Strong at the Broken Places
Photographer David Hilliard Draws on Personal History to Create Panoramas of Possibility
by Lester Strong
[dropcap]G[/dropcap]lance at the photography of David Hilliard and you’ll find yourself immersed in a world of lush color, scenic landscapes, intimate homescapes, and human portraits that are sometimes erotic and at other times soulful—a world, moreover, always tantalizingly suggestive of narratives that are just beyond the ability of the camera’s eye to articulate openly. And while AIDS is not always front and center in his images, as a gay man who came of age in the 1980s during the worst of the medical crisis, it has informed his work over the years in surprising ways.
“My connection with photography was probably deep from the beginning, but took awhile to reveal itself as something more profound,” Hilliard stated when interviewed for this article. “As within many families, taking photographs was always part of every ritual and event, but for my father it was a bit more obsessive. Our every moment was documented, even the most mundane. Every day when my older brother and I came home from school, or from outside playing, we would become victims of ‘through the door shots,’ as my dad called them. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of images of us ‘coming home.’”
He continued: “I myself began making photographs not long after my parents’ divorce. I was around seven. My brother and I were mostly in the custody of my mother, who remarried not long after the split. I’ve always gotten along well with my own father, but my relationship with my mother’s new husband was anything but warm and accepting. These were difficult years. We moved throughout Massachusetts almost annually as my stepfather climbed the corporate ladder, and as soon as I made new connections with schools, playmates, or even the confines of my new bedroom, they would all be gone and I had to start anew. So I started photographing everything: my friends (usually girls), my brother’s friends (usually boys that I was drawn to but didn’t know exactly why at that point), playgrounds, wallpaper, my favorite trees, the neighbor’s dog, etc., etc., etc. I unknowingly was holding onto things before they could be taken away. This element of image-making is still very much alive and well in my current studio practice: photography as a marker, a keepsake, a medium through which to covet. It allows me to address a world I don’t always understand, fit into, approve of, or enjoy in ‘real time.’ It allows me to edit the world into a kind of psychological and physical submission, one in which things are a bit more palatable and understandable. I don’t know how I’d function on this planet without it really.”
The narrative element in Hilliard’s photography came from three influences. “For starters, as a kid I was raised in front of television. Second, in high school, living in Lowell, Massachusetts, I became involved with a local professional theater. That was probably my first introduction to anything truly artistic. Then third, I discovered Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Peter Greenaway, Merchant and Ivory, Scorcese, and my beloved Coen brothers, and became swept away by poignant storytelling and breathtaking imagery in the movies. In college I first thought I’d be a film major, but soon learned that the ‘responsibility’ of that much footage was not for me. What I really loved was the pointed still moment within films, the static signifiers.”
Of course signifiers always point to or hint at something, and that is part of what makes Hilliard’s photography so arresting to the eye. It doesn’t tell a story outright, like a TV show, stage production, or movie. Instead it opens the imagination to possible narratives by inviting viewers to bring their own personal experience into interaction with the photographic images.
In much of his work, he helps this process through the use of horizontal or vertical photographic panels that provide panoramic scenes, which tend to draw viewers in as participants, rather than single shots that delimit images, which tend to separate viewers out as observers. A perfect example: his photographic montage Swimmers. This triptych is obviously a nod toward two famous Thomas Eakins’ paintings, The Swimming Hole and Swimming—as Hilliard admitted to photography critic Vince Aletti in the 2005 monograph on his work, David Hilliard: Photographs.With its broad sweep of images from bicycles fallen on the grass to teenagers swimming in a forest stream, it creates a bucolic mood. Yet the eye is stopped by the young man in the center panel, his back to the camera, sitting slightly slumped to one side of the stream apart from the others, which intrudes an altogether different note into the idyll. As Hilliard explained to Aletti: “Maybe this kid is with the other kids, maybe he’s not. He’s looking down. He’s just not in the moment. He’s not able to be with those boys, for whatever reason.…” In other words, the sense of being an “outsider” has made itself felt, which draws the viewer back to memories nearly everyone has had of not quite fitting in with one’s social world.
