Windows Blind

Todd Hido's disconcerting photographs hit us where we live

I like to look into other people's windows. Not to worry -- you won't find me encamped in the bushes outside your house with a pair of field binoculars. But if I happen to pass by, I may linger a moment and check out your living room set. I tell you this not only because I derive tremendous satisfaction from public confessions of my foibles, but also because I am convinced that I'm not alone. In fact, I believe we commit acts of casual voyeurism for many of the same reasons that we appreciate art: They offer us a glimpse of the richness of human experience and give us access to the impenetrable psyches of strangers. There's nothing like seeing the towering pile of dishes in your neighbor's sink, so similar to your own four-day stack, to make you feel like a part of the great circle of life.

This impulse to observe others' lives is precisely what makes Todd Hido's photographs so disquieting. This Bay Area photographer surrounds us with images of the unadorned, weather-thrashed, low-income homes one might encounter in industrial cities like Pittsburgh or Detroit. The sense of cold described by his pictures is palpable -- Hido shoots almost exclusively at dusk or in the dead of night, on barren winter streets. There's not a soul in sight, and the houses we encounter are resolutely unavailable to us: Though a light may be visible from within, signifying the presence of life, miniblinds and curtains silence the windows. We are excluded from the quiet dramas enacted inside, denied both the pleasure of voyeurism and the comfort of human contact -- which may, in fact, be the same thing.

This is delicate territory Hido treads. To your average gallery visitor, such neighborhoods are foreign lands, rumored on the nightly news but rarely encountered in real life. To represent them in large, beautifully detailed chromogenic prints is to risk the kind of exoticization of America's poor that Walker Evans brought us during the Depression. Evans' striking (and, as it turns out, carefully orchestrated) photographs of poverty-stricken families in their squalid homes allowed us simultaneously to express our tender sympathy for the human condition and to congratulate ourselves for our relative prosperity, all from a safe distance.

Casual Voyeurism: Untitled #2611-A.
Casual Voyeurism: Untitled #2611-A.
Casual Voyeurism: Untitled #2611-A.
Casual Voyeurism: Untitled #2611-A.
Casual Voyeurism: Untitled #2611-A.
Casual Voyeurism: Untitled #2611-A.
Casual Voyeurism: Untitled #2611-A.
Casual Voyeurism: Untitled #2611-A.
Casual Voyeurism: Untitled #2611-A.
Casual Voyeurism: Untitled #2611-A.
Casual Voyeurism: Untitled #2611-A.
Casual Voyeurism: Untitled #2611-A.
Casual Voyeurism: Untitled #2611-A.
Casual Voyeurism: Untitled #2611-A.

Hido manages to sidestep such condescension, primarily because he so effectively denies us access to the people who inhabit these houses. The buildings themselves, stripped of the visible traces of the lives they harbor, begin to dissolve into mere objects, formal elements within vaguely abstract compositions. One large image identified as Untitled #2872, shot on the outskirts of Las Vegas, splinters into perfect horizontal bands of color: a low-slung warehouse painted pale yellow with a dark stripe of deeper yellow running across the top, sandwiched between a midnight blue sky and the cracked asphalt below. Double yellow divider lines pierce the faded gray street in an electrifying streak that echoes the hue of the building.

Hido favors neutral houses with broad, aluminum-clad sides and pale, nondescript coloring. In effect, they serve as blank canvases, which the night then imbues with incandescent color and fills with a shadowy calligraphy of lines. Hido seeks out the glowing red of a stoplight or the radiant blue of a neon sign and shows us how it transforms everything it touches. Though he eschews colored filters, preferring to work only with available light, his colors are intensely saturated, rich and otherworldly. They impart a sense of the surreal, or perhaps the hyperreal, lending a moody intrigue to otherwise banal scenes.

The two identical dilapidated houses in Untitled #2611-A sit side by side on a litter-strewn sidewalk, bathed in blue light. Shadows cast from a dense tangle of nearby branches overlay the skin of the buildings like dark blue veins. A heroic buck peers out at us from the midst of this artificial forest, part of a woodland-themed tapestry hanging in a window. I am told that Hido had been packing up his equipment to leave when the light was switched on, illuminating the deer. Often, photography is simply about waiting for the sublime to reveal itself. When Hido shows us such moments, however small and quiet, the results are undeniably brilliant: formally exquisite and totally captivating.

With too many of these photographs, however, he leaves us scratching our heads, sensing that we're missing something. Occasionally, a longer look at the picture will reveal a certain poetic passage that our rapid-fire eyes had previously skipped. But too often we are left feeling that these shots (all close variations on a single theme) infuse the gallery with a dense atmosphere of desolate grace, without expressing anything more specific or complex as individual images. After a while, Hido's photos begin to appear formulaic: downtrodden house on lonely street with single lighted window. It would be great to see him surrender a little control and introduce some less predictable elements. Perhaps he could even invite us inside ... or at least open the blinds.

 
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