Todd Hido

Final Major Project: Book Research

Over the last few months I’ve been collecting a pile of books on my desk pertaining to the project, that has been growing at a faster rate than I’ve been able to read them. One of the pleasures of the research for this project has been the way that one thing leads tangentially to another, ever-widening the scope of the research, suggesting new directions and taking in a much broader range of perspectives than I’d envisaged when I originally set out on this work. 

I’ve recently finished reading:

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

Originally published in 1965, this book tells the story of William Stoner’s unfulfilled life. Born to humble beginnings in the 1890s on a farm in Missouri, the course of his life is irrevocably changed after he leaves home to go to college, resulting in a silent estrangement from his parents and a lifelong struggle to find his place in the grand scheme of life. The mastery in this story is in its ability to examine the interior world of Stoner, to describe the way in which he never truly feels comfortable in his own skin, how his life ultimately seems to comprise an accumulation of incidental happenings that surround him and confine him and eventually define him. He is trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage, he is unable to truly flourish at work or explore his academic passions, he resigns himself to a distant relationship with his daughter Grace and seems to settle for an existence where happiness is not to be expected, or even really sought for. There’s a strange nobility in Stoner, who meets events with a benign acceptance, never railing against the status quo and seeming to have a capacity to just carry on regardless. 

There is an incredible loneliness here. He is unable to connect with his wife, despite certainly wanting to at first. He is ultimately unable to connect with his daughter. He lives a loveless life, until a brief interlude later in life that is also ultimately doomed. There’s a resonance here about the way our lives can be so apparently full of accomplishments and yet be incredibly unhappy, in a way that’s almost not worth acknowledging, because we still just have to carry on either way. 

The idea of a loneliness that is not immediately apparent to the onlooker is important, both in terms of being an emotion that I’ve personally experienced but also in terms of the fact that it’s easy to envisage this as being a significantly under-recognised aspect of our modern urban lives, surrounded as we are by all the conveniences and community we could supposedly want.

Relating this back to my own work, I am challenged to think about how I represent the inner life better, either of myself or my subjects. In this book, this was of course done with words and this is possibly something that has some relevance to the presentation of this project also. Finding a way though to let the image suggest something of this inner experience will be key and will also hopefully mean that the images are not too obviously suggestive, which would weaken them to my mind. 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

Cover image by Todd Hido

Cover image by Todd Hido

I came to this book via Todd Hido, who has cited Carver as an influence of his work. This book, published in 1981, is a collection of short stories exploring various aspects of relationships and the motivations and passions that underpin how people are with each other. Carver writes with a sharp sense of observation of the human condition. He expertly illustrates the motivations of his characters without having to state them explicitly, their actions revealing what truly drives them, allowing the reader to know them in a way that their partners often seem not to. 

A common thread here for me is the idea that people often don’t say what they truly think or feel, but these feelings somehow find a way to emerge and affect the external world. We all carry baggage of course, things in our history that affect the way we interact with those around us, often without ever specifically identifying or expressing what those things are. Again there’s an illustration of the importance of the inner life here, the mysterious and often uncharted world that we all carry around with us, which plays such an important role in how we live. 

Increasingly I feel that this internal world which is unique to each individual, by definition imparts a degree of loneliness on all of us, alone as we are in this personal experience that no-one else can ever share no matter how close they are to us. This opens up a whole new avenue of potential research and the question is whether I can hope to represent this properly in the FMP work, or whether this is better explored in my future practice once the FMP is out of the way. 

Of course, there’s a degree to which my work is already reflecting my own inner world and while this had been largely happening outside of my conscious control (certainly until the point at which I started this MA course) I can see how important it is to bring (allow?) more of this world into my work, both for the purpose of self-exploration but also for the purpose of experimentation and to differentiate myself from other practitioners. 

