Philip-Lorca diCorcia

- Selected Press

Philip-Lorca diCorcia is a celebrated American photographer whose well-known images blur the distinctions between documentary and staged tableaux. Here, diCorcia discusses his ongoing project “East of Eden,” 2008—, a series of fictional scenarios dealing with disenchantment and loss that will be on view at David Zwirner in New York from April 2 to May 2, 2015, and he offers his own perspective on the ever-shifting climate of contemporary photography.

I was stuck in a rut as a young adult. Not even of age—and I think I had been drafted already for the Vietnam War, since I was kicked out of high school. But I wound up studying with Jan Groover; I’m from Hartford, Connecticut, and she was teaching at the college there. She basically threw everything out the window for me. It was like, “OK, you’re in a photography class. Want to know how to develop film? Read the fucking instructions that come with it.” I think that established something for me, and I dearly respect her as an influence. She died a few years ago, but she was important to me, as at that point I had no real desire to follow an art career. I really didn’t.

I didn’t care much about anything then; it was a time of decadence, if one could afford decadence, which frankly I couldn’t. I was like a pauper in the world of decadence and I always have been. Even when I came to New York in the early 1980s, I just couldn’t afford to be a freak. I think of freaks as somewhat self-indulgent. It’s like a block party: You have no money and you get together and make spaghetti and pretend you’re rich, or you really are rich and you pretend that you’re not.

To some degree, the “East of Eden” series was generated by anger. Which is not an unusual emotion for me, but it has a weird place within the realm of art. The project has been ongoing for seven years now, and the motivation was at first generated by the financial collapse that occurred at the end of the Bush era. It had to do with disillusionment, promise, expectations, and jealousy. This is the primal soap opera of people’s imagination. East of Eden is the place where Adam and Eve were cast after the loss of innocence, which is represented by the apple. I was looking for my muse, and it turned out that I just didn’t have one. Or maybe it could have just been the anger. I was angry when I started this thing and I still am.

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In the early nineties, the photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia shot portraits of male prostitutes in Hollywood, whom he paid their going rates—twenty or thirty bucks, usually—to pose for him. That early imbrication of art and economics continues in a new exhibition, at David Zwirner’s Nineteenth Street branch, of photos from diCorcia’s ongoing series “East of Eden.” Begun in 2008, as credit markets started seizing up, the images depict a Lehman-scarred United States of drab tract houses, gents in motels, parched landscapes, parched graveyards. More oblique and more sympathetic than most other narratively inclined photographers, diCorcia can find as much financial trauma in a solitary apple tree, shot in one of New York’s economically distressed upstate counties, as in the more conventional image of a tattered bus driving past a faded movie-theatre marquee. (He stumbles only when he overdirects; in one image, an older woman gazes toward Jersey from a room at the Standard Hotel, while a hammy image of a tornado appears on the television.) The earliest images here—of an anxious couple in a drab middle-class home, or a woman walking alone in a charred grove—date from the year when, in the midst of meltdown, a certain senator promised us change we could believe in. Now that economic impuissance appears to be more a permanent condition than a passing crisis, diCorcia’s series feels increasingly eschatological, as if America had passed directly from Eden to the Last Judgment.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia made headlines in 2007 when he was sued by Erno Nussenzweig, a Hasidic Jew, who objected to his portrait being displayed in a New York art gallery. For his 1999 series Heads, DiCorcia attached a strobe light to scaffolding in New York's Times Square and positioned a hidden camera nearby to shoot people as they walked beneath. Nessenzweig was one of those unsuspecting subjects. He lost the court case and DiCorcias's melancholy street portrait of him is one of several hauntingly powerful images in the US photographer's first British retrospective at the Hepworth Wakefield.

The Heads shots came six years after another series that was just as controversial. In Hustlers, DiCorcia cruised a strip of LA's Santa Monica Boulevard where rent boys worked, and offered to shoot their portraits for the same hourly rate they charged for sex. As the years have gone by, both Hustlers and Heads seem more and more important, merging the staged and the natural, the cinematic and the intimate. If you have never seen these images in person, I urge you to make the journey to Wakefield. Like Jeff Wall's work, which also has elaborate staging, they need to be seen in a gallery to experience the full force of their luminous melancholy.

