To illustrate what kind of guy his dad is, David Hilliard might tell you the following story: When he was in junior high, Hilliard obligingly joined the men’s track team like his older brother, despite preferring to hang out with girls and play with dollhouses. Then, before the first race, he balked in the locker room — and fled to his father’s car, ashamed.
“Not only did he say, ‘Don’t do it, David’ that day, instead of running the race we went and bought dollhouse furniture,” Hilliard says. “My father allowed me, as a budding young gay man, to be the kid I wanted to be.”
Hilliard went on to make his father and their relationship the subject of his photography. As a kid, he says, aiming a camera at friends and places gave him a means to control his changing environment — as he literally moved from place to place — following his parents’ divorce. Then, becoming an MFA student at Yale under the tutelage of photographers Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Gregory Crewdson in the early 1990s, Hilliard turned to his dad as a subject rich in complexity: a working-class guy who looked to Voltaire and Henry David Thoreau for perspectives on life’s big questions and maintained a deep and supportive connection with his son despite their apparent differences.
Through May 18, David Hilliard: Intimacies
offers a survey of his work at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts. Other photographers have taken on their familial milieus — Tina Barney, Sally Mann and Nan Goldin (whose photographs treat friends as family) spring to mind — but the uniqueness of Hilliard’s approach is clear. Key to it is the division of his subjects, mostly people within landscapes and living environments, but sometimes just the living environments, into three to four frames. Each frame has a subtly different plane of focus, or has been shot from a slightly different angle, yielding a multi-panel photograph that evokes the way time is really experienced by people and between people in shifting glances, pauses between speech and other minute movements in the choreography of being together.
The show includes several of Hilliard’s best photographs of his father. "Hot Coffee, Soft Porn" (1999) depicts his dad and uncle — around 70 years old in the photograph — watching a porno and eating Dunkin’ Donuts in a rustic cabin. The premise is a cliché, but the banal ease of the scene, from the way the men divide their attention between donuts and fuzzy pink TV screen to the cabin’s kitsch décor (wood paneling, a green couch and a statuette of King Kong) is endlessly hilarious. Since then, Hilliard has gone on to make more ambiguous images, such as "Rock Bottom" (2008), which shows him with his father, both shirtless with matching swallow tattoos on their chests, wading in the same river, and "Hug" (2008), a picture of father and son embracing.
Not forgotten, Hilliard’s mother appears in a more recent body of work, which he shot in the planned community near Port Charlotte where she lives. A different, feminized flavor of familial closeness opens the door for these images. The photographs depict Hilliard’s mom in a poolside kaffeeklastch with his grandmother and great aunt, all three in curlers, and as a trio of embracing torsos in colorful bathrobes. A third, "When Lips and Skin Remember" (2011), captures his mother and her lover (Hilliard’s stepdad) in an erotically charged embrace in the pool. This may be one of the truer photographs I’ve ever seen of Florida, a bewitching invitation into the sun-soaked, gently buzzed world of retiree sex. Life as one James Patterson novel after the other, fueled by gin and tonics and, one imagines, the occasional Viagra.
Hilliard also photographs strangers, and people who begin as strangers and wind up as friends over the course of projects. Not all of these images are as enticingly private as his family-based work — occasionally they feel a bit too staged. But whenever that intimacy is there, it sings.
Through May 18 at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, 400 N. Ashley Drive, Cube 200, Tampa, 813-221-2222,