Informing Contexts: Week 8 Reflection

“My life is kind of, at least equally influenced by pictures of things, as it is in things. We know what’s nice because we saw it in a magazine…we make lots of decisions about our life, and what we want, who we are and where we want to go, from pictures”

Thomas Demand, 2013

This has been one of the most difficult CRJ entries to write. Week 8 encouraged us to consider and evaluate the ways in which photographers discuss and defend their own practice. This has always been, and remains, something I find very difficult to do. This inherent incapacity coincided with another testing period at work and along with my ongoing inertia with my project, left me stumped. 

It seems, as we get ever closer to the final project, that we’re required to be more specific and more articulate about our objectives as practitioners...not an unreasonable demand at this stage of a postgraduate photography degree. Yet for possibly the first time, I'm questioning whether I was ever that suited to MA study, having had no formal photography training prior to starting this course. Combining this course with an increasingly demanding job hasn’t gotten any easier, and has left me perpetually frustrated that I haven’t got more physical and mental resources to devote to the course and to reaping the rewards of prolonged, intense concentration and reflection on my work. I find myself thinking that I will not truly have internalised all the lessons on this course till probably two or three years after graduation (I’m hoping to achieve that at least!).

So week 8 was a bit like that!

Asked to consider what ideas, aesthetics, techniques, contexts and theories we are exploring in our practice, I initially just baulked and was completely unable to engage with the question. Only after a couple of weeks of rumination have I been able to come back to this question in even a provisional way. I’m still wrestling with these ideas, still trying to absorb some of the lessons we’ve been introduced to during this module and during this course (which has flown by the way!) and still trying to understand my place in the matrix. I apologise in advance therefore, if this entry feels somewhat nascent and unformed. 

The ideas I am trying to explore in my current work have been consistent in big picture terms but have changed in subtle ways on the micro level as I've moved through this course. 

At the moment, I'm trying to examine:

  • Solitude/loneliness as a pervasive and yet under-discussed state.

  • Loneliness as a negative – isolating, depressing, oppressive, diminishing and destructive, leading to communities lacking cohesion and interpersonal connections.

  • Solitude as a positive – regenerative, contemplative, protective and liberating.

  • My own experiences of solitude and loneliness – how/where/why I’ve felt lonely in the past, what my feelings are about these events now and what I hope for moving forward.

  • Solitude and loneliness as these states might be connected to previous emotional trauma/memories/significant moments in time.

  • Solitude/loneliness as experienced at different ages/stages of life and how one's experience might differ depending on your age/stage of life.

What am I trying to say in my work? Well, I'm trying to say loads of things (successfully or otherwise, who can say!):

  • That there's beauty at night

  • That there's room for reflection, contemplation (and possibly temptation) at night

  • That you might be alone but that you aren't really alone – we're all in the same boat, feeling this way is not unique (or as isolating as it may feel at the time). 

I'm also trying to say that I too feel this way, alone, adrift, cut off at times and that I'm trying to understand myself and my situation...how did I get here? How can I bridge the gap between myself and others? I'm trying to say that we need to look out for each other, and look after one another. We need to look outside of ourselves. I'm trying to say that it's ok to be different and to stand apart from the crowd. 

There's a lot there! These elements come in and out of my thoughts at different times as I try to build this project and conceptualise the work. They have also, to different degrees and possibly in less explicit ways, been present in much of my photography since I first started taking pictures back in 2013. 

Artists and practitioners whose work resonates with me, and feels relevant to this project include:

  • Clint Eastwood
  • Sofia Coppola
  • Christopher Nolan
  • Todd Hido
  • Alec Soth
  • Gregory Crewdson
  • Rut Blees Luxemburg
  • Edward Hopper
  • Stephen Shore
  • Rebecca Solnit
  • David George
  • Olivia Laing
  • Mark Rothko
  • Barry Jenkins
  • Sam Mendes
  • Lynne Cohen

For me, these people – filmmakers, directors, photographers, writers, painters – have in common that they produce work that relies heavily on storytelling, narrative, sentimentality, beauty, giving voice to the outsider or disenfranchised and taking an alternative view of things at times. Many of these practitioners have directly referenced solitude as a concern of theirs, or produced work that explores this theme to at least some degree. 