In Heads, for instance, an adolescent boy in a baseball cap is, as DiCorcia put it in his artist's tour of the show earlier this week, "pure Holden Caulfield". Next to him, a young girl is freeze-framed with "a perfect Botticelli wind blowing through her hair". Both seem oddly unreal in the way that many of DiCorcia's portraits are: they emerge out of the darkness with other ghostly faces dancing around them, each lost in their own reverie. Though the context is set up, the results capture the intimate naturalism of faces picked out in the hustle and bustle of New York streets, but the clamour of Times Square is silenced by the darkness that lies just beyond this cinematic lighting.

There's a deeper melancholy about Hustlers that is not just to do with the desperate nature of street prostitution, but more with the way the subjects pose – often looking off into the distance – and the way their loneliness is accentuated by the dreamy light and neon romance of Los Angeles. DiCorcia eschews digital technology, shooting on film and printing on high-end inkjet, and his colours often have an oddly nostalgic feel that recalls the soft gleam of Kodachrome.

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On the eve of his first major retrospective in England Philip-Lorca di Corcia seems more concerned than flattered. ‘Superstitiously, I think most artists’ careers end up down the tubes after a retrospective,’ he says. ‘They really point out to you what you’ve done, and some of that is not pleasant, because you can always find something wrong with it.’

It’s strange to hear such self-deprecation from a man who is consistently referred to as one of the leading lights of his generation, an accolade that seems to amuse and frustrate him in equal measure.

The Connecticut-born photographer, 62, first came to prominence in 1993 with a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Hustlers was a stout-hearted foray into the twitchy tenor of the post-Reagan era. DiCorcia sought out male prostitutes on Los Angeles’ Santa Monica Boulevard, offering them the money they would earn from having sex if he could shoot their portrait.

‘At first I used motel rooms,’ he says, ‘because I had to set the shot up, and to do it behind a closed door was a lot easier. But there were always problems with the management, and eventually I felt motel rooms had become a kind of leitmotif in the whole thing – the mirrors, the bathroom, the bedspread – so I moved out on to the street.’

He has admitted that some of the first subjects fleeced him out of more than double the going rate, and professes he found the transaction process awkward. ‘Most of them didn’t believe I only wanted to pay them for their picture, they were like, “Is there anything else I can do for you?” At least in part, the series was intended as a thorn in the side of the pervading bigotry surrounding Aids (his brother Max died of an Aids-related disease).

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Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s dark and defining series, Hustlers, was shot against a backdrop of devastation and despair during the AIDS pandemic in the late 1980s and early 90s. The work served as a defiant response to (largely) right-wing bigotry targeting the First Amendment rights of homosexuals — specifically, those working in the arts.

In 1989 an exhibition by photographer Andres Serrano (which famously included a photo of a crucifix submerged in the artist's own urine) stirred controversy and led to attacks on the funding policies of the National Endowment for the Arts. That same year, under mounting pressure from Republican senators Jesse Helms and Al D’Amato, who objected to the explicit homosexuality of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, the Corcoran Gallery cancelled a planned NEA-funded exhibition of the artist's work.

Artists who received fellowships from the NEA in 1989, including diCorcia, did so with the proviso that the work they made would not be "obscene."

DiCorcia, who until this point had conceived of his photos as singular images—intimate, self-contained scenarios of family members and friends in often-mundane situations—embarked on what would become his first cohesive series. With a wholly new premise, he began working with both determination and with a subtle but unwavering strain of subterfuge.

DiCorcia made five trips to Los Angeles, where, with an assistant, he would set up his 6x7 Linhof view camera and lights and run through each potential shot with meticulous detail, before cruising the streets of Santa Monica propositioning hustlers, drug addicts and drifters. He then brought his subjects to his pre-prepared locations to make their portraits and paid them (with NEA funds) the equivalent fee they would have charged for sex.

DiCorcia photographed at dusk, in cheap motel rooms, on street corners, in parking lots and against the neon-lit strip where the hustlers plied their trade. The photographs are titled with the subject's name, age, place of birth -- and the customary price for his services. Masterfully depicting the bleak underside of Hollywood, they also capture the town's unfulfilled dreams and its fake intimacy.

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On the first day of “Hustlers,” his new show at New York’s David Zwirner Gallery (today through Nov. 2), photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia led members of the press on a walkthrough. The photographs on view were taken between 1990 and 1992, and were first exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1993; the current exhibition marks the 20th anniversary of that show. \

The artist had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and, as a condition of receiving the funds, he explained, signed an agreement not to do anything with the money that was contrary to American values. So, as a thumb in the government’s eye, he went to photograph hustlers on Los Angeles’s Santa Monica Boulevard, offering to pay them the same amount to shoot a portrait that they would usually charge for sex.

