Back in 2014, my wife and I found ourselves locked in a tumultuous period of change. We’d both left jobs at a company that we’d been with for decades, we’d been on a huge adventure to Japan for Jayne to continue her quest for the 6 major marathons of the world and I was having a short break from work while my new company went through its security checks. During our break, we found ourselves looking for new places to check out. During a visit to my in-laws we stumbled across The Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, near where they lived. I say ‘stumbled across’, because I’m ashamed to say that I’d never heard of it, even though it’s one of the most celebrated modern art galleries in the UK. Alongside works by sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, the gallery had a travelling photography exhibition by an American artist called Philip-Lorca diCorcia. I was unfamiliar with his work at the time, but that was not only remedied by the exhibition, but in the way that he has been an ever-present artist during my studies ever since. As we moved around the exhibition, we were introduced to two famous works, Hustlers (1993) and Heads (2002). Both were photographic ideas that I’d never seen before. In Hustlers, diCorcia had approached male prostitutes in Los Angeles, paid their usual fee but instead of a sexual encounter, photographed them in specially staged tableau images. I’ve mentioned tableaux before in this blog; a directional style of photography that is similar to the movies, where every detail of the scene, the props, lighting etc. is carefully managed by the artist. Hustlers placed the young men in everyday, almost banal situations with often dramatic lighting that conveyed a variety of moods. The resulting pictures are an ambiguous blend of the real person and the fictional setting, which leads the viewer to view them carefully in order to understand what’s going on. The reactions of his subjects to being photographed were, according to diCorcia, natural responses to the ‘assignment’. Many acted out personas that they may have used in their profession, while others became visibly frustrated at the time taken to shoot the picture; after all it was taking them away from being able to earn a living. It’s the ambiguity of the lines between what’s perceived as real and what is deliberately faked, which makes Hustlers an intriguing piece of work. I soon learned that this was a common thread throughout diCorcia’s photographs when we saw Heads. Here, the artist mounted strobe flash guns to the scaffolding of a building project over a street in Manhattan, with a very long remote control release to where he was sitting with his camera. As people walked under the scaffolding, he would take the picture. At first glance, the images look like they are entirely natural as with many that are shot within the street photography genre. However, diCorcia maintains that the subjects could have see him sitting there if they had been paying attention. They may not have noticed the flash, but there was no subterfuge in the act of taking the pictures. The resulting series is a mixture of the candid and the performance, with those who were aware reacting to being observed and those who were unaware, going about their day. Again, despite the their aesthetic similarity, the ambiguity between the two cases is what draws attention. It’s fair to say that I was hooked on diCorcia’s work from that day.
Fast forward a few years, and I had to write a critical review essay on a photograph by a famous photographer for my course. My choice was from diCorcia’s East of Eden (2008) and it depicted a living room in an apparently expensive house with two elegant dogs sitting in front of a TV. The room, with its elegant and clean white décor, muted furniture and the immaculately coiffured dogs looked as though it belonged to a wealthy member of society. However, the dogs appear to be watching a scene from a pornographic film. The image, called The Hamptons, is part of a series that explores the decline in societal values and the loss of innocence during the time of the global financial crash of 2008, which coincided with the change of government (Bush Jr to Obama). Each picture in the series deals with aspects of morality, class division, political tension, and the idea of the decline of innocence, invoking Steinbeck’s famous novel of the same name, and its own biblical references. The Hamptons has a sinister, secretive feel to it, but has a humour to it as well. My review of the picture for my essay had me creating my own narrative for both the single image and the rest of the series. This is the key aspect of diCorcia’s work that appeals to me. He includes enough visual elements or contextual references that the viewer can recognise, without telling them what the picture is about. The viewer brings their own knowledge or experience to the picture and creates their own narrative. In my case, I recognise the western ideas of design and wealth, the pampered dogs and the immaculate elegance of the scene. I know enough about American society to recognise the sharp contrast of the pornography on the screen to the idealistic principles of family values, and the what the image might be saying about that period of history. The rest of the series weaves similar symbolism with the biblical and for me, its strength is that it demands that the pictures are given plenty of attention, rather than a casual glance.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia isn’t the only artist to work in tableaux, of course. Gregory Crewsdon and Jeff Wall are famous for their hugely elaborate, almost cinematic images, while Nigel Shafran and Cindy Sherman explore identity through the staged portrait. However, diCorcia is my favourite of them. There is something about his use of light, stylish composition and his restraint that I really love, which has inspired me to work with my own tableaux. My recent series Modern Monsters is shot in a similar way, mixing self-portraiture, iconography and careful use of light. I have to say that I think the reason for resonating with diCorcia’s work so much, is that I get the combined satisfaction of the creativity in expressing an idea, with the technical challenge of making it look precisely how I want it to. I get much more of a buzz from this way of working than, say landscape or street photography. It’s definitely something I will continue to explore both in my studies and my own work.
From the series Modern Monsters (2022), by yours truly
My discovery of his diCorcia’s work has taught me another lesson too, that we never know where inspiration is going to come from. In my case, a chance visit to an exhibition in a new location, by an unfamiliar artist, planted a seed that I’m continuing grow nearly a decade later. Next time you’re on holiday, have a look at what’s on nearby. You may be surprised where it takes you.
A couple of links to diCorcia's work: