Is Silver Meadows a place that's a state of mind, or a state of mind that's a place — and which is more real? Silver Meadows the actual place is a section of Kent, in northern Ohio. Silver Meadows the state of mind is a section of photographer Todd Hido's imagination. The intersection between the two might best be described as a demonstration that sense of place can be spiritual as well as geographic.
Hido grew up in Kent. He grew away from there too. He now lives in the Bay Area. Both experiences, residence and rejection, deeply inform "Todd Hido: Excerpts From Silver Meadows." The show runs at Boston University Art Gallery through Oct. 19.
Hido has described Silver Meadows as "a loose, fictitious place based on inadequate memory." When is memory ever adequate — or, for that matter, not at least partly fictive? The more than 100 photographs that make up the show suggest a feeling of connection that could come only from someone who grew up there — and a feeling of revulsion that could come only from someone who fled. These images, which in so many ways are about the workings of memory, are a reminder of the truism that the past is another country. Among the questions they raise is the citizenship status of this particular resident of that particular country.
"Excerpts" may be more important in the show's title than "Silver Meadows." A place is the same, regardless of name. One man's Silver Meadows is another's Golden Pastures. The difference is, literally, nominal. But how complete is the documenting of it? How fragmentary?
Fragmentation is central to Hido's approach. Memory, as he says, is inadequate. So there is no one complete story here. There are bits and pieces of many. The windows of a becomingly blue mobile home have a radioactive glow. It could be auditioning for a David Lynch film (so could many other pictures in the show). A series of tawdry-looking women, like pinups who have traded the pages of a girlie magazine for life south of Cleveland, blend allure and menace. They also recall the photographs of Cindy Sherman — with the very considerable difference that these women pose and play-act for Hido, whereas Sherman's impersonations are self-portraits.
A white rotary-dial telephone (speaking of the past) sits on the floor of an empty room, and Hido shoots it in such a way that it looms like a Toltec idol. He shoots a smashed-up early model car so as to make it look like the centerpiece of one of Weegee's scenes of death and destruction. Weegee, it's safe to say, is no stranger to Silver Meadows. A tabloid sensibility presides over the show. But that sensibility can take multiple forms. It's just as often tabloid pastoralism, as there are handsome scenes of bare trees and snowy fields.
Many of the photographs are the sort one might see in a family photo album: casual, domestic, innocuously intimate. Of course that's assuming the family in question had rather idiosyncratic ideas about suburban life and the album itself was grotesquely large. While some of the images are snapshot size, many are 20 inches by 24 inches or larger. The photograph of that telephone is a gobsmacking 48 inches square.
Silver Meadows is a place in which everything, not just scale, seems slightly off. The offness can be focus or color or even attitude. Most often it's attitude. These pictures form a series of emotional non sequiturs. Nothing seems settled emotionally — or tethered spatially.
Numbers — impersonal, inscrutable — designate the photographs: #6349, #3101-a, and the like. So the images are effectively untitled. That's as it should be. Do dreams have titles? The best way to categorize "Excerpts From Silver Meadows" may be as dreamscape. According to that old doo-wop hit "Sh-Boom," "Life could be a dream." Yes, it could. But you wouldn't want to spend either in Silver Meadows.