in Frieze | 11 NOV 96
Featured in
Issue 31

Deliberate Fictions

Philip-Lorca diCorcia

in Frieze | 11 NOV 96

Perhaps more than any other art form, it was cinema that successfully captured the distanced quality of life in 80s urban America, an expansive, illusionary and alienating place. A debt to film is the feature of Philip-Lorca diCorcia's photography that commentators always note; his work from this period consisted of dramatised portraiture, presenting single figures in situations in which they were challenged, whether they realised it or not. In Cole, New York City (1988), for example, a small child crawls toward a glass of milk. Ironically, reflection - the very quality Cole lacks - plays a major part in his portrait. Since the floor is polished, the open doors through which he is moving appear to be doubled, leaving him on what resembles a slippery ledge. So fragile is the milk, so single-minded Cole's trajectory, that the adventure is bound to end in tears. Similarly, in Carolla, New York City (1989), the picture plane is laterally bisected; a pair of stockinged legs in white high-heeled shoes is seen dancing on the bar, the other side of which seems thronged with people. In contrast, the space in front is filled by a lone figure, tableauesque in a feathered cloak and hat, reflecting on (and reflected in) a circle which doubles as a table-top. A case of inversion in more ways than one; as we look again, it seems possible that the background could be in front. Lost in a self-created mystique, our hero/ine gazes at her mirrored self, oblivious.

In a series of photographs from 1978 onwards, diCorcia concentrated on individuals behaving like sleepwalkers in familiar environments. On the subway, a preoccupied Igor (1987) stares straight ahead as he brandishes a plastic bag containing water and a single goldfish. As diCorcia's brother Mario (1978) stares into a packed refrigerator, an eerie lemon-green light appears from one side and the scene begins to resemble a stage set. The patterns made by carpet and windows serve to structure a meditation which says more about Mario's idea of his own destiny than about which late-night snack he will choose. Are diCorcia's subjects in control? The answer is unclear, and permanently so. Are these photographs portraits, or studies of people who merge into the background? The answer is again unclear; diCorcia's street studies sometimes ignore the precepts of the genre by concentrating on a lone person, like the man placing the tips of his fingers together in a Naples street, a figure to whom some secret seems to have been vouchsafed, and who now appears to be obeying inner instructions he scarcely comprehends. Religiosity or Existentialism beset Bruce and Ronnie (1982), one asleep on a bed in their insalubrious bunker, while the other - bearded, shirtless, tattooed - holds the last of many cigarettes he has smoked that day and simply stares into the distance. Such meaningful gazing punctuates diCorcia's work. (About to slice vegetables with a lethal-looking knife, Auden (1988) seems distracted, as if listening for intruders. In contrast, David (1990), a more vulnerable figure, considers fleeing instead of trying to negotiate a Hitchcockian flight of stairs.)

In 1990, diCorcia began work on a series called 'Hollywood'. His modus operandi is described by Peter Galassi in the 1995 monograph, Philip-Lorca diCorcia: 'He began a series of trips to Los Angeles to photograph on or near Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, in an area frequented by male prostitutes, drifters and drug-addicts. Working with an assistant, he prepared the scene of each picture in advance, left the assistant in charge of the equipment, then sought men on the street whom he would offer to pay to appear in the photograph. Beyond the fact that every man who appeared in the 'Hollywood' series accepted money in return for posing, diCorcia could not be certain that each was, in fact, a prostitute. In any case, the pictures were deliberate fictions ... diCorcia asked each man for his name, age, and place of birth and titled each picture with the answer, followed by the amount of the payment.' Galassi makes much of the deadpan titles - reminiscent, he maintains, of newspaper captions as well as the style of Conceptual art.

Previously, diCorcia had portrayed subjects with an abnormal degree of self-involvement. Now he parodied the reality which movies can offer, using misfits as stars. The project's title, 'Hollywood', suggests a satire on American ideals, exploring the reverse of the American Dream. Dislocated, confused, the subjects of this series achieve little of the dignity of the figures in other, earlier diCorcia tableaux. One work, Madras (1988), brings the two series together; in a strange, bare interior, a tiny, pugnacious Indian man in a white suit stands on a chair in front of a mirror to admire or challenge his own defiant reflection. Though no action takes place, the effect is self-destructive. For challenging himself to a fight only serves to raise the emotional temperature. It is one more dead end among the many in diCorcia's work.

