Bright Black World is Todd Hido’s response to Climate Change and the creeping blackness in our social and political landscape. Where previous books and bodies of work dealt with memory and nostalgia, Bright Black World is more present/future focused. It’s a small part Mad Max bleakness, part On Walden Pond lush stillness.
Bright Black World opens with a short, literary essay from Alexander Nemerov, describing the role of the artist at the end of the world, to show us its approach, document its arrival, and imagine the time after. In some sense, Nemerov captures precisely what Hido aims to do in the book; in another, it’s just a bit over the top, for me anyway.
Gone (mostly) are the older homes at night and the suggestive interiors; Khrystyna is absent. Some of the images were shot through streaky windows, but Hido has introduced a new sort of theme or trope in the book: dramatic, near monochrome landscapes, nearly devoid of any human presence.
There are pink and blue landscapes, red landscapes, brown landscapes, grey landscapes, black landscapes. Many have a morning sun burning through fog. There are a few pictures of electric lights: one near a tractor trailer and doublewide mobile home; a single streetlight-type lamp on a shoreline, reflecting in the water; a field of lit crosses in a small graveyard. There are equally few interiors or scenes of the built environment: one empty room with a lace curtain and two views of what looks like smoke-damaged walls; the aforementioned doublewide and a bleak industrial boulevard, the buildings near black, with a bright, yet still menacing sky above.
Three gatefolds bring some vertical and large-format interest to flipping through the book: two open vertically (one reveals a 3/4 view of a woman with her back to the camera; the other shows an icy, curving river with a dramatic sky above); one opens vertically and horizontally to reveal a poster-size print featuring a wildly dramatic, roiling cloud formation with a tiny strip of landscape at the bottom. These force you to slow down and think some about the images before and after (and the quotes, one from Hido—”It’s been said that Inuits have many words to describe white. As the polar snow caps melt faster than we ever imagined, I wonder how long it will be before we have as many words to describe darkness.”—one from Nemerov’s essay—”It is a confusion of times. The end foretells doom, it exists in premonitions. But the end—to be an end—must also reveal how it will look afterward, once it has already occurred.”
As a picturing of the end, I’m not quite sure Hido really hit the mark. The photographs are certainly empty, desolate, with violent-looking skies, but they’re all so beautiful at the same time, with deep depth of field, brilliant detail, and lush, gorgeous color. It’s probably my upbringing in the Pentecostal and Non-Denominational Christian churches in the 1980s, in the age of Mad Max and Blade Runner, but my visions of the end of the world have more grit, more flame, more smog, more filth, and way way way less beauty. There are no rotting carcasses, no starving Polar Bears, no muddy floods, no roving gangs of punks and junkies. Sure, there are the two views of smoke-damaged walls, and one photograph of some burned cars, but just about everything else is just so pretty. Of course, Hido is almost 10 years older than me (9 years and 9 months, roughly) and so his vision of the end of the world will be different from mine, and he’s far more well-traveled than I. And maybe my three days of careful looking isn’t enough (it isn’t: Bright Black World will be revisited, many times). But at time of writing, I think I get what he’s trying to do, and his photographs are incredible, but I don’t think he quite got it, and some of the pictures seem a little bit heavy-handed to me.
Overall, I rate Bright Black World a slightly disappointed 4 stars.
I preordered Bright Black World back in September, I think, and then forgot. When it appeared in a best of list in late November, I looked at it and decided against buying it: Hido is among my favorite photographers, and his work is deeply inspirational, but I didn’t really see anything in the previews that grabbed me in the way his earlier work does. And then I received the shipping notification and remembered the preorder. It’s great: my copy is signed in gold paint pen, and it’s the first, First Edition copy of a Hido monograph in my collection. I’m privileged to have it.
But really, Bright Black World is almost completely unlike anything Hido has done before, and it feels like a sharp break with his previous work, all of which had a sort of clear through-line. Hido seems to be turning away from his nostalgia-focused work, and towards some future minded, environmentally (and socially, perhaps) conscious work. As the first entry in this new way of thinking, my slight disappointment with it is partly “but I wanted House Hunting II or Between the Other Two!!!” whining. But it’s also the early days of this new way of working, and Hido is only three years into it. His working methods and ideas will surely morph as he continues in this vein. (And if an interview about the gallery show of the work, Hido mentions future monographs on this same theme, so I look forward to seeing where he goes with it.)
The first edition of Bright Black World is sold out, but keep your eyes open: a second edition is forthcoming in 2019 from Nazraeli Press. If you’re interested in brilliantly photographed and beautifully printed landscape photography, you’ll probably enjoy it. But if you’re looking for The Silver Meadows Tapes or Khrystyna’s Home, save your money and keep roving the used book websites: you’re sure to find House Hunting or Excerpts from Silver Meadows or Between the Two for a reasonable-enough price some day. Really, Bright Black World is a great photobook, with some wonderfully suggestive photographs in it. But as a Todd Hido photobook, it’s missing something, that nostalgic feeling that suffused so much of his earlier work.
Update: After looking again at the Homing In box set, I realized that the landscape work in Bright Black World isn’t as far removed from his earlier work as I claimed above. At least 7 pictures from Bright Black World appear in Homing In, and seen with his other work—outtakes from House Hunting, Outskirts, Between the Two, etc.—the landscapes fit right in. They may come later than his suburban homes at night, interiors, or more nostalgic work, but they’re not entirely separate or a radical shift at all.
What really interests me (or bothers me, or both), I guess, is the move from past- to future-oriented. From fictionalized nostalgia to imagined future. As noted above, my imagined future contains technological nightmares (think: The Terminator and Blade Runner); massive cities choked with smog, garbage and people; smokey, barren landscapes. And if not that, then something between Beyond Thunderdome and Waterworld, both of which are just desert and ocean versions of the bleak futures seen in other 1980s blockbusters (or busts).
A post-ice cap future will likely not look like the technological nightmares of the past, but any look at Dubai or Shanghai or Los Angeles (or Dallas/Fort Worth, even) today certainly approaches that, and with the Googles and Facebooks ruling, Terminators can’t be far behind, though they might wear different costumes.
Now, some of the pictures in Bright Black World have some kind of fog or smoke in them, and there’s little sign of animal life, but it’s all so pretty, in a lush and beautiful way that’s completely different from the beauty found in Blade Runner or Thunderdome. I want to go for a nice hike through the Bright Black World, and don’t imagine running from drug crazed bikers or chain-wielding punks, or even some kind of Minority Report fascist police force. Do 50 year olds have a different vision of the post-apocalyptic future than 40 year olds? Or am I really deeply misreading Bright Black World?
Perhaps Hido means to be more hopeful than his choice of quotes or the Alexander Nemerov forward would suggest? Maybe that’s it. I don’t know, but this is the most I’ve written for a book review yet, so there must be something to it.
Keep your eyes out for the second edition.