PROFILE: Philip-Lorca diCorcia
Barry Schwabsky

Philip-Lorca diCorcia turns conventions of photography inside out. The art has always been divided between the finders and the makers, proponents of the decisive moment on the one hand, and of the directorial mode on the other; but diCorcia confutes any narrow fixation on either one to the exclusion of the other. His work concerns the total mutual permeation of artifice and accident, the constructed and the fortuitous. Take, for example, what are probably his best-known series, the ‘Streetworks’ he has been shooting in cities around the world – Tokyo, New York, Calcutta, Los Angeles, Havana, and so on – since the mid-1990s. As has often been noted, they play off the street photography of the ’70s, the work of people like Gary Winogrand, yet in place of Winogrand’s sense of speed and spontaneity (as his posthumously exhibited contact sheets show, by the end of his life Winogrand must have been shooting faster than the eye could ever see), diCorcia’s street pictures possess a cinematic sheen yet a sculptural sense of stasis. Unlike the work of certain other contemporary photographers, the monumentality of these images owes little to the mere size at which they are printed; diCorcia’s prints may be big in comparison to those of the classic photographers but they are dwarfed by much of the work coming out of contemporary Germany. Rather, it is diCorcia’s almost Caravaggiesque handling of light that gives his models (and of what other street photographer has one ever felt compelled to refer to his subjects as models?) their uncanny sense of presence – physical presence, in any case, though often emotional absence. In these pictures we spy absolutely contingent constellations of passing bodies, yet each figure seems so freighted with his or her unreconstructable intentions that it is as if all of them were on their way to meet their individual destinies – or rather, perhaps, as if the destiny of each one were nothing other than to appear here, at this fateful nexus, which is the making of the photograph.

The interplay between presence and absence becomes most evident in diCorcia’s recent ‘Heads’ or portraits, which are really a subcategory of his street scenes. Like the latter, the ‘Heads’, exhibited at the Photographers’ Gallery in London as part of the 2002 Citigroup Private Bank Photography Prize exhibition, pick out random men and women through the use of hidden flash units and a camera placed in such a manner so as not to be noticed by the passersby who cross its domain. But in this series the context melts away. Background becomes a nebulous darkness the better to body forth the strange landscape of a face unaccountably powerful in its inexpressiveness: an elderly, bearded rabbi whose eyes are heavy with age; an amazingly clear-featured young woman who could easily be on her way to try out as a model for one of diCorcia’s own commercial assignments; a grim-faced, heavyset mailman; a bald middle-aged man whose dark glasses give him the inscrutable air of a Secret Service agent, and so on. Peter Galassi has called them archetypes, yet they symbolise nothing but themselves.

The pictures taken between 1978 and 1999 that diCorcia gathered together under the title ‘A Storybook Life’, shown at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, in 2003, show a somewhat different aspect of his work. Superficially they look more oblique and even casual than the street scenes, and more intimate as well, concentrating as they do on domesticity and leisure and featuring so many more interiors, or suburban or even rural settings, than urban exteriors. So many of the people are laying down: a heavy, bearded man in bed next to a teddy bear; one man sleeping as another sits smoking in front of a manual typewriter; a nude woman, whose face somehow looks older than her body, smiles seductively at the camera while a pair of lamps are focused on the drink sitting on the coffee table in the foreground, a paperback copy of Kafka’s Amerika (1927) on the floor beneath it; an infant on its back in the grass, its arms spread wide to the shaded heavens. These are not simply strangers who happen to have walked into the photographer’s light trap, but rather friends and family who have willingly given themselves to the photographer’s work. But one quickly sees that their poses are as full of rhetorical emphasis as those in any image by Jeff Wall, and that simple daylight has been manipulated as in any of diCorcia’s other pictures, though here one might think more of the brightness pierced with crisp shadows of de Chirico rather than the light-crossed obscurity of Caravaggio. Still, there’s a different poignancy to this light, a sense that it has sculpted these figures more slowly, more caressingly than those in the street scenes. If the latter catch what de Chirico called the enigma of arrival, the images in ‘A Storybook Life’ instead seem to chronicle the melancholy of departure – the people and places one already knows one is fated to miss.

Barry Schwabsky is the author of The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art (Cambridge University Press) and Opera: Poems 1981-2002 (Meritage Press)