Art of Darkness 

Photographer Todd Hido made a name in the art world with his haunting images of suburbia. Now he's turned his lens toward, well, racier subjects.

From the outside, Todd Hido's home looks perfectly normal. You might even pass it by without a second thought. Hido lives in a warm-blue Rockridge dwelling with his wife, Nina, and their three-year-old twins, Owen and Audrey. The neighborly artifice has all the broad strokes of a Rockwellian unit: A family sedan parked at the curb; a patch of grass scattered with toys; a pair of tricycles tossed across the front porch.

Despite the facade, Hido is a fine art photographer best known for his assault on such tidy wrappings. In 2001, when Hido was 34 and a recent graduate of Oakland's California College of Arts and Crafts, he published his first monograph, entitled House Hunting. In its simplest form, the book was a collection of suburban homes photographed at night and with long exposures. In most of the images the only light source comes from inside the home, and often it's the pale blue haze from a lone television set -- a suggestion that someone is home, but perhaps tuned out from reality. The book's overall comment was unsettling: It revealed an entire world of houses that appeared somehow haunted despite their perfectly manicured front lawns. House Hunting became an art world sensation. Critics from the San Francisco Chronicle to the New York Times praised the young artist for capturing the emptiness that crept through the suburban landscape. If Rockwell convinced us that home was a comfort zone, Hido (pronounced Hi-dough) flipped the wisdom on its head. Through his lens, suburban dwellings were cold places where secrets were kept, lies were told, and terrible things occurred -- especially at night. "Todd's eerie photographs of American houses have changed the way we define the word 'home,'" wrote Sheri McKenzie, vice president of enrollment at CCAC.

Seven years later no one in the art world disputes that claim. Hido, who grew up in the 'burbs of Kent, Ohio, takes the praise in stride. Underneath, he's a humble Midwesterner, reluctant to speak of himself in such esteemed terms. Yet he also possesses the peculiar mannerisms of a true art geek, one who's most at home in a darkroom, poring over contact sheets during the wee hours. His friends describe him as single-minded and driven. "All of this," Hido said one day in his studio, "has actually been a slow and steady process. To an outsider, it may look like it was an overnight thing ... But one of my projects has always built off another and led to another."

Since House Hunting Hido's career has ascended steadily even as his subject matter has gotten more opaque. His follow-up monograph, Roaming, was a collection of dreary landscape shots taken through his car windshield. Again, it earned him the acclaim of a seminal artist. "Rising star Todd Hido is a genius," wrote Rangefinder, a respected art photo magazine. "His ability to look at our everyday environment and infuse it with a magical still-life quality, even while he's moving, is part of his magic."

Today, an original Hido print fetches as much as $10,000, and some reside in the permanent collections at SFMOMA, the Whitney, and New York's Guggenheim. He's one of the few U.S. photographers who can aim his lens toward the seemingly mundane -- the backdoor of a house, a winding road, a wet telephone pole -- and have it lauded as high art, the starting point for a broad discussion of the human condition.

In January, however, Hido surprised some of his longtime admirers by changing his subject matter. He shipped off the prints for his latest book, tentatively titled Dark Quarters, which includes some of his trademark house studies, but also something new: Human beings.

The artist, who has made his name internationally from photographs that are conspicuously absent of people, has spent the last year clicking nude portraits of women in shabby motel rooms around the Bay Area. The images represent a mid-career gamble for Hido. Nudes are rarely the stuff an art maven will drop $10K for, much less if they contain elements of erotica, which Hido's do. Or, perhaps, the art world will again hail Hido's ability to capture the dramatic tensions inherent in the body, just as he did with households.

San Francisco gallery owner Stephen Wirtz, whose early support helped launch Hido's career, sounded cautious after viewing the nude shots recently. "They're really new for me so I'm not sure where I'm coming in from," Wirtz says. "I don't know that I've resolved how I feel about them nor do I know if Todd has."

Hido still heads out on a house hunt a few nights each month. Around ten o'clock one Tuesday night in November, the photographer drove toward his favorite neighborhood in Pacifica. It was cold and rainy -- perfect weather. Hido had just tucked his twins into bed and packed his wife's car with a medium-format camera, tripod, and a bag of Kodak color film. He usually hauls sandbags to steady the tripod, but he'd left those behind in his own car. On some nights Hido cruises four or five hours and never gets out of the car. Since he got successful, he admits, those nights have become more frequent. "A lot of the times I'm editing in the field as I go," the photographer said as he steered through the maze of potential homes. "I'll see a house and think, 'But how is it going to add to my body of work?' And that's dangerous. A lot of times I just won't take it."

To combat the malaise, Hido has to remind himself of what it was like to be young and hungry for opportunity. "I got all those pictures from not knowing what was going to happen, and just shooting," he says. "So recently, I've been talking myself back into just going for it, instead of thinking, 'Oh, I know how that's going to turn out.'"

Hido parked alongside a two-story corner house. A light from a back window on the top floor had caught his eye. The neighborhood was a great relic, stuck in an architectural time machine that reminded Hido of Levittown, New York, the nation's first suburb. "One time I remember coming up here in the summer, right when I got out of grad school, and this neighborhood was socked in with fog," Hido recalled. "I couldn't even see across the street. I remember coming out of the flatlands and hitting this fog and it was just the most surreal and creepy neighborhood I'd ever seen. It had all the right combinations. I remember seeing that for the first time and just being blown away by it all ... that sort of changed everything."

It was Hido's closest thing to an Eureka Moment. In a fit of artistic inspiration, he worked for five hours straight, he said, then returned to the darkroom with something obscure but accessible -- something he was excited about. The homes he'd shot were much like the ones he'd grown up in, and the natural lighting gave the work a mysterious aesthetic. He liked the distanced quality of the images: The artist was there, and yet he wasn't -- a silent voyeur.

Outside the Pacifica house, Hido got out of the car and loaded his film in the darkness, barely looking down -- he's set up his gear in the dark thousands of times, and sometimes in driving rain or snowstorms. He mounted the camera to the tripod and pitched its legs in what seemed like one expert motion. Since Hido has extremely poor eyesight, and wears both contacts and eyeglasses to compensate, he estimated that his camera's lens was twenty meters from the house and focused it accordingly. The single window on the top floor cast a yellowish glow.

Hido looked through his viewfinder for barely a second before pulling out a miniature leveler to make sure his camera was true to the ground. He set the exposure at four minutes and used a handheld digital timer to remind him when time was up.

With everything set, Hido took a step back, lit a Parliament, and took a long look at the house.

The yellow light on the top floor went out.

Hido blew cigarette smoke from his mouth. "That happens," he said, waiting a moment for the next step in the process.


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