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AN INTERVIEW BY LEAH DYJAK WITH DAVID HILLIARD
David and I met when I was a student at Massachusetts College of Art in 2004. Years later, I went to his lectures in Provincetown hoping to reconnect. In the summer of 2010, he asked me to assist on one of his shoots photographing a young man in a parking lot. David made a picture of Eric Bryant that day. He and I fell in love. Eric and I have been together from that moment. David went on to make his project The Tale is True in our home and helped with the cleanup. Since then, David has become part of our history, our family, and the seaside place we love so much. His exhibition, Chosen Family, opens at Houston Center for Photography on May 11, 2018.
Leah Dyjak (LD): We have known each other a long time in many roles, first as student/teacher, then as photographer/assistant, and now as dear friends and chosen family. I was very struck by something an old friend of yours shared with me. He said that you have a habit of arranging everyday things to make them look extraordinary. I hear you can make anything look good. This habit seems to carry into your photographs. Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Are you really always setting the stage, if you will? Is there room for collaboration in your picture making, or are you steering the ship most times?
David Hilliard (DH): It's a hundred percent true, and I would also turn it on you a little bit because I think we have this in common. We want life to imitate art. This is a good question because I grew up lower middle class, you know, kind of poor. I was surrounded by people whom you could say were often materialistic. My father always had his study set up a certain way with all his precious things around him and all the books that he wanted at his fingertips. There were snacks here and the cigars there. He used to call it his nerve center. Everything was curated, for both visuals and functionality. My mother on the other hand lived in a slightly upper-class, suburban place. She had her curio cabinets, everything matched. My grandfather had a bar in his basement. It was like this fantasy space. It was not just a home bar. It was made to look like a real bar that one might find in a public space. There was a sense of how things looked that mattered when I was growing up. I think this is what started my interest in the curation of space. But it’s also bigger than that; I loved how things looked in movies and theater, too.
I always have an idea of what I want in my pictures. Some of my favorite pictures, both in my work and in the work of other artists, happen from something serendipitous, some kind of fusion. The best art is a kind of surprise. If you're dealing with another person, their energy is colliding yours, or the weather could be doing something weird. You have to think on your feet. For all of the control I have in getting the picture that I want, I remain open to surprise and change, but still make a version of the work I want, if that makes sense.
LD: Yes. that makes sense. And it also brings me to the next question: I have always found the details and use of natural light in your images intoxicating. It is like I have been seduced first by the mise-en-scène, and then by your subjects.
DH: I think if you're an artist, especially a visual artist, you're always working with light. I grew up around photography a little bit, so I understood how light works in pictures. I got into more lighting in graduate school. I have to talk about Gregory Crewdson right off the bat. He’s the master of a manipulated kind of theatrical lighting. A lot of my early work was heavily lit. In the end, I became disinterested in it because I felt there could only be so much artifice going on in my work—the multiple panels, the performance, the shifting focus, all that stuff. That, coupled with how I love the way natural light looks, eventually caused me to strip it away.
LD: How do you come to choose the people you photograph? Are they always close to your heart in some way? Or is it a desired intimacy?
DH: All the pictures are about intimacy in some way, either longing for intimacy, an actual intimacy, or a surrogate for intimacy that once was. A lot of my work is really just wanting to make connection. It may be in the form of a more spontaneous photograph, a more staged photograph, a photograph of an intimate friend or family or a total stranger. I think I'm kind of lonely at times and photography feels like the kind of intimacy that I long for. I think a lot of artists would say that. There is a desire to express intimacy within my work and I think this exhibition Chosen Family will showcase that quite well. I photograph my extended family and close friends. I try to celebrate the best of them. This can be difficult at times, especially when I'm looking at my mother's world, which is very Christian; it’s basically a world that does not accept mine. The work with her is a bit critical at times, but still looks good. The light is flattering and everything initially appears “okay,” yet there is a tension. I am attempting still to be somewhat objective while trying to tell her story, but I have to keep my opinion alive in there somewhere. So, there's that, and there's also my images of total strangers. Within them, I try to celebrate what I think I am experiencing—their psychology, or maybe projecting mine onto theirs. I often photograph younger kids as surrogates for my own youth, full of memories of intimate moments and a desire for connection.