After the previous day’s pleasant surprise, my trip to the Philip-Lorca DiCorcia show at the Hepworth gallery promised to be an entirely different affair. This time a world renown photographer (‘one of the most important photographers working today’ according to the gallery guide) in a multi-million pound art gallery with a growing reputation.
The exhibition is his first UK show and brings together 6 series and more than 100 photographs spanning his career. DiCorcia is a big deal. His work is referenced repeatedly in several of the books I’ve read so far during my studies. He is known for his approach of staging what appear to be straight-forward depictions of everyday life, creating what are actually meticulously arranged scenes. His motivation for doing so is, according to the gallery’s introduction ‘[to] challenge assumptions about photographic realism, creating complex and often uncanny realities that tread between documentary and fiction’.
After a postcode malfunction, we arrived at the stunning, concrete building that houses the Hepworth. The gallery staff encouraged visitors to proceed clockwise through the galleries so that the photographer’s work was presented in the order intended. After galleries containing the sculptural works ‘Reclining Figures’ by Henry Moore and ‘Two Forms’ by Barbara Hepworth herself, we were into the first of the diCorcia series – beginning with his latest work, EAST OF EDEN (2008-ongoing).
The photographs in this set see a return to his trademark constructs. It references the bible’s story of Adam and Eve as well as the film of the same name. diCorcia says that it was ‘provoked by the collapse of everything, which seems to me a loss of innocence. People thought they could have anything. And then it just blew up in their faces’. The images themselves are interesting enough, especially when presented on such a spectacular scale and impressive reproduction, but the narrative was just too obscure for my tastes – something I would struggle with later in the show.
Next up was LUCKY 13 (2004) featuring almost life-sized images of pole-dancers in action. The set seems not to be about sexuality or exploitation, and the poses are not at all erotic – it must be the movement that makes their performance so. It does seem to be about physicality. The dramatic lighting freezes the action and leaves the dancers suspended, with faces contorted by gravity (and G-forces?), their muscles tensed in the effort. The combination of scale and chiaroscuro lighting style from above makes the set reminiscent of Baroque religious paintings, although the size of the images mean that the performers are seen ‘warts and all’.
On to my favourite set, STREETWORK (1993-1999). Here, diCorcia has set-up lighting rigs on busy street corners and planned the composition and effect of the lighting thoroughly. He then waits for his unsuspecting subjects to pass by. The artificial lighting, combined with the low sun of twilight in most shots (shot on Ektachrome means beautiful colours) not only picks out individuals within the busy scenes, it adds drama and makes the images cinematic, as if stills from a Hollywood film. They are not documentary or traditional ‘street’ photography. Instead, the pictures become more about the act of photographing anonymous, un-posed people and making them ‘stars’. An example of this lighting effect coupled with a narrow depth of field to isolate the subject is in Paris, 1996. Mexico City, 1998 combines the sunset’s low-angled light with overhead, artificial lighting (with shadows obvious below the figures) and makes another cinematic scene of the everyday. We need to see beyond that lighting though to the photograph itself. It needs to be treated as another compositional tool rather than the raison d’être.
DiCorcia says of the set:
The pictures are “non-events” both because I see that as interesting and because I want to remove photography’s biggest attraction – the offering of second hand experience.
HEADS (2000-2001) is the set I was most familiar with beforehand, featuring as it does in Charlotte Cotton’s book. It’s an evolution of the previous set with the busy street scenes reduced to a single, isolated subject. Again, remote flash lighting is used and on this occasion, a telephoto lens, meaning he was around 20 feet away when he took the pictures. All context has been removed, leaving these unaware subjects centre stage. Each has something that makes them interesting enough to feature in the set (diCorcia shot 3000 pictures for this work and selected 17. He complains that the shoot became a day job, spending 4-5 hours a day shooting in the same spot).
These are pictures of how people look when they think no-one is watching. The isolation focusses the viewer’s attention onto the ‘head’ and we begin to wonder what they might be thinking, where they’re going – we want to know their story. It also gives us the impression that the person is alone, lonely even. They look calm and still, even when shot as they were in New York’s Times Square.
The photographer was sued by one of the ‘heads’ for a breach of privacy in what became an important test case. When talking about the lawsuit, diCorcia maintains that he was not being sneaky (like Walker Evans and his hidden camera) and had done nothing wrong, while admitting that he wouldn’t like it doing to him.
HUSTLERS (1990-1992) shows male prostitutes in Hollywood, each in a different, carefully staged setting. The artist paid the their ‘basic charge for sexual services’ and includes this, their name and hometown in the title of the image, shooting 90 in all and using 66 in the book of his work. The exhibition so far had contained no sentimental aspects, but this set has emotion – we pity the subjects and their broken dreams. The hustlers appear melancholic, staring into the distance and in many cases, the lighting serves to isolate them further. We wonder what may have become of them in the intervening years. AIDS was big news when this set was shot and indeed, the artist’s brother had died of the disease a few years before he undertook this work.
The photographs again are technically perfect. diCorcia set up the scene and took test shots using an assistant before sending out for a subject. Like Streetwork, the shots are often taken at twilight, about which diCorcia said:
It might be said that twilight is a muddled form of clarity. The warm glow that suffuses the ‘ golden hour’ in Los Angeles acts to filter the grim realities, the outright lies, the self-deceptions, which allow Hollywood, and by extension, America to flourish. ‘Twilight’ provides the rose-coloured glasses that make it possible to see out but not see in.
