Rock Bottom

David Hilliard

When I was in seventh or eighth grade, I went on a school field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to visit an exhibition on the 18th-century French painter Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin. I was instantly struck by the artist’s genre paintings. The subject matter was arguably simple: everyday people depicted in their personal spaces and performing domestic activities. The paintings were majestically executed, replete with gorgeous light and meticulous detail, giving voice and dignity to the subjects. And that planted a seed in my head, one that continues to grow today. I began to make artwork that honored the people in my life, the lower-middle class I came from, and eventually my life as a gay man. I owe the MFA, along with my high school art teacher, a debt of gratitude for this early inspiration.

I’m amazed that now, years later, my work hangs in the Museum. The MFA has been beyond supportive of my practice throughout my career as a photographer. Today I’m writing about Rock Bottom, from 2008, which is in the Museum’s collection. At first glance it can be seen as a simple image: two men enjoying a late-summer swim. But for me it’s much more than that. Let me explain.

I’ve been photographing with my father, Ray, for decades. I started as a boy and continued through high school, college, and graduate school. My father and our relationship became central themes throughout my work. Like Chardin, I wanted to honor a “regular guy,” someone who might otherwise be overlooked in our society. My dad was a little rough around the edges. He smoked cheap cigars and drank Budweiser, wore polyester Hawaiian shirts and loved reading Playboy magazine. He and my mother divorced when I was six years old. My father was an acquired taste. But he was also a very smart and kind man. He was fiercely loyal and loving toward his two sons. Ray never had a higher education. After being discharged from the Navy, he became a factory worker and worked for the same company for 35 years. He was self-taught; he loved history, politics, and nature, especially ornithology and photography. He was deeply interested in transcendentalism and loved Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. My dad used to take my brother and me canoeing on the Concord River and to Walden Pond so we could discuss these histories. We blazed trails in the woods of southern New Hampshire and built campsites and tents. He told us stories and taught us about nature. Ray used to pick up various pine needles and leaves on the floor of the woods and quiz us on which type of tree they fell from. He liked to trick us with birdcalls; we never knew if it was him or an actual chickadee. Raymond Hilliard was curious. He made us curious. He worked hard to learn, his armchair always ringed in cigar smoke and surrounded by piles of books. His penmanship was impeccable. His spelling—not so great. He was always working on improving that. He kept incredible diaries and journals, written on calendars in his tiny handwriting. He recorded what he, my brother, and I did every day from our childhood until July 28, 2015, when he had a cardiac event and ultimately ended up going into a nursing home. Not many people can tell you where they were at any point, on any day, throughout their lives. I cherish those calendars.

There was a pretty intense dichotomy between what you saw and what you got with my dad, and I photographed a lot of that over the years. I’ve made many images of my father. And collectively, I hope, they pay homage to a great man, a father who loved his kids, body and soul. I also hope the images of my father and our relationship are open enough so others might enter into them and find their own stories and relationships. I like art to remain open, allowing viewers to project their own lives and emotions into them. I’m always about collaboration.

The initial images I made with my dad, mostly in the 1990s, present him as the world saw him: the everyday, rough-and-tumble, middle-class guy with bad taste galore. But over the years I began to worry I was representing him in a manner that was too easy, too one-dimensional. In the early 2000s, I began making images that depict his vulnerability, his isolation, his longing for education and self-improvement. I started to sneak up on his human complexity. It took time to make this shift. We established a photographic trust; he began to open up, see that what we were doing was important, and have faith in me. It became a truly beautiful collaboration. When we were photographing together, there was no one else in the world but us. It was our thing.

Rock Bottom was my attempt to draw physical and emotional comparisons between my father and me. I am genetically hardwired to become him, physically and, on some level, psychologically. I am the best and the worst of this man. I honor him by marking my body with the same tattoos he received while in the Navy in the 1950s. They are swallows, birds that return to the same place every year after migration. They always come home.

People have said this image looks like a time-lapse of a man aging from right to left. A kind of physical and emotional metamorphosis. I never thought of that while creating the image but I love that reading. It’s kind of true. For me, it’s about the passage of time and the divide between us. There are things that separate us, things we do not agree on or have in common. Yet we will always be connected—by genetics, love, and the earth we traverse. I love this photograph, these three moments that make up a continuum.

On April 10, the coronavirus swept in and took my dad. I was blindsided. He had been ill for some time and was in a nursing home. I chronicled this in my images with him as well. They were not easy pictures to take. But when you start a project you see it through. That’s what I tell my students, and I try to lead by example. Three years ago, dementia began to set in on my dad. He knew it. We talked about it. He told me I should finish my series (The Dad Series) by photographing him in his casket. He said it would be the perfect ending to the project and that “this project is your best work, David.” And he’s right, in my opinion. He did not want to be cremated, but due to the virus and the timing of his passing, he had to be. My family will hold a wake and funeral when we can socially gather again. I chose a “container” for his ashes that looked “casket-like,” not like a “vase,” as he called it. I’m making a different kind of image of his final phase that I hope he would like. I’m currently taking him on day trips to some of his favorite locations. I continue to do my best to make this man happy, honor him, and finish my “best work.” Hold your loved ones close.

I love you, Dad.

Three-paneled photograph of an urn on a table in the middle of a manmade pond.
David Hilliard, Dad at Manmade Pond, 2020. Triptych; archival pigment prints. Courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons Gallery, Boston.

David Hilliard uses his unique, multipaneled technique to produce expansive photographs depicting subtle moments of love, family, adolescence, friendship, and the nuances of masculinity. He lives and works in Boston, where he also teaches at Lesley College of Art and Design, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and Harvard University and leads a variety of summer workshops in photography.