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Look Through Any Window

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Todd Hido: House Hunting

at Carrie Secrist, through February 9

Suddenly awakening at dawn during a train trip, I caught sight of a small house in a field where a woman in kerchief and robe stood in an illuminated window making breakfast. I was a teenager then, but I've never forgotten this image and its uncanny intensity, this momentary glimpse into a life I would never encounter again, which crystallized my feelings about my distance from my family, the imagined completeness of others' lives, and the incompleteness of my own.

I rediscovered some of those feelings looking at Todd Hido's exterior shots of houses and apartments, the majority of his 19 large color prints at Carrie Secrist. However, because they're mostly time exposures taken at night, there's often too much light in the windows for the viewer to see into the homes. Or the windows are curtained.

The images are extremely sharp--Hido makes them himself from negatives taken with a medium-format Pentax--and the colors are almost hyperreal, lush and seductive. In Untitled (2844) (the titles come from the sequential numbers Hido assigns his negatives, not all of which he prints), the tail of a blue car peeks around the corner of a one-story cinder block home, contrasting with the warm light in the windows and a glowing tannish sky; one can almost feel the granularity of the snow. But there's an edge to this beauty: tracks lead to one of the two illuminated windows from exactly where the photographer stands, as if he'd actually tried to see in. And the photograph itself suggests a voyeur of sorts. (Hido never trespasses, always shooting on public property, a street or sidewalk, but still he's annoyed some homes' occupants, who've turned out their lights or called police.)

Untitled (2840) feels even more distanced: two trees frame a single illuminated window a bit above street level; again we're looking across snow at night, not a time when most people are out taking photographs--or "house hunting." The exhibit title has a triple meaning: like someone looking for a home, the photographer is looking for houses to photograph, but he's also a kind of stalker; the persona implied by these images is not only sadly alienated but a bit sinister.

There's also a push-pull dynamic to Hido's images. The tactile beauty of his rich colors--partly a result of the mixed outdoor light sources (he never brings his own light or stages scenes) and partly of filter choices during printing--is inviting, but other aspects of these scenes exclude us. The most prominent object in Untitled (2899) is the back of a semitrailer in the foreground, its eerily beautiful blue almost glowing. But its solid surface also rebuffs the viewer in a way that the image's illuminated apartment window, which here offers a peek inside, does not.

The unpaved alley and Dumpster in Untitled (2899) are typical of the locales Hido chooses, sometimes a mix of the industrial and residential buildings common in poorer neighborhoods; these are working-class homes that also seem vaguely rootless. Hido's images, neither cutely ironic nor overtly analytical, summon up an almost chaotic mix of emotions. An outdoor grill, a parked pickup truck, or a lone window simultaneously evokes the richness of other lives and suggests how little a stalker-voyeur can know about them.

Hido--who was born in Kent, Ohio, in 1968 and now lives in San Francisco--grew up in a blue-collar environment similar to those he photographs. He describes his childhood as relatively happy; his father was a plumber, his mother a drugstore clerk. He got his start in photography as a teenager: a four-time state champion BMX bike racer, he hoped to become a photographer for a BMX magazine. While studying photography at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, a "trade school" where he got a good technical background, he attended a workshop in Colorado taught by pioneering African-American photographer Roy de Carava, who "opened my eyes," he says, "to the possibility of what being a fine-art photographer could be." Later influences include Emmet Gowan, Harry Callahan, and Larry Sultan.

Not every photograph here was taken outdoors; two of empty rooms suggest homes that have been recently vacated, also evoking the transience of working-class lives. Untitled (1928-A) shows a room devoid of furniture, though its surfaces--scratched fake wood walls and a rococo linoleum floor--form a symphony of lush browns. In Untitled (1932) a lone table holds an ornate kitschy lamp in a cream-colored room. The lamp is plugged in, but the other wall and phone sockets are empty, and the lamp shade is stained and askew. Such small touches suggest the human past of a scene of abandonment and dislocation.

These two photos belong to an ongoing series of the interiors of recently foreclosed homes in Los Angeles; with the help of a realtor friend, Hido's been able to see such homes alone, so he can set up his camera and photograph them undisturbed. But he's had to look at many interiors to find images worth taking, perhaps 100 in order to get the 15 photos now in the series. Like the outdoor shots, these two perfectly balance hints of humanity and its absence, affection and alienation. And like them, they refer to the almost obsessive act of their making: the viewer, like Hido, is both participant and observer, lover and voyeur.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Todd Hido.

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