Thinking specifically of the photographers, there's a consistent thread of producing images that challenge the viewer to consider what's happening both inside and beyond the frame – narrative images that demand interpretation or discussion. Most of these practitioners stare directly at bare emotion, have an obvious interest in the human condition, and are not afraid to confront or explore sometimes difficult feelings. Even in the case of practitioners such as Cohen, whose work rarely actually includes humans, there is an inquisitiveness about the impact of humans on the world and the environment and an encouragement to think beyond the boundaries of the image. 

I am predominantly producing images at night at the moment. This aesthetic choice stems from my own comfort with this time of the day and the techniques required to produce interesting images at this time, but it also fits my own conception of solitude, my own feelings around this and my previous experiences. There's also something in there about how I process things visually and the way memories tend to come to me more easily at night, in darkness, than they do during the day. The idea of reaching into the depths of memory or emotion to connect with these feelings certainly works best for me at night. I've written before about how the night stereotypically lends itself to some of these ideas, the ‘dark night of the soul' etc and this also feeds into and informs my practice to some extent. Practitioners in the list above who are also predominantly known for night work (e.g. Luxemburg, Hido, Hopper to a lesser extent) often portray a strand of displacement and disconnection in their work, Hido in particular. 

Increasingly, I’m convinced that I need to introduce people into my world of solitude, whether that's portraiture or as actors in the urban landscape, because the work now seems to be somehow incomplete without finding a way to include the people I’m trying to represent, the people I am trying to 'reach out' to. I plan for people to play a more prominent part in the work in the next phase of the project. 

When considering the context of my work, I'm hoping to argue that the state of solitude is an almost universal one and thus the context is potentially everywhere and everyone. This work should be applicable, and hopefully accessible, to all. I originally conceived of this work as being a useful starting point for a workshop about this issue, hopefully with the aim of providing strategies and resources to help people ‘reach out’ to others and ameliorate this state of loneliness. Moving forward into the final project phase, this has to be a key strand of the work – making it accessible and relatable to people in different strata of society. This aspect of the project is really important to me, but has yet to be fully explored so far. 

Some contexts for this work are easily identified – the book, the exhibition, the short film. These strands interest me in different ways, and feel like essential parts of the final complete whole of my ideal project. Of course, constraints of time/finances/collaborators/my own competence etc. may mean that these avenues are not all available, but they still represent the goal. I would ideally like my work to be available in all of these contexts, but appreciate that that work may necessarily extend beyond the duration of this MA. 

Thinking about the professional placement of this work, I believe this largely depends on how well I'm able to engage potential audiences, where they are, in a way that encourages them to interact with and respond to the work. For example, it's certainly possible to be more strategic about how I share this work via my current social media channels. Finding effective ways to interest my followers could give the project a new lease of life and propel it into a wider consciousness that then opens up the possibility of publication or exhibition. I must engage the audience, I have to generate sufficient interest and feedback from those who do encounter the work, to be able to leverage that for possible professional dissemination of the work. 

Considering critical theory that might underpin this work, I suppose the project relies in some way on the idea of connecting with the viewer through common references and common experiences. We’ve already discussed in this module the idea that a large part of the success of an image relies on its ability to utilise commonly accepted ideas and signs to communicate with the viewer. As the work becomes more personal and more introspective, I have to consider the importance of expressing myself in a way that optimises communication, possibly by using accepted visual references, but that still allows me enough creative leeway to produce work that’s individual and distinctively 'mine'. 

Ultimately, I want viewers to be moved by the work, to feel an emotional connection to the subject and the content of the images. Of course, this relies on me communicating clearly and skilfully. I want the viewer to be able to see something of themselves in the work (another reason why adding people into the mix seems to make sense to me). I want my viewer to be challenged to review their environment, to look around more, to see opportunities for connection where maybe they hadn't done previously. I'd like the viewer to know that I feel the same and that in most ways that matter we're all the same. 

