Boston-based photographer David Hilliard has long involved friends, lovers, students and strangers in his arresting multi-panel tableaux. The collaboration most enduring, though, has been that with his father, Raymond.
No long-form essay written throughout Hilliard’s 25-year career fails to reference the early influence or ongoing significance of his father. In an interview with Vince Aletti in his first monograph (Aperture, 2005), Hilliard states: “the most complex relationship I have to this day is with my father, and he’s visually pretty interesting—he wears a lot of bad shirts and smokes cigars. …He’s an enigma. He’s a guy who reads Playboy but also reads Thoreau and Emerson. He’s an armchair traveler; he’s self-taught. He’s the best and worst of things.”
David’s parents divorced when he was about six years old; David and his older brother lived primarily with their mother and her new husband, and for the next several years they moved frequently. In order to exercise some control over constantly-changing circumstances, David photographed his room, his toys, and his new friends in each new environment. Spending summers and weekends with his dad was a relief, to some extent: “At my mom’s I basically lived in my bedroom avoiding my mother’s husband as much as possible … At my dad’s my brother and I were allowed just the opposite, able to run free and wild like feral cats.”
Throughout those early years David was observing his father, while also learning to manage interactions with him: “Since I was a boy I've always carefully negotiated his moods, desires and temperament (for better or worse) in order to keep him happy and our already dysfunctional familial dynamic on an even keel. Being with my dad has always been a tenuous balance between joy and volatility. My father’s love and acceptance has always come at the price of a lot of work and compromise.”
Raymond Hilliard has had, as David put it, “more than a casual interest” in photography. The family albums included thematic series such as “through the door” shots; annual photographs of David and his brother with trees planted in their honor; and multi-image landscapes that presage his son’s preferred presentation of photographs.
So it is not surprising that Ray would be open to, perhaps even interested in, participating in his son’s creative endeavors—but the vulnerability he displays, and David elicits through the photographs, reveals the complexity of both men and of their relationship to one another.
In “Feeding Gretchen,” 1993, one of the earliest published photographs of father and son together, one can interpret a familiar love triangle—David, left, stares intently at his father over takeout, while Ray only has eyes for the family dog, who gazes back at him with the simple and unconditional love only an animal can provide.
Hilliard’s work in the mid-1990s expanded under the tutelage of Philip Lorca DiCorcia, Gregory Crewdson, and others teaching in the MFA program at Yale, where he gained the “license to understand their medium as much more than a candid and ‘truthful’ form of observation.” Hilliard’s photographs, often drawn from lived circumstances, elevates what is experienced through what he then constructs—a little more perfect, a little more painful than the fleeting moment in time.
Three works made over a decade later illuminate the intricacies of individual and generational traits. In “Blue Glow, 2004,” the duality of similar bodies with twinned tattoos sharing the same action pushes the viewer to examine details of difference—Ray’s gold watch and aged hand, the suggestive crop that reveals a little more belly, the curve toward the hip. Only faces immediately denote a difference in age. But in “Rock Bottom, 2008,” the physical and emotional distance is accentuated—Ray’s body in the foreground is soft, almost sagging into the water, whereas David, standing taller, appears agile and muscular not only above the surface but in the water. Where in “Blue Glow” David appeared to mirror Ray in nearly every way, he is now reflecting himself, with only the tattoos, a son’s homage to his father, as a visibly-shared trait. In “Hug,” made the same year, the distance perceived in “Rock Bottom” is eloquently collapsed in the embrace, though not entirely absent—only Ray’s face is visible.
David’s works with his father are sometimes humorous, often probing, but not unkind—exploring his father brings awareness to inevitable aspects of himself (as is true with his photographs of his mother, as well). In the last few years Ray has had significant health issues, and he is now in assisted living. David’s most recent collaborations with him are often less theatrical and more nuanced. In “Bubble,” Hilliard’s signature celebration of color stays within a cool palette: the background parrot keeps company with Ray’s visible tattoo, and the industrial safety tub is softened by an abundance of bubbles, strewn about with abandon more reminiscent of the frolicking décor of gay nightclubs than sterile senior healthcare. Ray’s gaze is direct; David noted that “even with his dementia, it doesn’t matter. We have a shorthand of communication with the camera.”
“Ringer” calls to mind an earlier work, “Handling Doubt.” David has often depicted Ray with his notes or craft projects; here he is holding a puzzle that is both simple in its intent, and challenging for anyone to achieve—not unlike life itself, as we simultaneously progress and decline. “Furniture Walker” possesses a trust and poignancy that will resonate with every adult responsible for care of an elder who once guided them through the earliest formations of humanhood.
“The Decades” confronts the mysteries of mortality in anticipation of what will be. It appears as a memorial in advance—approaching the finality of death from a different vantage point, while both David and Ray still share this realm and have the opportunity to discuss ways of visualizing “the end” before the reality of its occurrence.
In focusing on this singular but consistent collaboration within Hilliard’s body of work, we gain access to all the formal qualities for which David Hilliard has been celebrated, but also a window into one of the earliest and the most complex relationships any person unwillingly, unknowingly enters—that of a child to a parent. Through this work the Hilliards, son and father, offer up glimpses of the paths they have navigated together to foster what the photographic medium does so well—insight into our selves and our most formative familial interactions.
Michelle Dunn Marsh, an advocate for significant photography and the printed page, is the founder of Minor Matters Books, and the executive director of Photographic Center Northwest.
This article first appeared in Issue 9.