Unnatural lighting

Todd Hido

Bay Area photographic artist Todd Hido’s photos conceal more than they reveal, leaving a lot to the imagination.

Bay Area photographic artist Todd Hido’s photos conceal more than they reveal, leaving a lot to the imagination.

Todd Hido has been around the block. Not only are his photographs featured in art collections from Microsoft’s to the Guggenheim’s, the Oakland, Calif. photographer has also stood on street corners in undistinguished neighborhoods in his hometown Kent, Ohio, Northern California and Detroit. After the sidewalks roll up, Hido’s out shooting photos.

“I’m a bit of a night owl,” the ambitious father of two 3-year-olds said. It must be true; some of his e-mailed correspondence is conducted at 3:50 a.m.

This month, his numerically titled nocturnal images are on view at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Sheppard Gallery.

Large, color pictures of ordinary buildings reveal hints of human activity inside. Most of a city’s details are edited out of the frame, others are covered by darkness, and life is condensed down to a few still elements. In one photo, three different shades of incandescent yellow peek from a gray, suburban house that needs a paint job. The blank sky is a steely wash that looks painted. The prominent, white picket fence, yellowed both from age and street lighting, is a reminder that everyone who looks at the photo is an outsider. Is the rest of the neighborhood bustling or sleepy? Do the people inside get along? Does the smell of fresh spaghetti sauce waft through the air? We’ll never know.

Hido explains what attracts him to a particular scene: “Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s some light on in a window, something going on inside. My work appears to be kind of voyeuristic, but you’re not really seeing anything inside.”

He reports that viewers often complete the scenes with their imaginations, plugging their own experiences into whatever narrative holes are left in the photos to make up new stories. With his photography, Hido treads the borders between fiction and documentary, information and conjecture.

“I’m interested in realism,” he says. He welcomes a comparison between the clean, bold shapes in his compositions and those of quintessential American realist painter Edward Hopper. “But I’m also interested in fantasy.”

The subjects are real and unaltered, but the colors look they were made by crayon designers on Mars. A chocolate-colored night sky, a spot of sunset-orange light behind old lace curtains, and sno-cone-blue snow in the front yard aren’t garish, but they’re unnatural. The hues are caused by the tendency of color film to shift when Hido keeps his camera’s shutter open for six to 10 seconds to get enough light in a picture. Once in a while, he says, lights from car dealerships or casinos—Hido shoots in Reno sometimes—bounce off low-flying clouds in the breeze, and the colors will mix themselves in the air while he’s making the shot.

Sara Gray, interim director of the Sheppard Gallery, says Hido’s cinematic lighting captured her eye. “But once I looked at the work more, I noticed the feeling they portray is very mysterious,” she says. “The images are usually of a place you’d just drive by and not even pay attention to, but now he’s frozen them in time, and these places are much more interesting and beautiful. It makes me more and more curious about what’s happening there.”