Much of Todd Hido’s photography is without subjects. Capturing interior spaces, the exteriors of houses at night or isolated suburban outcroppings, Hido’s photography peers into the sheltered spaces of private life and is less revealing than suggestive of untold stories.
The feel of Hido’s work is voyeuristic: the perspective of his photographs feels privileged but is not entirely satisfying because we are never shown the private moments his photographs come so close to revealing.
Hido’s photographs do not depict the leftovers of a Thanksgiving meal, or wine-stained glasses at a cocktail party, or a child’s shoe prints in a mudroom; rather they indicate scenes of great loneliness, solitude and isolation.
Hido’s work is significant because it attempts to universalize these phenomena – phenomena that are innately private and invisible. I believe that his attempt is a successful one: Hido’s photographs beg for a subject, and one cannot help but frame one. This absence, and the subsequent impulse to account for it in a way that is specific and personal to the viewer, reinforces the associative qualities of Hido’s photographs.
I met a childhood friend in the summer, after not seeing him for over a year. I hugged him goodbye, and we sat down at a table on the street in Upper Manhattan. He told me quite quickly that just three months earlier he had been released from a psychiatric ward, where he had been kept on suicide watch. He lived alone on the lower east side of Manhattan and struggled with depression. He showed me scars along his arm, told me in a very matter-of-fact way that he had drunk himself too much, researched the lethal dose of certain medications he had access to, and tried to create a noose out of ‘ a jump rope in his studio apartment, but that the ceilings were too low. After asking several friends for a gun, one of them called an ambulance and he was taken to the hospital. His family flew in from the West Coast, and his mother has lived with him in his apartment ever since. I’ve known him since I was three years old, and it was the night of his 23rdrd birthday when he told me all this.
It is hard not to apply the variety of emotional readings of Hido’s photographs to spaces and communities close to my own. I can’t help but think of my friend when I see Hido’s art, or try to imagine the physical space of his apartment on his worst nights. Or the wall art, the ruffled bedding, the family photos in West Campus dorms where students have taken their lives here in Ithaca.
I do not believe that Hido’s collection is a direct reference to suicide, but thought of in that dim light, Hido’s art empathizes with the experience of loneliness through the spaces in which it is most authentically felt, and most rarely seen , to describe. In doing so, we are encouraged to think not only of the private lives of those we know, but also of those we do not know, but may be hearing from us for the first time in e-mails from the University that inform us of their passing.
The poignant part of Hido’s art is that one can choose to fill his spaces with whatever they want; paint the walls green, replace the grim lighting with something brighter – or, do what I believe he wants us to do: sit in a space precisely because it is unfamiliar and disorienting.
Hido’s medium provides a conduit for the conceptualization of solitude, which, like the photographs themselves, is hollow and deeply unsatisfying. It is sad that in the years I have been a student at Cornell, I cannot keep track of the number of students who have taken their own lives. And even sadder is that I can’t remember those students whose names appeared in my inbox for a moment before they were forgotten.
It is only when we lose someone we knew that we try to describe their pain. But Hido’s photography describes that pain as an offer for even deeper consideration, emotional reflection and recognition of not only the lived isolation from others, but of all endured suffering that is not our own.
“Often what you photograph is not the subject of your photograph, but a vehicle to make people think about the subjects you are interested in. It’s really not about houses, it’s about people,” said Hido.
I hope that Hido’s photographs make students reflect on the low light and ugly forms of private life experienced on and off this campus: that they are softened to the realities of loneliness and pain that everyone feels but rarely shares, and that they mental and emotional attacks from others by sitting with this art, and perhaps, as a result, offer greater kindness, companionship, and consideration to strangers who may need it most.