The resulting images show young (and not so young) men in motel rooms, standing on sidewalks and sitting at fast-food counters. They’re mostly grim-faced, often wearing little, displaying their wares.

Wearing a lime-green button-down shirt, Birkenstock sandals and shorts revealing a knee brace resulting from a torn meniscus, the unassuming artist, 62, explained the project’s complicated emotional and societal dimensions.

“Believe it or not,” he deadpanned, “the government was very conservative across the board at the time.” He also explained that the time he took the photographs was the height of the AIDS epidemic, before the antiretroviral medications that have, for many people, made the disease a livable condition rather than a death sentence became available.

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He may be one of the leading photographic artists of his generation, but Philip-Lorca diCorcia is still anxious about having two shows of his work opening almost simultaneously next month, one in New York and one in London. “It makes me nervous as hell,” he said on the phone from upstate New York. “I think every artist gets the jitters every once in a while. I’m not so worried about the Hustlers – whatever its shortcomings, it’s because it was done 20 years ago and the world has caught up in a way.” Hustlers is the series of portraits he made in Hollywood in the early 1990s, when he asked male prostitutes to appear in the pictures and charge him roughly what they would have charged a customer for sex. Neatly hitching together ideas about commodification, sex and imagery, it led to his first solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1993. The pictures he is more concerned about are the ones in London, which he has grouped under the title East of Eden, a series he started in 2008.

"That was obviously a traumatic year for a lot of people,” he said. “I felt I needed to respond to the situation, to what was the culmination of George Bush’s era. So this idea of the Fall, this ejection from Eden, is what inspired the pictures, a sense that everybody’s optimism and fever to have a great life had been completely overturned. And to some degree, as in the Biblical story, it was knowledge that did it.

“Suddenly people realised that they don’t get everything for free; that you can’t have a mortgage that you don’t have to pay back; that you can’t constantly leverage your life on your credit card. And we’d been led into two wars that were disastrous failures and misguided to begin with. I just took that as a jumping-off point for the imagery.”

DiCorcia first came to prominence with staged photographs of apparently ordinary scenes that gained significance from the way he lit and dramatised them, setting up a tension between their often banal external narratives and the complex inner narratives they implied. One of a group of artists who radically changed the way photography was seen and thought about, for the past 17 years he has been a sought-after teacher and critic at Yale School of Art.

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In the early 1990s, the photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia made five trips to Los Angeles to pick up male prostitutes in Hollywood. Cruising down a seedy stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard, where young men loitered suggestively by the curb, he would slow down in his rental car when he saw a likely prospect.

Once the man approached, Mr. diCorcia would make a proposition. He offered to pay the going rate, but instead of sex, what he wanted was a photograph. Usually, the hustler agreed. They drove together to a setting that Mr. diCorcia and his assistant had chosen and prepared. There, the pictures were taken, the money was transferred, and the two sides went their separate ways.

When the Museum of Modern Art exhibited 25 of the photographs in 1993 under the title “Strangers,” each was labeled with the name of the man who posed, his hometown, his age, and the amount of money that changed hands. (The photographer could vouch for only the sum, usually $20 to $30.) Mr. diCorcia, now 61, would have liked to call the show “Trade.” Gay slang for a male prostitute, “trade” is also a straightforward description of what was going on.

“They give you something, you give them something,” he said in a recent interview.

Two decades later, the series has become known as “Hustlers,” and under that title a much fuller selection (about 80) of the pictures is about to be published in a book by Steidldangin and will be exhibited next month at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea.

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Philip-Lorca diCorcia, well known for his staged photographs that depict friends, family, and strangers in ambiguous mise-en-scènes, returns to this gallery with “Eleven,” a suite of fashion images culled from the eleven projects he created for W magazine between 1997 and 2008. Without gleaning this information from the press release, one could be forgiven for not thinking them “commercial” photos at all. The works recall those in his previous shows, which have mined the gray areas between street and directed images and between the personal and the public, generating a sort of hybrid form of “straight” photography influenced by the chromatic saturations of William Eggleston.

