Even with the space of a few days to reflect, I find myself unsure about my response to the Philip-Lorca diCorcia retrospective at the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield, which I visited with fellow OCA students & tutor, Andrew Conroy, last Saturday. It’s a big exhibition; and I also remain slightly sceptical of my own ability to take in work that I view with a large group of people – useful as study visits and contact with fellow students are, always. I need to go back and look again. But the uncertainty of my reaction is also, I think, about the work itself – and our group discussion also reflected the same questions, I recall.
It is a retrospective, as I say, but somewhat unusually the work is apparently presented in a sort of reverse order – starting with East of Eden, his more recent and ongoing work that follows the economic collapse of 2008 and relates to both the Old Testament ‘Eden’ and the Steinbeck novel of the same name as the series. It then progresses with Lucky 13, his photographs of female pole-dancers (partly, apparently, reflecting the images of falling bodies at 9/11); Streetwork and Heads, both created – in different ways – on the streets of major cities; the famous Hustlers series depicting male prostitutes from Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard; and ends with A Storybook Life which was published as a book in 2003 but stretches right back to 1975, and so, fundamentally, reflects his earliest work. Everything except the final group, is presented in the form of very large prints (the most recent being inkjets), but the 76 prints for Storybook Life are on a more intimate scale, running as a series around six walls in two connected but separate spaces. The general reaction of our group, to which I would largely subscribe, was that we found the recent work somewhat contrived and difficult to ‘enjoy’; the oldest work the most accessible and, probably, most ‘enjoyable’; and what went between impressive and thought-provoking, whilst open to question as well.
It’s never a bad thing to consider what words immediately spring to mind when reacting to works of art – the ‘gut reaction’. I wrote down “Impersonal, detached, formal and intellectually thought-provoking” – but I would add that those words apply less to the Storybook Life series. Let’s take the well-known Heads series, as in this composite image taken in the gallery.
Famously, diCorcia set up strobe lighting on scaffolding, which was then triggered by passers-by, whose faces were captured in split-second isolation as they walked the streets of New York. The accompanying curatorial text uses words such as “anonymous” and “enigmatic”. I had seen most of these before in books but here they are printed very large and command your attention – but I’m left wondering what they actually say to me. It is only diCorcia’s isolation of their ‘portrait’, his formalisation of their image as a beautiful print, and his decision to make them so big on a gallery wall that gives them any significance at all. We compared their creation to the Cartier-Bresson ‘decisive moment’. Whilst that idea itself may have become open to question, it was at least formulated on the idea that the photographer’s mind/eye combination would select the significant instance in which to press the shutter. In this case, the photographer created the situation, but left the ‘moment’ to chance and has, as a result, created significance out of insignificance. That isn’t such an unusual approach in photography, of course; in fact, it’s what I’m doing myself, certainly with the studio work. But I think that’s where I end up with this work (and perhaps where diCorcia ends up, too) – it’s quite formal work about the medium of photography and its relationship with the truth and the real, just like so much contemporary work. It certainly isn’t about these people, or even about people at all, It’s about the combination of camera and light to create a momentary ‘something’, which might provoke questions in the mind of the discerning viewer. It’s also diCorcia overcoming his reticence about photographing people, using a detached and impersonal approach that essentially ‘removes’ him to one side of the process. It’s about modern photography’s ability to produce monumental gallery images that have the sort of presence formerly associated with painting. And it’s also about the art market – naturally!
(Almost all of the images in the gallery were glazed. In order to avoid ‘starring’, I have shot these at an angle. I pondered whether to contact diCorcia’s office for permission to use the actual images but decided to use my own. That was partly prompted by the fact that the one below, taken from the front seat of a car, seems to work quite well at this odd angle!)
Mention of ‘market’ brings me to Hustlers, the series with a transactional dimension to it. diCorcia paid the prostitutes to have their portraits made; the fee being whatever they would normally charge for sex. We know that, from the history of the work and from the accompanying text; and we know the amount from the captions. So we must assume that diCorcia wants us to view these images in the full knowledge of how they were made. That, for me, makes them much more ‘personal’ than the Heads series. The subject knows that he is being photographed and has collaborated with diCorcia in the process and pose. The gallery text compares the two forms of transaction, concluding that they are “… both forms of selling their bodies for another use”” …” and also suggesting that “… the men depicted become a collective symbol of broken dreams …”. I can see both those points, of course, by I also got this sense of detachment again. They almost all stare off into the distance, which kind of makes the ‘dreams’ context a bit obvious. And I wondered whether the beautiful cinematic lighting and (again) high quality gallery-size print didn’t almost glorify their circumstances and pander to the dreams, to an extent. There were two exceptions to the ‘distant stare’; and I felt that there was more in these two images – both individually and as a contrast – than in the others. What a difference when the subject is looking right back at us.
Now the detachment is gone and we are engaged with and by the young men. And what a contrast in the gaze. For me, these two were the most effective in the Hustlers series – yet they were the least typical.
To my surprise, it was the A Storybook Life series that engaged me most. There is a ‘flip through’ the book here. I didn’t really get fully to grips with it in the limited time available, and I do intend to go back. The sequencing was fascinating and needs more time – I sensed that sometimes it was based on form, sometimes colour, sometimes subject matter, and sometimes unconnected detail. With 76 images on the walls, there was plenty of opportunity to speculate about that aspect. Many/most of the images are ‘staged’, so we are still working with that aspect of diCorcia’s work – photography’s ability to explore/challenge truth and reality – but the smaller scale and the variety (and quantity) of images seemed to invite a more ‘human’ engagement.
And there I come back to being ‘unsure’ about my overall response. diCorcia’s reputation would seem to rest, mostly anyway, on those big ‘block-buster’ series like Heads and Hustlers; and those series are impressive and thought-provoking. But I find myself more interested in some lesser-known and less immediately impressive work where, rightly or wrongly, I felt there might be more of diCorcia the person/artist. It is a very big exhibition and I really do need a second visit. To be continued …!
Edited with this addition 20th April 2014
I have been back – last Thursday. Reading through this post, written just after my first visit, I tend to think I got it ‘about right’. This time I went through in chronological order – and I think that’s the right way to do it. The ‘A Storybook Life’ series is a fascinating one – both for its content (some ‘real’ and some ‘constructed’) and for its form & sequencing. I found myself wondering whether I was ‘forcing’ my interpretation or genuinely ‘reading’ the work. But I think that’s the very point – di Corcia is presenting us with a stimulus and leaving us with plenty of scope to put our own interpretation on it. ‘Heads’ seems, even more on second viewing, to raise questions about the photographic image on a gallery wall. There is, I sense, nothing at all in the subject matter of the images; they are entirely ‘insignificant moments’. Only the photographer’s combination of a flash of light, carefully positioned and primed equipment, selective editing, and printing to monumental size, is significant. And the more recent work feels unfinished, which I suspect it is. I’m glad I went twice; I broadly feel happier with the work and my reaction to it after a second viewing; and I now rate it rather higher, overall, than I did first time round.
I’ve been waiting for this as I knew you going. I plan to visit also and will comment back then to compare notes, you might also have been back by then.
Am I right in thinking that you’re coming up to the Leeds lecture day in May, John?
You are indeed Stan. Are you going?
That’s the plan – though just for the day on the Saturday; I’m not staying over.