San Francisco

Todd Hido

Wirtz Art

The houses in Todd Hido’s new color photographs all exude an eerie stillness. The middle-class homes of a certain fraying age that serve almost exclusively as his subject are shrouded in the atmospheric light of wintry dusk or the motionless darkness of late evening. Sometimes there’s a car parked out front, but there’s never a human figure in sight. There might be a light on in the window, a square that sometimes glows a fluorescent white or a more welcoming golden hue, yet no one invites us in; the dried-out, overgrown lawns and streets seem to serve as suburban moats.

Relatively long exposures shot without added lighting, the photographs are theatricalized portraits of humble abodes in California, Utah, Michigan, Ohio—the latter drab American settings that provide Hido the opportunity to explore the glittering pictorial possibilities bf snow, a task he manages rather well. His instincts for composition and light are masterful, and he shows himself to be an astute colorist, even if the tones alternate from picture to picture somewhat mechanically between warm gold and chilly blue.

While the houses are far from Martha Stewart perfect, they seem oddly unreal; each image is like a Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson scene without the constructed cinematic narratives. Hido’s approach involves positioning his voyeuristic camera a bashful distance from the homes and their hidden occupants, a tactic that allows for any number of possible stories behind each scene. What’s going on inside the low-slung Salt Lake City ranch house in Untitled #2871-A, 2001? One window is illuminated, and a few snow-covered American-made cars are parked in the driveway. Poker game? Wake? It’s impossible to tell, as there’s no sign of movement.

Unfortunately, the same could be said of the artist’s development. While these images are striking, they carry a hint of creative inertia. Those who’ve seen Hido’s “House Hunting” series, 1996–, the first body of work to gamer him attention beyond his Bay Area home (and the subject of a new, oversize book of the same title), may have trouble identifying anything new about these recent prints. The colors may be deeper and richer, but the project is nearly identical. One gets the sense that Hido is caught in a sophomore slump, inching a little too slowly toward the next phase.

Only one picture, Untitled #2872, 2001, seems to signal a shift. It’s a nighttime shot of the back of a one-story building in Las Vegas, a long cinderblock structure that appears to extend past the borders of the frame. The gray building is sandwiched between a black sky and a vast, bleached-out asphalt street, etched with a web of deep cracks. The strong formality of the composition nudges the picture toward geometric abstraction and, by extension, the outside world: Rather than being urged to wonder about the domestic life in the building, we’re left looking at the character of that battered street, following the lines of its splintered surface and wondering where they might lead.

Glen Helfand