In 'Hollywood', pseudo-reportage becomes a vehicle for diCorcia's own fantasies as he seems to try, temporarily, to put his models' lives back together. Locations range from simple outdoor settings to elaborate Hollywood parodies - a dream sequence, for instance, or a star look-alike... Perhaps they might be described better as dislocations. After all, the impression is of something out of control: of some serious mismatch between the mind of the photographer and those of his subjects. In a superb, complex shot taken in what seems to be a motel, a wall-mounted television set intrudes on a mirror-image of a man entering the room, with the light behind him. Wearing next to nothing, Gerald Hughes (a.k.a. Savage Fantasy); about 25 years old; Southern California; $50 (1990-92) is lost in an performance of his own, while from the wall- mounted TV the face of Bill Cosby looks on, speechless with admiration. (It is a trick diCorcia uses again, in Tokyo (1994) a study of a woman entering a glass-fronted building. Followed by two men - or maybe three - she seems sliced and sliced again, her face and body illuminated by a sinister daylight flash.) With Savage Fantasy, the limits of the project are glimpsed; here, the subject's self-involvement verges on egomania.

Classic photography can suddenly fail if the place is wrong, the time is out of joint or if the scenario is someone else's. The photographer can either collude with the subject's own self-involvement or deny it by distancing, framing or refusing any co-operation apart from a professional one. So diCorcia has deliberately got himself in deep water. Galassi suggests that the photographer's games with money can be easily subsumed into an already complex plan of photography about photography. But once the first commandment of documentary photography has been broken by removing figures from their natural setting, the question of exploitation is raised. The only person whose attitude presents something approaching the truth is the Marilyn look-alike: bloated, alarmed, sitting on a street corner at night with a man behind her. Though her homage to Monroe looks a travesty, it is a not inaccurate reflection of Marilyn's state of mind towards the end of her life: abused, frightened, fighting back but conscious that only a certain degree of resistance is possible. The size of the face - larger than others in the series - the minder sitting in the shadows, the sense of panic and the genuine bravery that the portrait (or the portrait of a portrait) distills, all push the effect toward documentary.

If diCorcia's 'Hollywood' is defined by fantasies, it is also a strange, erotic tour de force. Joe Reeves; 37 years old; San Fernando, California; $40 (1990-92) is shown outside what appears to be a window, through which he will walk into the bedroom of a sleeping figure, of whom only the feet are visible. Also shirtless, Mike Miller; 24 years old; Allentown, Pennsylvania; $25 (1990-92) stands alone in a Laundromat, his slim, washboard chest illuminated by what seem to be the rays of the setting sun. William Charles Everlove; 26 years old; Stockholm, Sweden, via Arizona; $40 (1990-92) exists only as shadow and reflection, as if he had occurred by accident, a mere trick of the light or a thought in the artist's mind. Thrusting his pelvis so ferociously that he risks permanent dislocation, Christian Valentino; 23 years old; Ontario, California; $25 (1990-92) has a name that combines those of famous fashion houses. How odd, then, that he dresses like a cowboy and parades in front of a collection of cow hides, thrown over the fence of an empty parking-lot. But fantasy is what 'Hollywood' is about: misfits who populate a place which is a byword for opportunity, but who aspire to a future that can never be achieved. Or, at least, not by them.

Dreamlike interplay between outside and in becomes a main theme of 'Hollywood', with figures posed in pivotal positions: Eddie Anderson (1990-92) is one example, a blonde, waif-like figure seen through the window of a diner, apparently trying to decide whether to go in or not. Shirtless, he resembles a wanderer, a farmboy reaching a new town. Yet instead of being a Romantic figure, like all the others he is homeless, penniless and wretched. 'The poor are always with us', the famous saying goes, and classic documentary photographers like Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange saw it as their duty to use their art to provide greater knowledge of that situation. In contrast, diCorcia's photographs are swallowed by their own mythic play. Offering no easy answers, they show a life of waiting, posing, trying to present oneself as an individual despite blows and poverty.

In other words, each of the people portrayed is so involved with his own task of self-presentation that the mask has stuck; there is no longer any real way to make contact with a personality, nor even proof that personality exists inside the bodies that we see. Instead, only a shell is left, and it is with this that diCorcia has to contend. His solution is to turn his sitters into icons whose faces are not differentiated from the masks they have created for defence, identification and an easier time. It could be argued that there is something medieval about this need for secrecy in public, although the passion for masks in the 1890s suggests that at the end of a century the subject of self-concealment is bound to be discussed. diCorcia's street people may price themselves too cheaply, after all, but what is a fair price for sex in the back of a car? While his subjects thrive on attention, eventually their foibles may be a means to inch away ever more gradually from a society which has refused them help.