What unifies these works, some of which feature overlapping or recurring “characters,” is a sense of enclosure and surveillance, which makes it seem like we are glancing into hidden worlds, and the subjects—many of them walled off in glass houses—seem to know as much. These scenes in turn feel incredibly, even unsettlingly, familiar, as if we’ve stumbled into an old film or a family photo album. Cindy Sherman, of course, has explored similar terrain in her output, often inserting herself as the object of consumption. But in Sherman’s work, the artist points to the instability of both human identity and the tropes by which we construct our world. By contrast, diCorcia’s images feel hyperreal given the matte flatness of the printing process as it is juxtaposed with his selective focus on objects and figures in unexpected sections of the frame: flowers on a coffee table, a man’s reflection in an outside window, an Asian businessman’s knowing look. The total effect is not one of deconstructive estrangement, however, but genuine uncanniness.

After circling the capacious Zwirner gallery, one feels as if one knows the characters in the images, having caught them at a moment of unexpected insouciance or vulnerability. For this reason alone, “Eleven” makes a compelling case for the generative possibilities found as the lines between fashion and art become inexorably blurred.

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One thing to love about fashion is its extravagance. Fashion wouldn’t be fashion without it. What matters is the look. It has to dazzle the eye before anything else, and so do the photographs that sell it. It’s the image that counts and Philip-Lorca diCorcia is one photographer who knows from imagery. The fashion spreads he created for W magazine from 1997 through 2008 are lavish productions that don’t just illustrate a moment in style but tell a story about representation itself.

In the 11 years diCorcia collaborated with Dennis Freedman, the magazine’s former creative director (and now Barneys creative director), no penny was spared to set the clothes of each period in a context that casts a seductive spell of its own. Each photo essay features diCorcia’s distinctive, Caravaggio-like lighting and is set in a different part of the world — Bangkok, Cairo, São Paulo, Havana, Paris, Los Angeles, New York and East Hampton. The settings are often surreal and as different as a hotel hallway, a sweat shop, a Cuban bar straight out of an Edward Hopper painting, a white-shoe church, a kickboxing ring and Windows on the World, the restaurant that once sat atop the World Trade Center.

A choice selection of the photographs make up “Eleven,” diCorcia’s new exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery, but they are all collected in a new book edited by Freedman, also entitled “Eleven,” that features a new story by the novelist Mary Gaitskill and an interview with diCorcia by the artist Jeff Rian, an editor of “Purple.” (Freedman and diCorcia will both be at the gallery tomorrow from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. for a book signing.)

Each photograph derives from a tale that diCorcia concocted for the shoots, but separated from the magazine where the stories originally appeared, it is his gift as an image maker that stands out, not the fashions that were his subjects. In one striking picture from the Cairo shoot, there is no designer wear in evidence; the models are a local boy and his grandmother, and the only object in focus is a bouquet of artificial flowers.

With his latest New York gallery exhibition, Philip-Lorca diCorcia leaves behind his persona as the mastermind of large-scale, spookily artificial, more or less staged photographs and emerges as a real flesh-and-blood artist. The change feels especially big because it is brought about by many extremely small images — 1,000 Polaroids — instead of his signature wall-size ones.

Technically perfect, highly personal, full of life, these images were culled from more than 4,000 taken by Mr. diCorcia over the last 25 years. They are installed edge to edge on a narrow aluminum shelf that wraps around the gallery and into a spiral of specially built walls that add a spatial tension to viewing the show.

All the basic art historical (and photographic) conventions are encompassed here — interiors, nudes, still lifes, portraits, landscapes, street scenes and so on — along with many of life’s experiences, such as travel, work, friends, lovers, children, solitude. All are governed by an ever-alert eye and an instinctive compositional sense. Fleeting moments are deftly captured, like a book-size piece of plywood upright on a table that splits the reflected light between two empty chairs.

Some images are test shots for Mr. diCorcia’s various photographic series, most memorably his portraits of male prostitutes in Los Angeles. Several appear two and three times, but are slightly different shots of the same subject.

The Polaroids are carefully ordered, loosely grouped in chapters or around themes — a series of individuals half-visible in darkened rooms, a sequence of emphatically receding shots taken down alleyways or between houses. There are compositional idiosyncrasies, like photographs of reflections in mirrors on otherwise dark walls. The resulting images are framed in deep borders of black, making them even smaller and finer.

Continue reading the main story The effect is both magical and mundane. The images’ jewel-like clarity contrasts with the day-in-the-life casualness of their circumstances. As you move past them, you may feel that each one deserves to be savored on its own rather than as part of a 1,000-piece work. Some savoring might have been possible in the thick book that reproduces them all in the same order as in the installation, but the blurry printing on soft paper destroys their most enticing quality, which is their startling outsize sharpness.

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