As I mentioned earlier this week, my journey, fascination and obsession with photography began when I was about 15. I found myself strongly attracted to the beauty and fantasy of Anton Corbijn’s b&w images. I was mesmerized of the power of shock and awe created by Robert Mapplethorpe, and later became captivated by the sheer honesty and beauty of his work. Over the years I studied and was influenced by many great photographers, notably Diane Arbus and Gordon Parks . The power of a photograph, the ability to tell a story, to evoke reaction, and to simple expose us to a world unknown, this is why I chose to become a photographer. I had to be part of it.
I was always aware of the emotional power that a photograph can hold. But it wasn’t until browsing through the photography section of Barnes and Noble, that I was instantly struck, and nearly moved to tears. It was the day I discovered a monograph by David Hilliard.
David Hilliard’s photographs are like a window into his life. Beautifully constructed multi-panel images create more than just a glimpse, they show the complexity of relationships, the joys of childhood, the struggles of manhood, and they hold the power to connect the viewer to David’s own experience.
David holds a BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art, and MFA from Yale. He is currently Assistant Professor of Photography at Mass College of Art, Boston; has also taught at Yale and continues to teach workshops throughout the country. He has exhibited his work in numerous group and solo shows in galleries all over the US and abroad and is represented by the Bernard Toale Gallery in Boston, the Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York, as well as galleries in Atlanta and Los Angeles. All of this, and he still took the time to answer a few of my questions:
CHANTAL STONE: Please tell me something about you…where you're from, what first attracted you to photography, how you got started
DAVID HILLIARD: I’m from Lowell MA . Photography has always been a part of my history. As a boy I remember my dad taking lots of pictures and often joining them together to create sweeping landscapes…not in a fine art sense though. It seemed more about the need to fully describe a place. But it made an impression. After that I was always the kid with the camera. I would document everything; friends, family, toys and places that I liked. Looking back it seemed a form of control. I’ve always felt a lack of control in my life and making photographs, from the very beginning seems to give me back some aspect of control…I was here, look at this, this looks better this way, this is wrong etc..
CS: What format do you prefer to work in?
DH : 4x5. Color. I love the potential for large scale viewer and detail that holds up.
CS: Where do you like to shoot, any favorite places? Do you do much traveling?
DH: I shoot everywhere. My back yard, the homes of family or friends. I tend to respond to rural/suburban landscapes…really beautiful spaces but not too over the top. I do travel quite a bit and usually try to bring the camera. Presently I’m in Colorado teaching a two week summer course. So far I’ve photographed suburban belly dancers and, I think, made a pretty interesting image of some teenagers making out in a golf course sand trap. I’m trying. It’s often difficult to find some sort of edge…a slippage that warrants a photograph. Sometimes I just find it and sometimes I completely create it
CS: Describe your method; do you plan your shoots or are they more spontaneous?
DH : I think I just kind of answered this one. But yes, sometime I’ll just happen upon a subject and think “wow this really lends itself to a photograph”. Other times I’ll be day dreaming or in the midst of a conversation and I’ll have that eureka moment where an idea will come to me and I start spinning the wheels as to how to create it.
CS: What single element do you try to emphasize in your work?
DH: Big question. I’m not exactly sure I have one single element. I have a few that are consistently running through the work though. The sense of being a spectator…that all this stuff is going on around me, sometime wonderful sometimes not, and I’m just watching. Taking it all in.
I’m very much interested in where the viewer is situated when they take in the work. I like the idea that this viewer has to work a bit to make associations between images (shifting focal planes and depth of field) and often physically move to take it all in. I love that in some of the large vertical images the viewer, along with the subject of the photo, are often sharing the same experience. Meaning that there could be an image of a person reclining, looking up into the sky and that the viewer also works to take in the same view.
I also like a tension between a real event and something staged/static. A tension between reality and fiction. I think this goes back to my boyhood desire to control things that I couldn’t.
CS: Are you currently working on any projects? If so, please describe.
DH: I’m making a series of images where there might be this latent desire for some of transformation or escapism. Lots of images of people changing clothes, deciding who to be that day. Images of people performing…for example the Colorado belly dancers. That for a few hours these women can become something else, transport themselves elsewhere. I’m also making a series of photos of people reading, deeply absorbed in the page while perhaps sitting in a landscape that further echoes this feeling. This work is very new and still unfolding. I’m excited about where it’s going though.
DH: Early on it was my father for sure…and really wonderful 70’s television and early Technicolor movies.
As an undergrad student it was a strong faculty at Mass College of Art in Boston . Abe Morell, Barbara Bosworth and most especially Laura McPhee. She really pushed me to strive for accountability in what I was creating. There was never any hiding with her around.
Then there was the Yale grad school experience. I actually had a pretty good run. I worked with some amazing artists and my work grew significantly. It wasn’t the warm and fuzzy Mass Art journey…but it was formative.
I love and respond to so much photography that I can’t really tell you of one particular artist. I do know that the very photo that I fell in love with was August Sander’s Pastry Chef. A perfect photo.
CS: What are you currently…?
Reading … Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name and stack of New Yorker’s that I can never get ahead on
Listening to … Smog’s A River Ain’t Too Much and Rufus Wainwright’s Release the Stars
Watching … A Jack Nicholson movie marathon…One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Easy Rider etc.. Good stuff
CS: I find your photographs to be deeply personal and often very emotional. On your website you state:
"The casual glances people share can take on a deeper significance, and what initially appears subjective and intimate is quite often a commentary on the larger contours of life."
I feel that your photographs are not only about the relationships between the individuals pictured or between yourself and your subject(s), but also about relationships we all share: between lovers, friends, parent & child. What, if any, is the larger statement that you are trying to make?
DH: I think that is a large statement. Larger than that I’m not sure; I guess that we’re all fragile and searching…and that ultimately there’s no correct path or lifestyle. They’re all viable, challenging and occasionally painful.
CS: Your photographs give a feeling of familiarity, like a glimpse into the very personal aspects of your life. Are you purposely being so revealing or is it part of an illusion? Do you know all of your subjects personally (vs. hiring models)?
DH : Revealing. I almost always know my subjects on some personal level. When I hire I feel like something is lost. I think it’s that collaboration between fact and fiction that I mentioned earlier.
CS: As a teacher, I'm sure you're always asked for advice. Is there a particular bit of wisdom you'd like to share?
DH: Maybe not wisdom but one of the first things I’ll tell a class is that none of us have it all figured out. I never want to be that teacher. We’re all searching for a kind of resonance in our work, a personal truth. Perhaps I’ve just been doing it longer…but I’m still searching for answers.
AND, stop doing it when you no longer love it. There are just too many photographers out there who seem to be forcing it…