David Hilliard: Building Meaning Through Composition
Constructing narratives based on his life and the lives of the people around him, David Hilliard creates panorama (or large-scale multi-paneled) pictures that represent the personal, the familiar and the simply ordinary. Focusing on intimate moments, and changing the focus on each image, the multi-paneled compositions allow the photographer to guide the viewer across the parts of the narrative, giving Hilliard control of the spectator’s eye.
Even though each panel has it’s own focal point, depth of field and subject matter — every piece simultaneously fits and adds to the juxtaposition as a whole. Exploring a range of themes and situations, Hilliard staged photographs travels through the four stages of life: childhood, youth, manhood and old age and constantly uses his own life experiences as a creative factor. Hilliard’s work is almost entirely self-reflective; resulting in the merging of complex ideas and scenes that he can personally relate to, but always approaching themes that can also relate to the viewer’s personal life. Regularly experimenting with the idea of masculinity and desire, the artist creates compositions made of many single images that, together, act as a visual language. In works such as Rock Bottom, David Hilliard constructs large-scale multi-paneled pictures that fuse fiction and autobiography — focusing on the personal and representing emotional distance in an unconventional way.
Rock Bottom is part of the series “Being Like”, photographed in between 2008 and 2010,which aspires to depict the growth and aging as well as the relationships we create throughout life. Directly related to desire, time and the idea of masculinity, the series reveals compositions often autobiographical; depicting fathers and sons or dreamy adolescent boys, showing the intense pleasure, curiosity and sexual struggles of the man behind the lens.
Rock Bottom features, in the left panel, a close up sharp focus portrait of Hilliard’s father standing in a lake, with a severe and harsh facial expression, yet vulnerably placing his hands on his chest between his two sailor swallow’s tattoos. In the right panel, Hilliard himself appears somewhat further from the camera. With a gentler facial expression, the photographer contrasts with his tense patriarchal figure, but features a similar hairy chest and matching tattoos — giving the viewer a hint on the subject’s father-son relationship. The middle panel is exclusive for environmental portraiture and the creation of meaning in the composition: a sunny day at the lake, where the blue skies and soft clouds perfectly reflect on the water and separate the subject matters. The real meaning of the juxtaposition relies on the knowledge of Hilliard’s personal life and the presence of the middle panel: although the father accept his son’s homosexuality, the issue has clearly been a source of tension between them, creating both emotional and physical distance between the subject matters. Represented by the central panel, a stunning view divides the two generations both visually and metaphorically, symbolizing the idea of emotional distance in an atypical form.
Like most of Hilliard’s photographs, Rock Bottom exposes how physical distance is often manipulated to represent emotional distance. The presence of the middle panel, exclusively dedicated to environmental portraiture and the emphasis on the importance of our surroundings, also suggests the emotional distance between the subjects. The lack of elements and presence of great depth of field of the center panel insinuates that, regardless of the level of intimacy between the subject matters — distance is always palpable. With an unusual sensitivity, Hilliard is able to convey the meaning through his photographs by allowing a composition where distance is one, if not the most important, element for the understanding of both the picture’s meaning and the artist’s approach. Symbolically represented in the center of the panorama, Hilliard experiments with the idea of distance in a very personal and intimate scene. Still, the theme becomes relatable to the viewer due to the idea of tension in a father-son relationship, a common issue in every family.
The creation of a visual language is one of Hilliard’s main objectives when constructing his large-scale panels. Different than regular panoramas, Hilliard shoots each panel individually, allowing each image to contain it’s own unique exposure, composition, focal point and depth of field. Hilliard believes that every single image of a panorama is an actual separate moment, with shifting time and shifting focus; allowing the formation of a visual language, a form of storytelling. For Hilliard, each moment exist on it’s own, but also co-exist with the next one, becoming a residue of each other, connected by this visual language. This concept allows Hilliard to have control over the spectator’s view and also engage the viewer in the narrative. The analysis of each panel and then the picture as a whole prepares and helps the viewer to create a unified perspective of the scene. Hilliard’s work constantly plays with the idea of a bigger picture, and the variety of pieces that compose it, essential for the creation of strong meaning and a narrative.
Focusing on intimate moments and relationships, Hilliard’s photographs are a continuous depiction of his experiences, life decisions, feelings and interactions throughout the four stages of life; a series of self-reflective pieces that allow the artist to express himself. Very interested in the nuances of masculinity, the artist focuses in the different kinds of intimacy between him and the people in his life, as well as the human relationships with different environments. Due to his interest in photographing extremely personal moments, sexuality and nudity are constant elements in Hilliard’s pictures — always portrayed as a form of life celebration.
With an original and unique technique, David Hilliard experiments with time and perspective by creating compositions made of three or more images that arranged together create a sharp, vibrant and visually appealing panorama view. Fusing his private life and fiction, Rock Bottom is a perfect example of a personal moment approached with such sensitivity and accuracy that becomes relatable to the viewer's own life.