References:

YouTube. “TateShots: Meet the Artist - Thomas Demand”. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpesyyXWMvg[accessed 12 April 2018].

Sustainable Prospects: Work In Context

One of the things we’re asked to do on this course is contextualise our practice, to understand who our ‘competitors’ and potential market might be, where our work sits amongst the work of current and former practitioners and how this all might inform decisions about our own practice.

In this vein, I wanted to briefly discuss four artists whose work resonates with me either in terms of similarities to my own work, or for containing strands that I’m hoping to develop or bring forward in my current project and in my ongoing practice.

Franck Bohbot

As described on his own website Bohbot is ‘a documentarian with an eye for the theatrical who frequently takes a formal, typological approach to crafting visual narratives, highlighting the surreal symmetries of our constructed worlds and capturing the poetry of everyday places with a unique attentiveness to the interplay of light and color. He employs the latter two elements as tools of nostalgia, exploring loss and obsolescence by crafting images that are as much about what is invisible or lacking as what is there within the frame.’

The concepts of loss, nostalgia and memory are certainly integral to my own practice and I was delighted to come across his 2016 book Light On New York City, which is comprised of nocturnal street scenes shot around New York taken over the course of approximately three years to 2016. 

 

Justin_Carey_Photography_Light On New York City Franck Bohbot_88kb.jpg

He focuses mainly on archetypal street corner diners, theatres and various stores illuminated at night, some in visual contrast to the commonly-held perception of the city that never sleeps.

I originally came to this book having seen Bohbot’s work on social media and being excited to see that someone had managed to release a monograph of urban night images. The work itself is technically superb (with Bohbot displaying a clear mastery over the very often tricky city night light), and presented in a book of large high quality prints. 

Radio City Music Hall - Franck Bohbot

Radio City Music Hall - Franck Bohbot

You can see more of the work here:

Considering my own work and how it might relate to Light On New York City, I felt that aside from the common factor of our subjects both being city scenes at night, there are few other similarities. Bohbot’s work for me in this book is almost journalistic, documenting the streets of the city in a way that as time passes and the buildings and businesses change, will likely render the work of increasing value as a historical record. The work is shot with a kindly eye to the city, Bohbot clearly loves the streets that he’s shooting, but I did not otherwise sense an agenda or standpoint in the work.

In terms of the market however, it’s really encouraging to see that images like these can be picked up by a publisher to create a book project. Published by teNeues, there was clearly deemed to be a market for a premium (it’s a beautiful hardback book of glossy prints) book of urban night photography and this gives me hope that my work might find a similar place in the future.

Peter van Agtmael

I came to this work during this module after listening to his interview with Ben Smith on the ‘A Small Voice’ podcastIn the interview he discussed the effect that spending time in conflict zones had had on him and how he had worked through these issues. The work ‘Buzzing At The Sill’ was in some way a product of his journey through this period of his life, while also being about America in the shadow of 9/11. 

 

Justin_Carey_Photography_Buzzing At The Sill_86kb.jpg

The work is honest, vulnerable and unflinching in many ways and spoke to me on various levels through images that are challenging and thought-provoking at various times. Turning from page to page I could not help but notice how narrative can be constructed by the selective use of text alongside the images (the use of which is likely to play a key role in the presentation of my project also), and also how sequencing plays a vital role in how the work is received and interpreted. Van Agtmael creates a powerful mood and an increasing sense of immersion in the work as you turn through the pages, something I can certainly learn from in the event of a future book project. 

Hugo, Oklahoma, 2014 - Peter van Agtmael

Hugo, Oklahoma, 2014 - Peter van Agtmael

You can see more of the work here:

In line with my recent thinking, there is also a key lesson here in how invested the photographer can be in the work and how this ultimately strengthens the output. This work feels close to the bone for van Agtmael, with a level of disclosure that seems to pull the reader in closer and again is instructive for me in terms of my recent struggle to be more honest in my own work, finding a way to give more of myself to the output, making it more personal and hopefully powerful as a result. As a Magnum photographer, van Agtmael could possibly be forgiven for resting on his laurels and simply milking his status in his field, but this work feels like he truly invested and that’s an example I must follow.

