Advice for Portrait Photographers – Interview with Todd Hido

Todd Hido is one of the most interesting artists using photography today. We asked if he would be willing to share some insights and advice for photographers who are interested in the photographic portrait. Here are the thoughts and images he shared with us.

LC: In your opinion, what are some of the qualities that make some photographic portraits stand out and apart from ordinary photos of people? Can you offer some examples of great photo portraits that hold power for you?

TH: Richard Avedon’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe. It’s the epitome for me of an unguarded portrait. It was apparently taken at a moment when she didn’t realize she was supposed to be “on,” and it shows what I gather is the exact opposite of what it was she was trying to portray, most likely your typical flirty persona. But what it actually shows is a person that seems to be lost within themselves and looking very much inward.

Marilyn Monroe © Richard Avedon

Now, of course nobody knows what Marilyn was feeling at that
moment and we all know that photography is the best truth teller and the best
liar all at the same time. And things magically appear different when they’re
photographed, as Mr. Gary Winogrand used to say. So that leaves us with what I
believe is the most important part of photography, that is that we the viewers
fill the photograph with meaning and we bring our own issues and concerns with

LC: As a teacher, what kinds of advice do you give your students when it comes to preparing for, and making, successful portraits?

TH: To be kind is most important. After that, be prepared with a plan of how you’re going to make the picture. An example in my case would be, every time I photograph somebody, I always scout out the spot I’m going to photograph them in and try to anticipate what the light is going to be like and modify it if needed.

Also, one other thing that is very important, is what the person will wear in the photograph. Wardrobe is obviously a very important component in photographs. You could either go with whatever it is they’re wearing if you’re bound to reality, but if you’re not, it’s very good to have the person bring several different things to wear because having the right clothing makes a tremendous difference. I usually opt for dark solids because it makes their face be what’s highlighted in the resulting portrait.

LC: When you are working with models for your own photography work, do you consider those portraits, or self-portraits, or some other kind of art altogether?

TH: I would consider the work I do with models to be a partial hybrid between who they actually are and what persona myself and the subject jointly decide we want to create. Very often, the kind of work I do lends itself to the opportunity to explore memories of people we used to know or projections of people we might want to be.

LC: Much of your artwork seems infused with psychological power and mysterious implications. The exterior of a home at night could in some ways be considered to be a portrait of those people who inhabit it. Can you talk about how a photographer can infuse his or her images with emotions and a heightened sense of being in a charged moment?

TH: That is a complicated question to answer because for every person it would be different. As an artist I have always felt that my task is not to create meaning but to charge the air so that meaning can occur. In all my pictures of people or places I see something of myself…it is no mystery that we can only photograph effectively what we are truly interested in or—maybe more importantly—are grappling with. Often unconsciously. Otherwise the photographs are merely about an idea or a concept—that stuff eventually falls flat for me—there must be something more, some emotional hook for it to really work.

LC: Can you give an example of a portrait that you have made that you feel is especially successful? Will you walk us through the process a bit, and talk about how and why you ended up with the result that pleases you?

TH: Every picture is different. Some effortlessly occur, and some are thoroughly belabored, and one approach isn’t necessarily better than the others. A picture that I will talk about is the picture that is the front cover of the French edition of my mid-career survey, Intimate Distance. The photo is of a friend whom I have worked with more than anyone else, over a period of nearly 10 years. Her name is Khrystyna Kazakova and this particular photograph was made for a fashion magazine that was allowing me to take up 20 of their pages with my artwork. Because of the nature of shooting for a fashion magazine, I had the blessing of having a wardrobe stylist and a hair and makeup person. Those are things that I don’t often use, but when you have access to collaborators like that, you can make something that is different from what you normally do. I also want to say that as a photographer, I have acted many times as my own stylist and often a model is very well versed at doing their own makeup, so don’t think that you need a professional crew to make something that is outstanding.

© Todd Hido

In this case, I was inspired by old 1950s pulp fiction books that used highly narrative paintings on their covers that I have always loved. I also was able to get access to an old car, which was the kind of prop that for me pushed this over the edge of being an image that could have actually been from the past. The final element that went into making it is, I was originally photographing from inside the car and I got several things that I liked, but before I finished I wanted to see what it looked like from another point of view. So I got out of the car and I asked Khrystyna to look over at me quickly, and I snapped this photograph. The act of changing the situation adds the element of suspense that she has on her face, because she wasn’t quite sure what I was doing. Sometimes there is value in communicating well with the person you are working with. I have also found, however, that not giving specific direction yields something that seems to be very believable and less scripted, which ultimately makes for a better photograph in my opinion. I always avoid things that couldn’t have possibly happened because I want a sense of reality to permeate my work, whether I have completely constructed the image or not.

—From a conversation between Todd Hido and LensCulture Editor-in-Chief, Jim Casper

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