human presence” in it. All my images of places are somehow to me about people. Yes, they are often empty, but they are about things that have happened there. Not literally of course. But in a roundabout way.
MG: When you set out on a journey to take photographs do you have any sort of trajectory or is it more of a meditative exploration? Have you ever gotten yourself lost?
TH: You unfortunately can’t get lost these days. I have tried. A road always leads somewhere—and they mostly are all connected.
MG: Music is a big player in affecting a person’s emotional outlook. When encapsulated in a car, it’s usually just you and whatever is vibrating from your speakers. While driving do you listen to music? If so, what?
TH: I actually always listen to talk radio when I am driving and shooting. I like the conversations I hear.
To view more of Todd Hido’s work please visit his website by clicking here
all photographs courtesy Bruce Silverstein Gallery