Gillian Wearing

Wearing’s work extends beyond the confines of strict photographic practice but has relevance for me in a couple of ways. Her project ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say is strongly influential for me, particularly in terms of trying to disclose the innermost thoughts of people in a way that is not too traumatic for the subject or the viewer, something of course that I have been trying to do in inviting people to contribute their own experiences of solitude to my project. 

 

I'm Desperate - Gillian Wearing

I'm Desperate - Gillian Wearing

These apparently simple images exhibit a genius for revelation wrapped up in the supposedly quotidian, but of course it takes great skill to produce work that seems to be almost nonchalant and random in nature.

Wearing has also challenged the idea of representation, often using masks in her work to question the role of identity and the contested gaze. In many ways she manages to hide in plain sight, protected from true self-revelation by a closely-fitting mask that seems to allow her to be anyone else she pleases while remaining steadfastly her most private self. This idea of a conflicted identity is certainly one I recognise and one I feel plays a role in my own work. Seeing how Wearing has repeatedly explored this theme throughout her career is instructive.

You can see more of her work here:

Another aspect of her practice that is relevant to me is her willingness to work in various media. She has often created video projects, something I’m also hoping to move into in the near future, and this reflects a versatility that only enhances her relevance in the contemporary art marketplace. This multi-skilled approach is important to improve your chances of being able to carve out a niche for oneself in this harsh economic climate.

Todd Hido

I’ve written about Hido’s work before and the interesting thing for me is that I was never aware of his work when I first came into photography and was being formed by early influences. This is almost ironic to me now because I often feel that his work and his approach to his work most closely mirrors how I feel about my own practice. A quote of his, from an interview available onlinealmost perfectly describes how I feel about my own work:

I believe that all those signs from your past and all those feelings and memories certainly come together, often subconsciously, and form some kind of a fragmented narrative. Often you're telling your own story but you may not even know it.

His work contextualises mine in many ways – he is famous for shooting at night, although that is not all he shoots. He speaks openly about the connection between his unspoken past and the work he creates today. He has carved out a niche as a highly-respected fine art practitioner and teacher, both roles that I hope to occupy in the future, and has done so by producing work that strongly resonates with my own. 

 

Screen grab from www.toddhido.com

Screen grab from www.toddhido.com

As my knowledge of Hido’s work grows, I find myself having to resist the urge to produce images that are too derivative of his famous work. Any building with illuminated windows should almost have his copyright emblazoned on it!

Considering the work of other practitioners in this module, I can conclude that it is possible for me to develop a sustainable practice while shooting work that is true to myself. In fact, the key seems to me to be MORE true to my own vision and being careful to not dilute my voice in an effort to encourage collaboration. I’m convinced too of the need to diversify my skills to give me more story-telling tools and allow me to offer more to potential clients. Developing new skills and refining my voice will be ongoing tasks in the months ahead.

 

References:

·      BOHBOT, Franck. 2016. Light On New York City. Kempen: teNeues.

·      VAN AGTMAEL, Peter. 2017. Buzzing At The Sill. Heidelberg: Kehrer.

·      WEARING, Gillian. 2012. Gillian Wearing. London: Ridinghouse.

·      HIDO, Todd., CAMPANY, David. and TYLEVICH, Katya. 2016. Intimate Distance: Twenty-five Years of Photographs, A Chronological Album. New York: Aperture.

·      AHORN MAGAZINE. ca. 2010. ‘Interview with: Todd Hido’. Ahorn Magazine Archive [online]. Available at: http://www.ahornmagazine.com/issue_6/interview_hido/interview_hido.html [accessed 9 December 2017].

Sustainable Prospects: What’s It All About?

