Philip-Lorca diCorcia is a celebrated American photographer whose well-known images blur the distinctions between documentary and staged tableaux. Here, diCorcia discusses his ongoing project “East of Eden,” 2008—, a series of fictional scenarios dealing with disenchantment and loss that will be on view at David Zwirner in New York from April 2 to May 2, 2015, and he offers his own perspective on the ever-shifting climate of contemporary photography.
I WAS STUCK IN A RUT AS A YOUNG ADULT. Not even of age—and I think I had been drafted already for the Vietnam War, since I was kicked out of high school. But I wound up studying with Jan Groover; I’m from Hartford, Connecticut, and she was teaching at the college there. She basically threw everything out the window for me. It was like, “OK, you’re in a photography class. Want to know how to develop film? Read the fucking instructions that come with it.” I think that established something for me, and I dearly respect her as an influence. She died a few years ago, but she was important to me, as at that point I had no real desire to follow an art career. I really didn’t.
I didn’t care much about anything then; it was a time of decadence, if one could afford decadence, which frankly I couldn’t. I was like a pauper in the world of decadence and I always have been. Even when I came to New York in the early 1980s, I just couldn’t afford to be a freak. I think of freaks as somewhat self-indulgent. It’s like a block party: You have no money and you get together and make spaghetti and pretend you’re rich, or you really are rich and you pretend that you’re not.
To some degree, the “East of Eden” series was generated by anger. Which is not an unusual emotion for me, but it has a weird place within the realm of art. The project has been ongoing for seven years now, and the motivation was at first generated by the financial collapse that occurred at the end of the Bush era. It had to do with disillusionment, promise, expectations, and jealousy. This is the primal soap opera of people’s imagination. East of Eden is the place where Adam and Eve were cast after the loss of innocence, which is represented by the apple. I was looking for my muse, and it turned out that I just didn’t have one. Or maybe it could have just been the anger. I was angry when I started this thing and I still am.
But I’m older now, too, and I can see the expectations of people who are ambitious and how those ambitions begin to reflect the art market. Take photography, for instance: Everything now is abstract, conceptual, identity-based, ignorant of history, and theory-driven to a degree that’s nauseatingly boring. But that doesn’t stop people from making it because they see other people succeed doing it. I hate talking about the idea that there’s actually a creative process that can be learned, but there’s a lot of a creative process that can be unlearned. Regarding that, I would say that you’re never really in control. A lot of the work I see now that bothers me the most is by the people who have it so absolutely figured out. Why is it that the pleasure principle has been so completely denied?
Art is not a career for me, it never really was, and I pity the people who follow me. If they think they’re going to be this romantic vision of an artist, the one that I grew up with in which you follow a sort of strange sensibility or your heart, mind, or muse, they’ll learn that there is no such thing anymore. In some ways I think certain people establish the paradigm, and other people follow it. And most of the people who have established that paradigm are dead—or close to it. I know that there are clichés about who has established those new paradigms—Nan Goldin, Wolfgang Tillmans, Andreas Gursky—these are living people doing good work. But whether or not they’ve established a new paradigm or just elaborated on an old one is left for history to decide.