John Hilliard

Joe Scanlan, 1989

John Hilliard questions photography’s ability to accurately and objectively depict people, objects and event. Hilliard’s large-scale photographs—some as large as 8 x 20 feet—compare and contrast identical images made different through cunning technical manipulation. The photographic diptychs are arranged in such a way that it is difficult to determine which is “right.” Thus the entrenched (but widely suspect) notion of “truth in photography” is undermined through Hilliard’s striking manipulation of its processes.

Hilliard’s scrutiny of photography implicates his subject matter as well, causing the viewer to confuse and equate stereotypical differences between men and women, alphabetic and numeric symbols, solid matter and light. The root of this questioning is photography’s superficiality: its ability to only focus on and exaggerate surface details, information which either belies of contradicts our perception and understanding of people, objects and environments.

In earlier works Hilliard utilizes a computer-imaging process known as Scanachrome. Through this process the artist’s subjects—light bulbs, human figures, furniture, and environments—are “mobilized” or made static, and photographically captured in both ethereal and concrete states. The subjects of the photographs interact through contrasting states of movement and stillness, causing the viewer to visually weigh the solid representation of one against the blurry and more speculative representation of the other, and vice versa. Ultimately the instability of all matter, and its ability or inability to be represented by photography, is exaggerated and questioned.

Whereas the earlier work contrasted photography’s representation of movement and stillness, the most recent images challenge photography’s believability through more subtle manipulations of its characteristics and processes. These diptychs contrast positive and negative prints of the same image, their starkly mirrored similarities and differences creating an inability in the viewer to entirely trust or believe either one.

This lack of faith in the image is not posited on photography, however, but on the artist as Manipulator, a condition of which Hilliard is significantly aware. Rather than lament photography’s shortcomings—or ignore them entirely—Hilliard exaggerates them to celebrate the medium’s deceptive and beguiling qualities.