Research notes – Philip-Lorca DiCorcia

The following comments are made after looking at the book “Philip-Lorca DiCorcia” published by the Museum of Modern Art (1), as well as a short video with the artists comments in his work prepared in connection with the retrospective show organized by the Hepword Wakefield gallery, in Wakefield, Yorkshire (2).

DiCorcia photographs are staged. At first, his images were taken with the assistance of family or close friends, who would pose for the artist , at their homes / places of work, under controlled studio conditions, but later he would take this approach, which relies on artificial lighting sets ups, to the street. The images, according to the artist himself, are all made up rather than found (3). Unlike other artists such as Jeff Wall (please see my notes here) that have re-enacted for the camera scenes previously seen or experienced, DiCorcia’s image seem to come directly from his imagination. They are not particularly theatrical, with many of them resembling the genre of environmental portrait (see for instance Auden (1988) (link)), but there is always something about them that set them apart, that draws and sustains the attention of the viewer for some time, even though the photographs themselves tend to be very simple. In Catherine (1981) (link), the framing, from another bedroom and through door frames, creates a sense of tension and mystery that is somewhat mitigated by the stillness of the bedridden subject. The bed itself is slightly unconventional, in as much as it does not seem to feature pillows, but instead the upper part is raised, like in a hospital. The position of the subject is slightly awkward, with hands tucked behind the back The overall effect is a narrative of ambiguity and uncertainty: we do not know if the subject is simply sleeping or if is convalescent due to illness or worse.

Another similarly intriguing picture is Gianni (1984) (link). Here again we have a very simple setting: a man is sitting on the rooftop of his flat, talking over the phone. The picture is framed through a window which opens to the inside. The room from where the picture is taken seems quite modest and does not seem to have been painted for some time. The only piece of furniture is a corner table, on top of which we have a lamp. On the back of this, resting against a corner, we have what appears to be a pole. There are no curtains. On the right hand side of the window sill rests a handful of magazines and paperbacks, some of which seem brand new and never read (in contrast with the room, which is well-worn). Our subject lies on his side, in a classical pose almost taken from an old painting, head towards the left hand side of the frame, left knee slightly raised, holding the handset with his left hand and the rest of the phone with the other. He seems to be talking very animatedly. The subject seems smart, well dressed (again, in contrast with his austere room), sporting sunglasses and a thick moustache, very much in fashion during the 1980s. The phone is connected to the inside of the room via a cable, which conveniently works as a leading line in the picture. Behind Gianni, framed through the window, is a spectacular cityscape of old buildings and palaces, possibly of a city in Europe. There is a limited number of elements in the frame, but they all seem to be in tension, just offsetting each other – beauty and austerity, serenity and action, all topped up by the incongruous setting of the main subject to conjure a feeling of a balance that is in peril, a premonition of something about to happen.  In here, the use of flash to fill in the light inside the room – and possibly, Gianni’s face – plays a crucial role by allowing the inside of the room to enjoy the same importance as objects placed outside the window, to which they are in contrast.

DiCorcia’s is well-known for his use of light to accentuate images, but I personally enjoyed more his use of the space and his particular style of framing, with the subjects in most cases being placed almost dead centre, surrounded by the context that modifies and shapes our interpretation of them. In some cases, his compositions are also bold and borderline irreverent. From his “Hollywood” series in the 1990s, I was taken aback by his image Unknown (link). Most of the photographs from this series include the name of the subject (real, or artistic), together with their place of origin and the amount that was paid by the artists for the subject to be photographed. We do not expect this information to be truthful, so why would somebody not want to disclose this information if you could fake it? The photograph includes our subject just right of centre in the frame, partially obscured by the shadow of a signpost, which is right in the middle, dissecting the image in two halves. The combined shadow of subject and signpost is projected on the wall just behind, the rectangular shape of the sign overtaking the subject’s head, instantly creating something new, an alter ego for this slightly sad, stoic character. It is an image that somewhat evokes Baldassari’s Wrong (link) in its construction, but that for me has a completely different reading. While the former is more of a critique of formalism, DiCorcia’s arrangement seems to emphasize the subject, highlighting (by this game of double shadows) about how little we know about him (actually, nothing much, even nothing from the caption) and clearly hinting that there is more than what meets the eye.

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(1) Galassi, P., 2003. Philip-Lorca Dicorcia. The Museum of Modern Art.

(2) YouTube. 2018. Philip-Lorca diCorcia: Photographs 1975 – 2012 – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=So_FK4qnz5Q. [Accessed 14 June 2018].

(3) Idem, minute 1:20.

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