Friday, April 23, 2010

David Hilliard at Dartmouth College

Last weekend, I had the absolute pleasure of seeing David Hilliard's exhibition, "Highway of Thought" at Dartmouth College, where he is the artist in residence for the spring.

I could never say enough good things about David's photographs. I first discovered his work while studying with him at MassArt, and his images struck a chord within me and have been an inspiration ever since. His images capture a beautiful sense of humanity and all of its emotions, ranging from desire to longing to sadness to joy. They quietly capture experiences of the everyday, simultaneously expressing a sense of the commonplace with a sense of the profound.

I have always been struck by the honesty of his images. In many of them, I feel a sense of sadness or of longing to be a part of something larger. Perhaps it is a search for the spiritual, in the most broad sense, or a desire for human connection. What I love so much about this is that it feels familiar to me. I see an optimism in the longing, as it is not an easy quest but is one that signifies an inherent belief in the power of connection, of relating to another person on a deeper level. His work is at once so intimate, so specific- yet so universal. That, for me, is where the power lies. I see his images and know that his experience is not my own, but I recognize myself in his work. I would argue that this is a high measure of success for a photographer of people, and in this regard his work excels.

In his current exhibition at Dartmouth, he has chosen 15 pieces spanning over many years, creating an intelligently arranged mini-retrospective. The themes of human connection and spirituality guide the show, and it would be impossible to experience it without feeling emotionally moved. One of my favorite images is the 4-paneled image from which the show gets its title, "Highway of Thought." The image is of David's father's journal in which he writes quotes of inspiration, flanked by his hands on either side. For me, this image breaks down so many complexities and barriers of expectation. The simple act of recording quotes of inspiration, presumably for reflection and an attempt at understanding the world around you, is a beautiful and quiet activity. The writing on the pages is exquisitely neat, meticulous, and gentle, reminding me almost of the cross-stitch patterns my mother used to make of devotional poems, flowers, and the like. Yet these words are written in blue ink, the letters intricately woven into shapes and patterns, tightly filling up the pages of a standard ledger book. From having seen David's other work, I am familiar with images of his father, who from the outside doesn't necessarily appear to be the kind of person to keep such an eloquent journal. It is this absolute commitment to human experience, especially when the truth defies the stereotype or expectation, that I find so moving throughout all of his images.

I believe that we each have to figure out who we are in this world and how to relate to those around us, a task much easier stated than executed, but David's work leaves me with a sense of optimism. It is a beautiful and gentle reminder to look deeper and think harder with the understanding that people are not always what we assume them to be. They are often much more beautiful and complicated than we expect, and taking the time to truly look is a rewarding and wonderful experience.

Go see the show if you have a chance- it's worth it.

"Highway of Thought" is on display from April 6 - May 2, 2010 at the Jaffe-Friede Gallery in the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College. More information about the exhibition can be found here and the rest of David's work can be seen on his website at

Some more of my favorite images:

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