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Monday, September 1, 2008

Jeff Hutchens - The Frozen Mood

Globetrotting freelancer Jeff Hutchens captures the ambiguities that shape our times

Can we reschedule?” Jeff Hutchens asks. It’s Friday, and I’m supposed to interview him Monday. “Turns out I’m in Taipei on Monday through next Saturday,” he says. CNN has dispatched the Washington, D.C.-based freelance photographer to the Taiwanese capital to shoot stills for the environmental series Planet in Peril. The segment is about shark-fin soup, the grisly practice where fishermen pull the sharks aboard, hack their fins off and then throw the still-living animals back into the ocean to drown or be devoured by other sharks. By all means, I say with a shudder, let’s reschedule.

The delay affords extra time to look over Hutchens’ online portfolio, a travelogue of far-flung adventures recorded in moody, immaculately composed tableaux that manages to combine uncanny specificity with a universal quality. On his website, there’s a photo from a series called China, Dreamt. It looks like a closeup of a jade pendant until you discern a lone figure walking along the lip of a dam and realize that the expanse of soothing green is actually a reservoir reflecting trees, clouds and open sky. A standout shot in the Fragments series shows an abandoned orange peel framed by two shadows intersecting at a right angle, the peel left behind—by whom?—to shrivel in the late-afternoon sun. Then there’s Khmer Rouge Shadows and its podium-mounted microphone silhouetted against circles of light. The mic snakes up through the bright dots like a pontoon boat dodging water mines, or a cobra backlit against the bazaar, or even a spermatozoid wending up the birth canal. It’s this kind of allusive possibility, inviting multilayered interpretations, that has set Hutchens’ work apart and placed him in increasing demand with commercial accounts such as Sony, Singapore Airlines and DHL, and editorial powerhouses such as Time, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times Magazine.

Ah, to be summoned on impromptu dispatches to the world’s four corners! To point your lens at hapless sharks and revolutionaries and ordinary people swept up in the tumult of extraordinary times! What an adrenaline junkie Hutchens must be, I think as I dial him the following week. What an Indiana Jones! And what stories he must have at his tongue’s tip after trotting the globe for nearly a decade now!

Hutchens picks up his cell and delivers a story that doesn’t disappoint. As it happens, his luggage was lost on his way to Taipei. He had arrived wearing shorts, a T-shirt, a baseball cap and a pair of flip-flops, and had to begin work straight off the plane. “We were at the markets where they sell shark fins,” he says. “I spent the next couple days in my flip-flops, wading around in fish guts. But it was all right because everybody else on the crew ruined good shoes.”

There it was, the pithy anecdote, and there he was, the intrepid, gut-sloshing dynamo I knew he would be. Except that as we began to talk, it slowly became clear that Jeff Hutchens himself is a bit like a Jeff Hutchens photograph. Not what you first expect. Takes awhile to figure out. Makes an initial impression that might be only a fragment of the whole.

“I’m not into the specifics; I love things that are fluid. I’m drawn toward mood and hints and vagueness—ambiguity and the sense of reality decontextualized.”

Beyond The Literal
Hutchens has traveled to more than 40 nations in his 29 years and has had plenty of adventures and misadventures, but he’s more pensive than his thrill-a-minute résumé might suggest. This is a man who cites novelist John Cheever and composer Philip Glass as influences, and who writes lyrical artist statements for his bodies of work. Of his China, Dreamt series, for example, he writes: “I always experience China the same way: the cacophony of Mandarin tones; blurring bicycles and black slacks; the barrage of reds turned oddly luminescent by the haze of the polluted sky.”

And he freely admits he sees himself more as an artist than a journalist. “I try to push things beyond the literal,” he says, “in terms of making the image as abstract or impressionistic as possible.”

Because his style is so fully developed, Hutchens seeks out clients looking for a different take, who aren’t afraid to extend him the aesthetic liberties on which he thrives. Says Hutchens, “One of the things I love about working with CNN is that they give me complete creative freedom to do whatever I want.”

Hutchens’ photos for Anderson Cooper 360º are used in print ads and billboards for the show, as well as for the show’s website, blog and occasional photographic essays, which Cooper voices over. The photographer felt strongly that a recent photo essay shot in western Africa would be more effective in black-and-white than color, which is traditionally seen as more telegenic. The show’s producers agreed, and the essay aired in black-and-white. With the Africa piece, as with all his work, Hutchens says he endeavors “to remove the elements that have an exact news value and give the shots a feeling or impression. I’m not into the specifics; I love things that are fluid. I’m drawn toward mood and hints and vagueness—ambiguity and the sense of reality decontextualized.”


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