Timothy Hutto on Romance and “Things”
By Brienne Walsh
Timothy Hutto describes his relationship with photography as a “crazy, romantic story.” “I was in Paris, trying to figure out my life,” he begins over the phone from Brooklyn, New York, where he’s currently living while working towards his MFA at Pratt Institute. Hutto was in Paris on medical leave from the Navy, which he had joined right before September 11, 2001. It was in May 2011 that he received the phone call announcing his discharge thanks to an inner-ear injury that caused him constant vertigo.
Hutto had been interested in photography since childhood, but had never considered it a real career possibility. While stationed in Bahrain, he spent leave time photographing local kids riding their skateboards. Being released from the military left his life wide open; rather than emptiness, Hutto saw an opportunity. “‘You’ve always had a passion for [photography],’” he recalls thinking. “‘Explore it now or you’ll never do it.’”
That day, he began applying to art schools. He ended up at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he began to experiment with style and develop a voice.
At first, he found himself frustrated with the work he was producing. His instinct was to create portraits that mimicked the styles of some of the 20th century’s greatest photographers—such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn—which he thought would make him more appealing to potential future clients. But his portraits didn’t work. “I couldn’t establish the rapport I needed with my subjects,” he explains.
Around the time he realized he needed to find a new direction for his work, he got a job as the student photographer for the college’s media department. It freed him from the pressure of having to make what he thought was “commercially salable work”—as an adult putting himself through school, he had to be practical—and provided him with an income. Once some financial pressure was alleviated, he had a powerful realization: “You don’t have to be a portrait photographer, you don’t have to be a fashion photographer,” he says. “You can say what you want to say, and have fun doing it.”
Soon after, the work that set him apart from his peers, his multi-part series, “Things,” was conceived. It began with a desire to photographically illustrate idioms and tongue-in-cheek jokes using mass-produced objects painted in bright colors. Hutto began experimenting with photographing different colorful, spray-painted props, arranged as still lifes in a studio. The images themselves were often elusive; the titles Hutto gave them offered keys for the viewers to understand what he was trying to say. For example, “Politics” (2013), one of the first “Things” images, is a photograph of three dinosaurs painted red, white and blue, and looking over their shoulders. It was meant to express Hutto’s own weariness with the government—and it worked. Like a newspaper cartoonist, Hutto intuitively understood that simple, clean compositions would make the punch line of a joke funnier.
The process for developing the series, which currently consists of four parts, was cheap, solitary, and very hands-on. Every image began with a rough sketch and a trip to the 99-cent store (“I love cheaply produced objects,” he confesses), followed by the art-supply store for paint. “The colors had to have a common thread,” he explains. “Either punchy and saturated or toned down, so that they’d work together.” Color theory, which he learned as part of SCAD’s curriculum, became increasingly important to the work. Unique—and sometimes jarring—color combinations enlivened the compositions. Doing the “wrong thing” emboldened Hutto to break rules he’d learned in class.
Each of the images in “Things” was photographed in a studio against a backdrop of colored paper. Hutto described his early lighting setups as “daft.” “I was using four or five lights, all with modifiers, focused on a tiny, brightly colored set.” Eventually, he switched to Profoto strobe lighting and honed his technique. Although the images look like they’ve been digitally retouched, Hutto did very little work in post-processing.
The images became more sophisticated over time, the titles more elusive, the color combinations more bold. “Sacrifice II” (2014), from “Things IV,” depicts the black bust of an owl set against a backdrop of purple and turquoise, implying that one must sacrifice for knowledge. “Synergy” (2014), from the same series, shows an unusual combination of colors—lime, peach, sky blue, mauve, purple—and depicts a sheath of photocopy paper torn from its wrapping only in the top right corner. In “Synergy,” something greater has been created than the sum of its parts: alone, photocopy paper is mundane, but juxtaposed in such a color environment, it becomes a painterly abstraction.
“‘Things’ is about many things,” Hutto laughs when I asked him if together, the images told a single story (about America, or mass production?). “They are complex but not complicated. They are about objects and how they define the world around me. The beauty of mass production, the restoration of aura through artistic processes, glamour and isolation, humor….”
“Things” closed his chapter at SCAD as his thesis project, and after graduation, Hutto moved to New York City. “If you want to catch elephants, you have to go where the elephants are,” he says. Along with enrolling at Pratt, he began a steady gig as a staff photographer at Barney’s New York. With a full schedule at school and at work, his time to shoot personal work has shrunk. Still, he continues to sketch out ideas for future tableaus to add to his “Things” series. He has also begun working on a layout for a “Things” book, finding the time to write rough copy for the book while riding the train from his apartment in Greenpoint to the Barney’s studio in Long Island City. “I’d [like to] have the book 80 to 90 percent done before I start schlepping it around to publishers,” he says.
Hutto has all of the things required to “make” it in New York—drive, a vision and a voice. “Ultimately, as an artist, I’m showing the world my soul,” he says. “Mine happens to be brightly colored, cheap, cheerful, intellectual and playful.”
Cameras: Nikon D800, D7100
Lenses: AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G, AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G, AF-S NIKKOR 28mm f/1.8G, AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED, AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 IF-ED
Lighting: Nikon SB-910 speedlight
Drives: LaCie 2TB Rugged Thunderbolt HDD, Seagate Backup Plus Fast 4TB HDD
Editing Software: Adobe Creative Cloud, Capture One Pro 9