Looking at the work of photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia, surveyed in his wonderful, exhaustive, retrospective at the Hepworth Wakefield, there’s a sense of the images as a visual take on the Great American novel – a narrative that looks to represent the spirit of the age, revealing the cultural and perspectival nuances of the nation.
The photographs are ones of all manner of human life, and – as the above quote indicates – cats, and monkeys, too.
The idea of the photographs as a visual ‘novel’ is established in the first gallery to the show, entitled East of Eden – in part, a reference to John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name.
The on-going series was started in 2008 in the aftermath of the start of the American economic crisis, and as such, borrows from Biblical themes of good and evil, as the title suggests, drawing on the ideas of loss of innocence in the Old Testament’s Genesis book, according to diCorcia.
‘It was hard not to see [the economic crash] as a loss of innocence’, says diCorcia. ‘People walked blindly into their own demise.’
Through the carefully constructed scenes, we see ideas of the fall of man played out: 2008’s Lacy shows a beautiful woman abstractedly beholding an apple tree, while Lynn and Shirely shows a blind couple at home, their gaze matching that of the Labrador laying on the kitchen floor.
Each picture in the series is a story in itself; together, they’re a striking – if unnerving – tale of good and bad; life and death and truth and reality.
The notion of ‘falling’ is also shown in the Lucky 13 series of images of pole dancers, from 2004. The images look to strip notions of eroticism and titillation from the dancers, instead using the idea of them ‘falling’ from their poles as ‘a metaphor for their own position in life’, as well as an oblique reference to post-9/11 hysteria, according to diCorcia.
He explains, ‘After 9/11 there was a weird fetish, it’s like how mythology combines sex and death. This is a bleak comment on what happened in the US after 9/11 as a result of it’.
As with all diCorcia’s images, the photographs in the Lucky 13 series aren’t as they seem – the girls were selected (with the help of a female friend), and the images carefully lit and shot in a specific location, rather than the clubs where they usually work.
This manipulation of our expectations and the reality the images initially seem to project is the constant theme throughout diCorcia’s work – the interplay of reality and illusion, the camera’s capacity to be both truthful and deceptive.
While some of the subjects, such as those in the 1993 – 1999 Streetwork series, are captured un-posed, without their knowledge, the lighting and setting are painstakingly choreographed. Hence, as diCorcia puts, it, the ‘cinematic’ effect, enhancing the narrative of disconnection between how things appear to be, and how they really are.
‘I try and discourage anyone from looking at the lens’, diCorcia explains. ‘In films people don’t look at the lens – it’s meant to appear in the third person’.
The works, while varying wildly in subject, are united in their jarring colours, bold lighting and subjects that seem at once the creators of their scene and bleakly disconnected from it.
This is best exemplified in Hustlers – a beautiful series of images of male prostitutes from Los Angeles’ Santa Monica Boulevard described by diCorcia as a ‘collective symbol of broken dreams’.
The exhibition’s final gallery is designed in a format to echo the sense of storytelling conveyed in the images from A Storybook Life – 1975 – 99, 76 photographs shown in a non-linear, non-chronological arrangement, as they were displayed in diCorcia’s book of the same name.
The winding curves of the walls underline the sentiment of a ‘storybook’, guiding the viewer through a series of seemingly disconnected images that somehow interlink.
‘They have a similar effect to a ream or liminal states of half consiousness’, says diCorcia. ‘The title can mean two things – a life that’s perfect, or the other meaning is that it’s made up’.
It’s this tale of uncertainties of human life and the half-truths that photography tells us that makes diCorcia’s work so utterly compelling. In this final series, we see the spectrum of these human lives – as well as those of a few animals, too. The story we garner from them, though, is left to the viewer to create – and therein lies their magic.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia Photographs 1975 – 2012 runs from 14 February – 1 June at the Hepworth Wakefield, Gallery Walk, Wakefield, West Yorkshire WF