PRINT May 1998


THE RECENT VINTAGE OF most California houses doesn’t make them particularly promising settings for ghost stories. But Todd Hido, a photographer just starting to make his presence known in the Bay Area, manages to elicit the shivers associated with haunted houses in his large color photographs. In a series he calls “House Hunting,” Hido has photographed the insides of empty, tract-style homes and the outsides of similar houses whose glowing windowpanes signal their habitation. (“Hunting” evokes “haunting,” of course, and it further connotes the predatory trespass of the photographer’s gaze.) Seldom has suburbia looked spookier or more forlorn.

The houses in Hido’s outdoor shots seem to glow in the dark. While the bright light that shines through the windows gives some indication that these structures are lived in, one can also sense their gloomy desolation. Isolated in the frame, almost like portrait subjects, the houses exist in a still twilight that can leave a viewer wondering whether someone is home watching television or absent owners are trying to ward off prowlers. Hido, lurking with his camera across the street, comes off as a benign but creepy surveillance aficionado, a private eye of domestic disarray.

For his shots of interiors, Hido visited homes whose previous owners had failed to meet their mortgage payments and were evicted; now owned by banks, the places bear the marks of sad lives and hasty departures. His camera lingers on a few vestigial reminders: window curtains, a chandelier-style lighting fixture, and a stained mattress are almost all that remains as evidence of the former inhabitants. Hido doesn’t dwell on the sociological, however: his interest, indicated by the care with which he modulates light and color, lies in the haunting quality of these spaces. In a sense, the photographs duplicate the banks’ seizure of the houses by repossessing them in the name of art.

Anonymity is one of Hido’s most redolent themes. First, there is the anonymity of the houses themselves, which, as the repetitive exterior shots make clear, seem to have been designed and built not by a single intelligence but by some demented committee intent on foreclosing any possibility of individual spirit. Who creates these pathetic living spaces and dreary facades? But even more tantalizing is the question of who lives in them. Surely not people like us, we may be quick to assert, given the houses’ absolute lack of aesthetic appeal. Hido, however, shows no sign at all of passing judgment on his absent subjects. His prints nearly redeem the horribly empty living rooms, the prints an unnatural but attractive glow.

Still, all the tonalist, transcendental color in the world can’t wash away the sadness of these surfaces—the lifeless asphalt, half-hearted landscaping, and faded stucco outside, the soiled synthetic carpet and tacky paneling inside. One thinks back to Lewis Baltz’s black-and-white photographs of a housing tract under construction in Park City, Utah, or to Robert Adams’ protest against development in the series “Denver” and “The New West.” Hido’s work has less to do with the New Topographics tradition of Baltz and Adams than one might expect, however. His interest in evoking ambiguity and his attachment to pictorial effects place him more in a league with the psychological roots movement exemplified by Larry Sultan, Hido’s mentor in the master’s program at the California College of Arts and Crafts, from which he graduated in 1996.

When Hido showed these pictures together as an ensemble in his solo show at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco this past February, they seemed carefully calibrated to collapse any distinction between home and homelessness, between roots and rootlessness. On one wall the arrangement of nineteen of the exterior images, stacked in three rows, showed that Hido has been paying attention to the installation issues of his work. In earlier group shows, like 1997’s “Bay Area Now” at the city’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, he represented this work with a handful of large (mostly 30-by-30-inch) color prints, a strategy that conveyed only a hint of his intentions. By grouping small prints of the outdoor shots in the Wirtz show, he achieved a density that highlighted his catalogue-style approach without making it appear overblown.

As a group, Hido’s pictures of the last two years suggest that houses evidence their inhabitants’ failures, much as did Wright Morris’ classic photo/text work of the ’40s, The Inhabitants. But the pleasurably nostalgic Nebraska of Morris’ survey is nowhere to be found in “House Hunting”; instead, we are in the literary territory of Dan McCall’s Jack the Bear, an enormously depressing novel (and later an unsuccessful Danny DeVito film) set in the anomie-inducing flatlands of Oakland. Today the novel’s protagonist, who worked as a clown on television, might well be living in one of Hido’s more upscale but equally soulless houses. Or may just have been evicted.

Andy Grundberg is a critic based in Washington, DC.