The Hilton Brothers — photographers Christopher Makos and Paul Solberg — have arrived in Cincinnati with food on their minds. They don’t specify that it needs to be organic, but it might as well be. The term pops up repeatedly as the New Yorkers discuss their natural, open-ended approach to life, art and collaboration.
On their drive to Hyde Park’s Miller Gallery, they have diverted from their GPS route in search of the BonBonerie, which they remember from a January visit. Unfortunately, the O’Bryonville bakery already has closed. So next they’re off on a literally fruitless search for blueberries.
After a wrong turn, they arrive at the gallery, chattering about burritos. But food talk ceases as they survey their works, many of them diptychs that combine Solberg’s portraits of flowers with Makos’ shots of Andy Warhol and horses. Some pictures already have been hung, but most await installation.
“I like it in disarray,” Solberg says. The lack of order feels organic to these two, who, in their complementary custom suits, act like players in a piece of unscripted performance art.
“We don’t care about getting lost,” says Makos, whether that’s on a blueberry hunt, one of their trips as “photo-anthropologists” or in their studio. “We’ve both learned what fun it is to get lost. And the GPS always takes us home. In the case of work, we know we’ll get back at the right spot.”
That artistic spot is a place where Makos’ “Altered Images” of Warhol in wigs and makeup, photographed in 1981, are refreshed when paired with Solberg’s 2005 pictures of single blooms. The unexpected combo is at first jarring, yet each stark “Andy Dandy” diptych soon feels natural. Makos’ black-and-white portraits and Solberg’s color petals are both shot against white backgrounds, leaving the viewer to focus solely on the dialogue between the subjects’ forms and shapes while pondering questions of beauty and identity. Warhol had remarked: “I’m not trying to look beautiful like Elizabeth Taylor, I’m trying to show what it feels like to be beautiful like Elizabeth Taylor.” That attitude, that tension, is everything.
The waves of Warhol’s mussed wig mimic the arrangement of petals on a less-than-perfect red rose. The sweep of the pop artist’s false eyelashes, the arch of his penciled brows and even the pattern of his plaid tie are repeated in Solberg’s photo of a bent daisy crisscrossing another stem.
Taken alone, Makos’ equine portraits raise new appreciation of horses’ beauty by focusing solely on a mane, muscle or eye rather than the whole beast.
Similarly, Solberg’s “Bloom” series presents each flower as a sculpture — a simple yet intricate form. When the photos are presented together, an even higher level of awareness is achieved, as the viewer notices similar shapes between the plant and animal worlds and the interconnectedness of life.
Solberg previously has remarked that a collaboration, whether of people or images, by its nature involves conflict, and that’s not necessarily bad. “If you don’t have tension and friction, you don’t have life,” he says. One plus one equals three.
The Hilton Brothers’ name is a takeoff on the extreme collaboration of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, a 1930s vaudeville act. Makos and Solberg have been traveling and photographing side-by-side for almost nine years, since meeting on their bicycles in New York. “The creative energy was immediate,” Makos says.
Makos is the older of the two. He’d apprenticed with Man Ray and for years was part of Warhol’s Factory. Makos’ photos of his famous friend with John Lennon and Liza Minnelli are in the exhibit. Warhol, who died in 1987, called Makos “the most modern photographer in America,” and it’s a title Makos has since bestowed on Solberg. “Being modern is being fresh,” Makos explains.
“Chris doesn’t stay on an idea too long. I’m more meditative and methodical,” Solberg says. Through their collaboration, Solberg has learned that “the imperfect is more successful.”
That lesson is apparent in Solberg’s “Service” photographs, taken during New York’s 2010 Fleet Week. He biked through Times Square with a Polaroid SX-70 camera loaded with old film and asked servicemen and women if he could take their picture. He photographed 100 subjects, but because the film deteriorated in less than two weeks, only 22 faded and damaged images remain, thanks to being scanned into a computer. The ghostly portraits look as if they were taken during World War II. Their ephemeral quality underlines the uncertainty of going into battle.
“It was by accident that the photos and the film met,” Solberg says.
Makos understands such happy accidents after his experiences at the Factory, where there was a flurry of screen-printing going on. “I’m from Warhol, where a smudge is still art,” he explains. But, Solberg says, “I’ve made him revisit where it’s important to revisit.”
They can revisit ideas, but lately there hasn’t been time to revisit a city. An invitation to the Miller Gallery lists their itinerary for past 12 months: “Madrid, Berlin, Stockholm, Oslo, Paris, Palermo, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, New York, Moscow, Fort Lauderdale, Sao Paolo, and now ... Cincinnati.” Their journeys have been documented in books with titles that reflect the pair’s random approach. They include Tattoos, Hornets, Fire (about Sweden) and the global travelogue Tyrants + Lederhosen.
“We consider this (Cincinnati) as exotic, but in a different way,” Solberg says as he and his fellow New Yorker breathe the fresh spring air. “I love the bridges, the blue sky, the happy people running,” Solberg says. “I love downtown; it’s a gold mine.
“The discipline of letting go is crucial,” he says, as they return to their tale of getting physically lost in Cincinnati.
And the idea of letting go emotionally is important, too.
“Hopefully our work takes you outside of yourself, like when watching a movie,” Makos says. He wants the viewer to experience “a sense of enlightenment, of feeling at ease.”
“We intentionally don’t overanalyze our work,” Solberg says.
That wouldn’t be organic.
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