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PRINT February 1999

STREET FARE: THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF PHILIP-LORCA diCORCIA

Inasmuch as movies seem to wag real events these days, it’s not much of a stretch to see Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s recent color photographs of crowded city streets as film stills of everyday life. They certainly have the look: Artificially lit from off-camera sources that supplement natural daylight (the faces of certain passersby are highlighted more than others), these mise-en-scènes of pedestrians around the world have a nail-polish glossiness straight out of Hollywood. All that’s missing is the glamour. Instead of shooting recognizable stars and designer sets, diCorcia captures anonymous, unintentional actors as they move, zombielike, through gritty, hyperactive asphalt and concrete spaces.

The exhibition announcement for diCorcia’s recent show at PaceWildenstein suggested that the nineteen pictures on view, which superficially resemble the sort of staged, pseudo-documentary photography he has practiced for much of this decade, were a response to the “cinematization” of modern life—a useful neologism in this instance (and in the case of the modern presidency). What the word doesn’t speak to—but diCorcia’s pictures do—is the sense of alienation, both psychological and political, that accompanies this phenomenon. The people in the photographs wear the same pinched-brow, heavy-lidded, out-of-it expressions that Bill Clinton showed us the day before the House voted to impeach him. Exiting from subway stairs and office buildings, talking on cellular phones, diCorcia’s subjects seem detached, atomized, affectless. Even in those pictures where there is interpersonal communication, as when two New Yorkers seem to greet each other while screened by a passerby, the interaction is unclear and inconclusive. Mostly, diCorcia concentrates on conjunctions of people who seem to be encased in their own private bubbles, much in the manner of Garry Winogrand’s and Joel Meyerowitz’s street photographs taken twenty-five years ago.

Meyerowitz did his street work in color, too, which makes his images one obvious antecedent for diCorcia’s fairly large (30-by-40-inch) prints. But a more apt point of comparison might be the recent photographs of Jeff Wall. Wall’s pictures are larger and more controlled—he sets up narrative sociodramas using settings and characters of his own choosing—but they convey the same feeling of hyperreality. In Wall’s pictures, the implied narratives are heavily encoded, summoning art-historical references and often pointing directly to issues of immigration, labor, race, gender, and the like. In diCorcia’s case, the scenes are less controlled and therefore the meanings are less programmatic and more contingent. What are we to make of diCorcia’s picture (Tokyo, 1998) of a young man talking on a cell phone, his dressed-for-shopping girlfriend standing still beside him, while pedestrians rush past and a billboard-sized video screen beams images down to the street? Or of Mexico City, 1998, in which a businessman coming up from the subway is juxtaposed with a woman street vendor whose kiosk is at the top of the stairs? As is true of all ofthe photographs on view, diCorcia’s meaning seems immanent yet ultimately inscrutable.

The same could be said of the now-classic street photography of Meyerowitz, Winogrand, et al., except they worked with the assurance that we would interpret their pictures as genuine slices of life, “decisive moments”—to quote Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous phrase—seized from the flow of real time. Not so with diCorcia, however. Here we must ask how much of a given work is staged to look real, as in cinema, and how much of it is truly (or merely) real. This is territory that has been explored in recent years not only by diCorcia and Wall, but by Tina Barney and Beat Streuli. These artists work along a spectrum of realism that ranges from the purely candid to the totally tableau. DiCorcia’s position is somewhere in the middle. In his LA-street-hustler series of the early ’90s, for example, boys assumed realistic poses in realistic settings, but their performances were purchased by the artist, assuring his control. In this new work, from the last three years, he forgoes actually posing his subjects but retains control of the setting and, most obviously, the lighting.

One of diCorcia’s principal interests would seem to be documenting the nearly total homogenization of cultural behavior in urban settings, which may explain why he has traveled to cities around the world only to make distinct places look the same. The titles tell you where you are: Berlin, Calcutta, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, New York, Tokyo. But the settings—the architecture, signage, and sidewalks—are more or less interchangeable; only the pedestrians have features that distinguish one place from another. One assumes diCorcia intends this paradoxical contrast between the uniformity of contemporary urban experience and the particularity of his individual subjects, since it is reflected in his choice of locales, on the one hand, and his eye for peculiar gestures, expressions, and body language, on the other.

While people may be the main subject of these pictures, it’s the lighting that keeps you entranced. Sun shines in most of them, but the shadows seldom correspond to its position. Electronic flash illumination provides the unexpected shadows as well as unexpected highlights. By hanging his flash lights on lamp poles and street signs, hidden high and outside the field of view, diCorcia ensures that his relation to the subject is indirect. He sets up his camera nearby and waits for his unsuspecting actors to perform. Few of his principal subjects seem aware that they are the centers of lenticular attention, which then serves to deflect the viewer’s awareness of the photographer’s presence. As a result, we are left with images that draw attention to themselves but not their maker. Just as in Mario, 1978, diCorcia’s well-known picture of a man staring bleakly into the glowing maw of an open refrigerator, cinematographic artifice and still photography’s documentary tradition merge into a simulation of intervention-free veracity.

But no matter how indirect the relation between diCorcia’s camera and his subjects, his authorial presence is by no means transparent: These pictures, like all of the artist’s earlier work, ultimately refuse the realist conventions of street photography. The oddity of the illumination and the peculiarity of the frozen gestures it produces tell us that we are in the territory of what Walker Evans called “documentary style.” Evans’s term, which he used in reference to his own work, simply acknowledged that the depiction of real life in pictures is as calculated in still photography as it is in documentary film—that is, it depends on using certain visual conventions to denote realism. His bugbear was the notion of documentary photography as neutral and therefore objective, in the sense of its being unmediated by its maker.

DiCorcia not only recognizes the visual conventions Evans implicitly referred to, he dusts them off and reuses them. This gives the work a tinge of postmodern self-consciousness and an air of cool detachment. Despite his ongoing interest in unpredictable, psychologically charged subject matter, diCorcia does not wear his heart on his sleeve in the manner of, say, Nan Goldin or Jack Pierson. The advantage of this strategy is that diCorcia easily avoids bathos or sentimentality; but the flip side of that coin is that his work may come across as merely voyeuristic. Left wondering what motivates the gaze of an author who is as spectral as his images are, in their way, spectacular, the viewer must pause to consider whether it isn’t precisely this inherent contradiction—the photographer’s simultaneous presence and absence—that makes any tidy reading of his images so peculiarly elusive.

Andy Grundberg writes frequently on photography for Artforum.