News Column

Rent boys and pole dancers – the photographs of Philip-Lorca diCorcia

February 15, 2014

Sean O'Hagan, theguardian.com



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'sTimes 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. Whereas the light falling on a yellow rainhat in one of the Heads portraits makes the fabric seem even shinier, the light on the rent boys is softer, making them seem like Hollywood hopefuls on the hustle for a starring role the very reason some of them gravitated to Los Angeles in the first place. The similarity between the two professions is made implicit here and, despite the breeze-blown beauty of the staged street portraits, DiCorcia somehow manages to avoid romanticising their desperation.

The exhibition begins with DiCorcia's most recent project, East of Eden, a somewhat oblique take on the book of Genesis and Steinbeck's novel of the same name.

The context here is the economic crash of 2007-08, and while single images worked for me a lone woman in a hotel room with skyscrapers in the distance across the water the whole does not transcend the sum of the parts. Here and there, the symbolism was somehow both overloaded and not entirely clear: a dart suspended in mid-air as it flies towards a boy's face seemed too small and nasty a gesture, however beautiful the composition, to summon the idea of biblical sacrifice. (That the dart thrower is DiCorcia, and the boy his son, did not quite cut it for me on the Abraham and Isaac score.)

I was slightly bemused, too, by DiCorcia's revelation that Lucky 13, his series of naked pole dancers in suspended motion, was prompted by the famous news photograph The Falling Man, which caught a tiny figure dropping from the north tower of the World Trade Centre on 9/11. I liked the images a lot more before I learned that but the workings of the minds of certain conceptualists remain, by their very obliqueness, a mystery to the rest of us.

The retrospective almost works in reverse, ending with one of his earliest series: A Storybook Life. This is where I lingered longest. Unlike the other work here, these small photographs are personal and often diaristic: they show the ebb and flow of ordinary life even though many are posed or semi-staged and, in their non-chronological waywardness, accentuate it. Made over 20 years, they already comprise a beautiful book, but on the wall, they take on a new life. There are glimpses, too, of DiCorcia's formative influences: a freezer packed with produce recalls a similar image by William Eggleston; some of the landscapes nod to Stephen Shore; some of the portraits to Nan Goldin there is even a few of a thin young man named Bruce that Goldin also photographed. (DiCorcia and Goldin attended college together at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.)

A Storybook Life is also a masterclass in the art of sequencing with a consistent sense of narrative and tone. It offers a kind of breathing space after the rooms full of big ideas and big prints that preceded it. A place to slow down and take in the trajectory of DiCorcia's ongoing journey into the meanings of photography. A chance to see where he is coming from, and to wonder where he will head next.


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Source: Guardian Web


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