“When a person picks up a camera and starts to feel photography is for them, it is usually for reasons so complex that simple biography will not do. If you suddenly find that a camera really is your means of expression, it is not so much because it gives you the chance of a brave new start, but because it’s a way of drawing on the unspoken experience of your life lived so far. Making photographs is so often an act of recognition, conscious or otherwise, that what is before you resonates with things that came before. Those things might be direct experiences. They might be movies, picture books, music or novels. We can never know for sure.”

David Campany, Intimate Distance, 2016

I wanted to write a little about something I’d briefly mentioned in an earlier post, which is the change of direction in my project that has occurred during this module in response to advice and feedback received from my tutor and peers.

As I’ve outlined elsewhere, I’m really interested in the idea of urban solitude and how we experience this state and how we articulate and contextualise this experience. I’m also really interested in commonalities amongst us, in the idea that there’s this unspoken network of loneliness where people are closely packed yet living in silent isolation and I believe that if we can stimulate an open debate about this issue then we’d be on the way to being able to challenge taboos, while also accessing and offering support.

My project had increasingly sought to invite contributions from others around this issue, in various methods that felt right for them. I’ve found this aspect of the project really rewarding, providing as it has an insight into the emotional world of some people that I know well and people whom I hardly know at all. These insights have been incredibly privileged, as well as confirming my initial supposition that there’s a rich seam to be explored. The topic is so big, with direct and indirect links to issues as varied as mental health, social mobility, the link between music and memory…there are so many threads that can be explored.

Of course, the potential breadth of this topic had caused some difficulties. It’s a challenge to be able to provide structure to a project when the topic is so vast and the potential responses from people are limitless. I also found that I was increasingly being thwarted by practical and attitudinal obstacles. For example, many people had agreed to contribute to the project and then, despite gentle but persistent prompting on my part, failed to follow through.

In an attempt to gain some momentum and in an effort to further broaden my appeal to potential contributors/collaborators I contacted Georgina Lawton, a journalist who had written a piece for The Guardian earlier this year about her experiences with loneliness.

Georgina Lawton in The Guardian, 19/8/17

Georgina Lawton in The Guardian, 19/8/17

I asked if she would be willing to contribute to the project in some way but she was unfortunately unwilling to do so.

Overall this failure to engage people with the project was increasingly disheartening.

At the same time, I was feeling a growing disconnect between the story I was trying to tell through others and the origin of the inspiration behind this project which undoubtedly had come from within, and which I had gradually drifted away from without even noticing. I’m unsure whether this was due to an implicit unwillingness to confront the issues that a deeper examination of my own feelings might unearth, but I had certainly become a little emotionally detached from the work and this was affecting the quality of the work and my motivation to produce it.

A comment from Krishna (our module tutor) a few weeks ago really pierced the fog, as she challenged the direction I’d been taking with the project. She felt that the work produced and inspired by others would be better as a standalone project and that the focus should be on my own perspective and vision at this stage. This view seemed to be shared by my class mates who were present in the webinar and I left the session feeling quite shaken. I wasn’t sure at first why this advice was so discomfiting, but on reflection it was due to all the reasons I’ve outlined above – the imperceptible drift that had occurred from the original heart of the project, the fact that this advice challenged a possible reluctance to truly examine my own motivations for pursuing this project in the first place and I realised that I’d thus gotten a bit lost and had needed an outside view to ‘bring me back to my senses’.

I reflected on this and the pitfalls I had fallen into in the project to date. I’d certainly suffered due to a lack of structure. Listening to various practitioners describe how they approach project work, one of the key themes was the idea of a narrative impulse that infuses the work with life and allows the photographer to know when the project reaches its natural end – when the story has been told the end has been reached. Of course, if the narrative structure isn’t clear and if themes haven’t been clearly defined, it’s difficult to know how to proceed and it’s impossible to know when you’re off track. I had certainly suffered in this regard.

So I went back to the beginning.

As David Campany