Monday, September 1, 2008
Jeff Hutchens - The Frozen Mood
Globetrotting freelancer Jeff Hutchens captures the ambiguities that shape our times
So in 2005 he left behind the salary and benefits of a full-time staffer for the life of a freelancer. Despite some initial jitters, Hutchens has enjoyed a prodigious run of assignments, which he credits to his agency, Orchard/Getty. More importantly, he says he relishes the opportunity to work with clients who encourage his unique approach, which he has continued to refine. “What I try to do is to give the viewer as few reference points as possible,” he says. “I’d rather it take awhile for them to figure out what they’re looking at. I want the mood to hit them first.”
And what kind of mood, exactly, is the photographer trying to convey? “The moods I’m after...” Hutchens pauses, “...tend to be on the darker side.”
Indeed, there’s a longing, elegiac quality to many of the photographs, their existentialist undertones often conveyed by the way he treats the atmosphere and landscape—foreboding cloudscapes, sheets of smog partially veiling a city scene or the broodingly beautiful play of light on tides and eddies. His forte is opacity rather than luminosity, gravitas above levity, rumination over jubilation. It’s a sustained editorial attitude, which he has showcased since last fall on his blog, Dealing With Vagaries. “Blogs are fantastic,” Hutchens enthuses. “They give you your own space to put up exactly what you like. You’re not dependent on editors; you can put up all your own favorite stuff. I love it!”
Back To China—And Beyond
When I reconnect with Hutchens after his return from Taipei, it’s clear he has wasted no time getting back into his workflow. He has just wrapped up voice-overs on a television program called Lost in China, which will air internationally in October on the National Geographic Channel and in the U.S. on Equator HD. He cohosts the program with his brother, and as the siblings return to the country they lived in as children, the program chronicles their impressions as adults who have come to see the world through two different kinds of camera lenses. With its reality-TV feel, the show is a departure for the thoughtful Hutchens, who’s used to being behind the camera, not in front of it.
“It was definitely different,” he says, “because when I’m shooting, I just sit patiently and quietly and watch whatever is going on. But if I were to just do that on TV, it would be the most boring show ever! Both my brother and I are pretty low-key; we’re not your typical over-the-top, in-your-face, superlative-chucking hosts. So it was a little tricky at first, figuring out the balance between our natural personalities and a looser, more TV-palatable version of ourselves.”
As he looks ahead to the fall—and to turning 30 in November—Hutchens swears he’s going to make time in his packed schedule to work more on personal photographic projects. He especially wants to drive around the United States, a country he feels he has missed out on exploring in the midst of his whirlwind international travels. It’s “the emotional landscapes” of America he wants most to capture, the solitude “of being on the road by yourself.” Hutchens also wants to study art history more in the coming year. And despite his work schedule, which crisscrosses the globe, he harbors a fantasy of actually having a personal life—or at the very least, owning a dog.
Jeff Hutchens is a far more nuanced human being than the simplistic daredevil I initially reckoned him to be. As we wrap up, I ask if he’ll be available for follow-up questions in the next day or two. Any plans to slow his frenetic pace must be far off, as he tells me his availability may be limited by the SCUBA certification classes he’s completing. CNN is sending him to South Africa to photograph great white sharks, fins (and jaws) intact. Fido, alas, will have to wait.
A contributing critic at ARTnews and contributing editor at Art Ltd., Richard Speer has penned reviews and features for Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, Salon and Opera News. He’s the author of the biography Matt Lamb: The Art of Success (John Wiley & Sons). To see more of Jeff Hutchens photography, visit www.jeffhutchens.com. Visit Hutchens’ blog Dealing With Vagaries at www.jeffhutchens.com/dealingwithvagaries.html.