I came across her photographs by way of Lexie Smith’s Instagram page. Hilmer’s photographs are vibrant (often floral) and arresting in their crispness and lack of flourish. They have an essence and a decadence to them. This complexity between the paradox of abundance and statement-less-ness/ simplicity drew me to inquire about Hilmer’s vision.
For anyone who doesn’t know you, or hasn’t looked at your work, how would you introduce yourself? I’m a photographer and a writer. I don’t take that many photos and I don’t write very often. I sit quietly, waiting and watching, until ordinary scenes of uncommon grace coalesce before me, then I pounce.
What do you see when you look at something? How do you determine whether to “capture” it? What language do you use…if you don’t use “capturing”? I know I have many tattoos and I think of them as documentations. How do you consider your work…as objects, statements, questions?
I think of my photography more as archive-building than art-making. I’m amassing a record of particular times and places inhabited by people I know and love. The impulse to shoot is personal and selfish. My photography has always existed in conversation with and in opposition to my work as a fashion model. That job taught me that it is easy to make pictures that represent beauty for beauty’s sake. I’m not interested in that process of empty signaling. The photographs that feel worth taking to me are those that capture an emotion, one especially hard to articulate in words, and render it legible through an image. You don’t often need a photograph to describe a big sensation, we have the language for it already. It’s the small feelings that benefit from the illumination a picture offers.
You photograph many people. How you determine who to photograph?
I take pictures of my friends and family. I try to stop time when a wave of preemptive nostalgia washes over me — whoever is in the path of my lens at that moment becomes frozen in the frame. I take pictures of the people who make me heartsick, who make me laugh, who shine with light beaming out from within, and who fall into a sunbeam that makes them as golden outside as in.
What is your relationship with light? What is your relationship with flowers/ plants? And when I ask that, I simply mean, you take many photos of such things, and I am curious as to the origin of your interest in them.
I don’t build still lives to capture or pose sitters. Most of my photographs are “found” — scenes already unfolding; a natural-looking mess I couldn’t have made myself if I tried; people mid-conversation. The vast majority of my pictures happen in daylight, where I can interfere the least in whatever is occurring before me, and I don’t often force a flash. I’ve always loved and photographed flowers, but now that I live most of the year in the woods, even more of my photos are of plants.
What do you admire in an artist? What do you admire in your own work? What do you beat yourself up about and how do you process your own process?
I admire artists who take their work seriously but not themselves. I’m more attentive to literature and journalism than visual art. My favorite writers, especially lately, are those who understand the stakes of this political moment and yet still manage to have a sense of humor. I love Jia Tolentino, Jazmine Hughes, Alice Gregory, Rebecca Traister, and Rebecca Solnit. I appreciate when someone’s work hums with empathy and imagination. I worry that my own photos seem flip or casual. They certainly aren’t urgent. It is easy to believe the world is on fire and feel embarrassment about the comparative (weak) gravity of your own work.
I’m curious as to your understanding of boundaries. As a photographer, and especially someone who must study where light falls, how do you see boundaries, lines, definitions….are they fluid? Moving? Solid? Stable? What words would you use to describe them?
The boundaries I’m concerned with are the product of inequality and injustice. I think about boundaries in photography in terms of power and access. With a camera in my hand, I can push and prod a person to give up an image. The years I spent modeling taught me a lot about the inherent imbalance between a photographer and subject. Critical theory in college only crystallized the idea that images are manipulative and manufactured. I am careful; I aim to be vigilant, to hold myself accountable to standards of decency and kindness when I make a picture. I care about the emotional well-being of the person on the other side of my camera more than I do about creating incredible photographs. I’m not a photojournalist. I can’t justify crossing ethical or emotional boundaries in pursuit of “the shot” the way someone might be able to in the name of breaking news.
What colors inspire you? Foods? Textures? Weather patterns? Plants? Smells? Shapes?
I like golden tones, spicy food, and soft, worn-in and worn-out textures. I like a string of sunny days followed by one stormy afternoon, whose darkness and gloom absolves me of all social obligations and internal pressures. My favorite flowers are poppies and peonies, cosmos and petunias. The smell of fresh-baked bread is perfect. I like the shapes made by plant shadows.
Who do you recommend as someone to interview? Who inspires you?
I have found, through my Conversations project, that interviewing people you already think you know (friends, family, neighbors) can be a revelatory experience. When you deliberately make the familiar strange, you refresh your sense of wonder and your capacity for empathy. I think we all owe it to the people that care for and comfort us to treat them as fully-dimensional beings capable of surprise and wisdom.