The most powerful picture in the set is Marilyn; 28 Years Old; Las Vegas, Nevada; $30. Unlike the others in Hustlers, Marilyn stares out at us, square on, in a bad wig and crooked lipstick and is uncomfortable viewing. All of the pictures in the set are cleverly lit, but only this one features the lighting of a glamour shot. After taking diCorcia’s $30 for his picture, I wonder how much more difficult the next $30 was to earn.
The set, like Streetwork and Heads isolates the subjects, focussing our attention only on them and lifting them from their context.
Finally, STORYBOOK LIFE (1975-1999) is shown in its entirety of 76 pictures. They have no narrative or chronology but are sequenced to suggest that they tell the story of interconnecting lives. They are not documentary and despite many appearing to be simple snap-shots, each image again is carefully staged and lit. As if to prepare us for this, the first image is turned through 90 degrees, providing a visual clue that the subsequent images are not real.
I didn’t enjoy the set at all. The ‘interconnecting stories’ were in fact just repeated locations. The pictures from each of the locations are obviously similar (Singapore looks like Singapore and not like Naples) and the sequencing suggests that lives are being lived simultaneously in these different locations. However, each image has a date in the title, scuppering the theory that they are simultaneous or chronologically linked. From here, we begin to look for themes in each location and after 2 shots featuring a baby on the floor in Skopelos and a couple of frames within frames in Naples, I think I might be onto something… I’m not. Any narrative or reason for these images to be considered a set is dashed as soon as it comes to mind. I find this frustrating and it turns me off the work, even when several of the images are beautiful in their own right. My fellow viewers and I begin to simply index along from one picture to the next until we get to a funeral scene that marks the rather corny end.
Again, many are technically perfect, but so they should be when they have been set up in such a way. Recreating such mundane scenes allows this perfection, but it smacks of a vanity. diCorcia’s work adds to the long history of staged pictures such as most of Brassaï’s ‘Paris by Night’, ‘A Night in London’ by Bill Brandt and ‘Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville’ by Robert Doisneau (who said he would never dare shoot such an image for real because so many such kisses were adulterous), but should we feel disappointed? It is obvious that photography is not about realism, particularly in contemporary art. It’s common for an artist to manipulate the viewer to his own ends, something that is easier done in such a constructed ‘reality’. But if this is to be the case, why not with a theme or narrative to engage the viewer. Simply stating that this is up to the viewer could be considered a lazy cop-out. I look forward to the point in the course or my photographic and artistic development that allows me to understand this motivation.
Some truths cannot be told except as fiction.
Some of my frustrations are addressed by the artist in the gallery’s interview with him. He explains that he isn’t comfortable photographing people. He doesn’t hold a camera to his face when taking pictures, instead using a tripod. He thinks that people look for narrative because of the cinematic look of his work (created by the square on framing and dramatic lighting) although again I’m not sure about that. I look for narrative because this is a collection of photographs that have been published as a book and that tour the world as a set, always viewed in the same order. If there is no narrative, what remains?
It is an impressive show but one that I found inspiring and frustrating in equal measure. The use of lighting to isolate a subject and build a mood of melancholy is fascinating and my main take-away, along with the concept of ‘staging’ everyday life in a public space. My favourite description of it is Geoff Dyer’s ‘[the pictures]…are not like film stills – they are still films’. As my appreciation of the art grows, I may return to East of Eden and Storybook Life to look again for what holds them together.
The four gallery visits that I’ve made over the previous two weekends have replaced any time I may have had for shooting my own pictures towards my third assignment. However, each of the visits has been rewarding in its own way, particularly when I have had the chance to speak to the artist in one case, and discuss another show with a friend. This discussion is an essential learning method in any subject, but particularly one where so much is down to individual interpretation. The OCA’s forums cannot replace these conversations and I’ll continue to look for similar opportunities.
Finally, in case you’re wondering, the OCA’s guidelines do not allow us to add images to our blogs that may be subject to copyright. That’s why I appear to be creating a catalogue of images of the outside of art galleries…
Davies, L. (2014) How the camera saved the photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia [online]. Telegraph Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/10602637/How-the-camera-saved-the-photographer-Philip-Lorca-diCorcia.html (Accessed: 26 February 2014)
Horyn, C. (2011) Q & A: Philip-Lorca diCorcia [online]. New York Time. Available from: http://runway.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/11/q-a-philip-lorca-di-corcia/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0 (Accessed: 26 February 2014)
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA PHOTOGRAPHS 1975 – 2012, 14 FEBRUARY – 1 JUNE 2014 [online] The Hepworth Wakefield. Available from: http://www.hepworthwakefield.org/whatson/dicorcia/ (Accessed: 26 February 2014)
Tate (2010) Exposed: Philip-Lorca DiCorcia [online]. Tate. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/exposed-philip-lorca-dicorcia (Accessed: 26 February 2014)
Victoria and Albert Museum (2006) Twilight: Photography in the Magic Hour [online]. VAM. Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/p/photographs-by-philip-lorca-dicorcia/ (Accessed: 26 February 2014)
Wikipedia. (unknown) Nussenzweig v. DiCorcia [online]. Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nussenzweig_v._DiCorcia (Accessed: 26 February 2014)