Clearly Hilliard is drawing on his own personal memories for the feelings he expresses in this montage. And in other work he draws on his personal experiences, fantasies, and relationships. Two notable examples: No More Tears, an homage to his mother and her continuing passion for life into advanced age, and Rock Bottom, a father-son portrait like no other you’ll see, which captures a wistful closeness between two men who, whatever their differences, feel a deep bond with each other. As Hilliard noted in the interview for this article: “In the end, all of the images play into a kind of photographic philosophy/personal history.”
So where does AIDS fit into this picture?
“I came of age pretty much smack dab in the epicenter of some of the darkest years of the AIDS epidemic,” he said in the interview. “I lost many friends to the virus, and I often think it’s a miracle I’m here today. The early 1980s are so polarized in my mind: the joy of freeing myself from an oppressive town, a cruel, homophobic step-father, and troubling societal expectations I didn’t fit into. Also, the sheer exhilaration of discovering my own queer identity and the often uncontrollable joy of sex with another man. All this empowering and wonderfully formative stuff colliding head-on with the AIDS epidemic and an often narrow-minded world. It was bad, and I know for a fact it had a profound impact on shaping my identity.”
He continued: “I consider myself a strong, openly gay man. I pride myself in making work about it. I’m also a teacher of photography, and am proud to tell my LGBT students to do the same, if that’s what they want to explore in their own work. Anyway, for all my personal empowerment, my identity in some ways is shaky, its foundation dug, poured, and set in the sad and uncertain, sandy soil of AIDS. It’s a kind of fear that will never go away. I wonder if young people today fully understand the feeling of holding someone in the fit of passion on the brink of orgasmic pleasure and at the same time wondering, fearing, what lies pumping beneath the skin that you’re holding. A person’s mind undergoes some intense compartmentalizing in those moments.”
Hilliard has donated work over the years to many auctions raising funds for AIDS-related organizations such as the AIDS Action Committee in Boston and the AIDS Community Research Initiative of America (ACRIA), the latter of which has introduced a number of medicines now taken for granted in treating the disease. In 2008, he participated in ACRIA’s exhibition “For Art’s Sake.” According to Hilliard: “ACRIA was able to convince the Ford Modeling Agency to partner with fine galleries around the country for a collaborative fundraising happening. Selected artists from those galleries were allowed to ‘shop’ the Ford website for models in their area, and the models and artists then donated their time and energies. I chose a soulful, beautiful young man named Paul to photograph. It was very touching to work with a person so full of beauty and life, and to meet his amazing parents, who were very supportive of the project. I’m still very close with all three to this day. The auction of the works produced was held in New York City. The image of Paul I donated was titled Sought. The image sold for quite a bit of money, and the auction was a stellar fundraising event for ACRIA.”
Some of Hilliard’s work is visually directly related to AIDS, such as Never the Last Endeavor, which shows an HIV-positive friend coping with his medications. Other pieces are less obvious. For example, he said about Sought: “I was thinking about the physical and metaphorical weight of blood in this image, along with ideas of guilt, remorse, desire, and the nature of following our instincts.” Not quite the associations most viewers would take away from such an exquisite portrait-within-a-landscape, although tension is clearly introduced in the center panel where the young man is shouldering a rifle.
Moreover, Hilliard maintains the disease is always with him, stating in the interview: “AIDS is in my work, my life, my history. Many of the sitters within my work are HIV-positive, but I don’t need the image to necessarily be ‘about’ that. For me AIDS is always there. I’m forever under its shadow. I think that strange mixture of strength and fear I was talking about earlier is embodied very well in a quotation from Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms: ‘The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.’ I like to think that I’m strong at the broken places.”
There are two books out on David Hilliard’s photography: David Hilliard: Photographs, 2005, Aperture Foundation, New York, NY (www.aperture.org); What Could Be, 2014, Minor Matters Books, Seattle, WA (www.minormattersbooks.com). Visit Hilliard’s website at: www.davidhilliard.com.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U.