Sunday, 20 September 2009





The touring retrospective of photographs by Philip-Lorca di Corcia, at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa in Venice until next April 4th, features one of the very few ‘new’ New York artists to have made an international impact during the past few years.


The interview material that accompanies the exhibition indicates that di Corcia is still inclined to view himself as an outsider – a curious position for someone who has been making and exhibiting photographs for nearly thirty years, and who is a visiting professor at Yale University. He has shown his work previously at MOMA in New York, at the Photographer’s Gallery In London, at the Reina Sofia in Madrid and at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover.


The images themselves, however, do tend to support his stance. This is a strangely opaque show. It delivers very few of the things that we have come to expect from contemporary photography – even from photographs as deliberately oblique as those of William Eggleston, to whom di Corcia seems to owe a good deal. Other influences cited are those of Walker Evans [his late Subway Portraits in particular], Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand, all of them photographers who have specialized in catching people off-guard in public places. To this one might perhaps add the name of the doyen of all street lensmen, Henri Cartier-Bresson.


The show consists of a long autobiographical series, covering a quarter-of-a-century and entitled A Storybook Life, plus smaller groups in larger formats featuring pole-dancers, homosexual prostitutes [hustlers], and people in the street.


The pictures in the third category are those that have made di Corcia recently famous. They are not, like the superficially similar images made by the predecessors I have just named, simply things shot on the spur of the moment. Di Corcia finds a promising g situation, then ambushes passers-by with a sudden flash of strobe lighting. This subtly dramatizes what is in fact intrinsically ordinary. It does not, however, necessarily reveal character. Di Corcia remarks, in an interview with Filippo Maggia, the curator of the exhibition: “To merely point out that we are an alienated society would be a redundancy. I try and do projects that allow me to investigate the world without a predetermined point to make. I am equally attracted to those that live on the edge and those that hide from the edge. The ones that live on the edge used to be the bread and butter of photography, now I don’t know any more. The edge keeps shifting.”


The strength of all photography lies in its particularity, and this particularity seems to me to be of two kinds. In the first place, the camera is specific about what is seen. In fact the weakness of photographs is that they often tell us much more than we want to know – we are distracted from the real point by extraneous details. In the second place, the photography is specific about time – it says: “This moment, and no other.”


This in turn makes the images where the subject-matter is deliberately circumscribed much easier to grasp. In the hustler photographs di Corcia offers not only an image, but a name, the age of the subject, the location where the picture was taken, and the price of an encounter. In a certain sense, the photographs are as impersonal as one of those Parisian shopfronts by Atget – some of which, after all, show the facades of brothels. In another, they are resonant with sexual humiliation – that of the person who sells, but also that of the purchaser of sexual services.


About the long sequence that goes to make up A Storybook Life I am not so certain. The exhibition offers no labels of any sort. In the most literal sense, we are intended to take the images at face value. There is, however, a handlist that offers a place and a date for each picture.


Like many photographers di Corcia seems to have been a wanderer. There are places in the United States, but also many locations elsewhere: Naples, Berlin, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, Cairo, Tehran – even a Greek island or two. In very few cases is the location immediately apparent from the photograph itself. We just have to take it on trust that these places, these occasions, these gestures were somehow significant for the person who made them, worth rescuing from the flux of time.


The current convention, when dealing with this sort of photography, is for the spectator to take these personal epiphanies on trust. The man with the camera says: “Here is a scene from the narrative of my life. It is meaningful for me, therefore it must also be meaningful for you.”


I find I am increasingly resistant to this assumption that what is privately significant but also be publicly meaningful. It is fun to speculate about some of the scenes di Corcia shows. What happened before the picture was taken? What happened immediately after the shutter clicked?


After a time, however, the law of diminishing returns begins to make itself apparent. You look, and you think: “That’s just another boring photograph.”


862 words



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